Like many ironists, Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui harbours a secret gushy heart, and in Orbo Novo it leaks out.
The fault may lie with the 70-minute work’s inspiration, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s Oprah Winfrey-endorsed account of chancing upon a world of peace, love and understanding: the right hemisphere of her brain. When a blood vessel burst in the chattering, contentious, obsessive-compulsive left half, “the little voice that says to me, ‘Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on the way home’,” went mute, she writes, and left her “an energy being” floating in the here and now, “perfect, whole and beautiful”.
This first stateside commission for Cherkaoui – from Cedar Lake, New York’s answer to pointe-free athletico-conceptual European contemporary dance – begins by throwing up defensive barriers to Taylor’s woozy utopia. Two dancers may tell the tale of her stroke with their legs crossed yogi style as they form Cherkaoui’s trademark swirly figures-of-eight with their wrists, but their unison sing-song delivery lifts the words out of confessional mode. And in case we’re tempted to imagine Alexander Dodge’s heavy grid set as cage or prison, Cherkaoui has the dancers constantly rearrange its modules. For the dance’s first third, the performers are reiterating with every gesture and stagehand task that this is theatre, not spontaneous eruption. Keep your disbelief intact!
But eventually Cherkaoui – popular in Europe, scant here – succumbs to melodrama. After a too-brief passage that suits his spermatozoan movement in which rows of dancers tumble left and right like successive waves rolling on to shore, there begins a series of solos, duets and trios rife with spasm and collapse. The rest of the tribe watches from behind the bars of the set like zoo animals witnessing their braver brethren make a mess of freedom. Orbo Novo has passed over to the dark side of “whole and beautiful”.
The Cedar Lakers are well trained and committed but, with a few exceptions (Jon Bond, Soojin Choi and Golan Yosef), they don’t possess the conviction or understanding to redeem movement clichés. We’re stuck with fake expressionism. And by now, young Polish composer Szymon Brzóska’s score – played in the upstage murk by the excellent Mosaic String Quartet with pianist Aaron Wunsch – has abandoned its appealing Philip Glass swoop for soupy film score strains. You can hear a stoic hero walking away from all he ever wanted: our cue to cry.
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