Puz/zle, Carrière de Boulbon, Avignon

If there is such a thing as alchemy between a venue and a choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui found it with Puz/zle. Designed for the Carrière de Boulbon, an open-air quarry miles away from the hustle and bustle of Avignon itself during the Festival, this wistful creation fitted seamlessly into the rough stone that surrounded the stage. The Belgian-Moroccan choreographer’s meditation on society emerged from the Provençal dusk with exceptional vividness.

Puz/zle is based on the idea of community as a living organism, a fluid being perpetually recreating itself, and the choreography plays with the idea of organic movement on every level. Duos, trios turn the dancers into hybrid creatures, all undulating, swirling steps and torsions; the ensemble surges like a wave in virtuoso canons, often stones in hand, impassive as they perform their ambiguous rituals. The sets, a series of stone-coloured building blocks and panels assembled into temples, towers, staircases or walls by the dancers, add yet another dimension to the metaphor: one by one, every structure gives way to another shape, another collective effort, spelling renewal.

While multiculturalism is ingrained in Cherkaoui’s work, a pessimistic undertone informs Puz/zle. The 11 dancers act as a modern corps, but where the idea of an ideal purity based on similarity drives classical ballet, Cherkaoui’s “body” of dancers is unsettled, imperfect, caught in a cycle where the prelude to creation is destruction. Early on, one performer is singled out by the others and stoned to death behind a wall; he re-emerges with the stones, frenziedly arranging them into a line before blending in again, cold and expressionless.

Cherkaoui’s visual fusion of east and west always provides food for thought, and the religious and cultural references in Puz/zle are so wide-ranging and handled so lightly that they command admiration. The influence of martial arts is clear in the choreography, and completed by Buddhist imagery; meanwhile, a cross, the Discobolus and men holding hands appear fleetingly in a scene where two dancers sculpt the others into symbolic poses. The harmonious, evocative score ranges just as widely, bringing together on stage a Japanese flautist, a Lebanese singer and a Corsican polyphonic group. The result is a work that is impossible to pin down, an exploration of group dynamics at their most universal, despite the topical political message about Syria Cherkaoui introduced towards the end.

That would have been an appropriate conclusion and Puz/zle subsequently lost momentum, hammering home its point a little too conscientiously. A lecture on DNA – apparently one of Cherkaoui’s sources of inspiration – and a simulated mass shooting to the rapid-fire rhythm of drums added little; some things are best left on the cutting room floor, particularly when the dance has already told us everything we need to know.

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