Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet have lots in common.
Both are 38 and grew up in Belgium with a foreign parent — one from Morocco in Cherkaoui’s case and one from France in Jalet’s. Both are also globetrotting choreographers and dancers who share a liking for Japan — with Cherkaoui dedicating his 2011 work “TeZukA” to an idol of his, the late manga master Osamu Tezuka, while Jalet’s most recent work, “yama,” is based on yamabushi (mountain ascetics) he met in the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu.
The pair first crossed tracks in 2000 in the beautiful Belgian city of Ghent while dancing in Alain Platel’s famed Les Ballets C. de la B. company there. Soon after, they both struck out on their own, and in 2010 Cherkaoui started Eastman, his Antwerp-based company. Despite that, since leaving C. de la B. they have collaborated together many times, garnering numerous awards.
Their upcoming Japan staging, titled “Babel (words),” is the final part of a trilogy they created and choreographed together, comprising 2003′s “Foi” (“Faith”) and “Myth” from 2007. Following its Brussels world premiere in April 2010, and five-star reviews there and on tour, “Babel” was named best new dance production at the Laurence Olivier Awards in London in 2011. In addition, the English sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, together with Cherkaoui and Jalet, received the Outstanding Achievement in Dance award for the set.
For “Babel,” Gormley, who had worked with Cherkaoui before, conceived five big, shiny, lightweight metal-frame cubes that, though the only things on stage, can be instantly rearranged, built up, knocked down or used to establish real but invisible borders between dancers vying for space, herding together or cutting themselves off from others.
In a recent email interview, Jalet explained how creating the set was a key first step in staging this work, saying: “My travels through Jordan, Palestine and Israel reminded me strongly what the word ‘border’ is all about. So when Larbi and Gormley and I met to discuss the set, we knew it would be a place of confrontation and tension — but it also had to be transformable, playful and modular.”
To date, “Babel” has crossed lots of borders en route to performances in more than 40 cities worldwide. Now, prior to a three-day run in Tokyo, it will be staged at the Sapporo International Art Festival following an invitation from its guest director, the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. Last week, however, the work’s co-creator, Cherkaoui, kindly made time to talk during a brief Tokyo stopover.
To begin with, this towering figure in contemporary dance commented on the trilogy as a whole, saying: “In ‘Foi,’ the characters are manipulated by others, and in ‘Myth’ they are manipulated by their own thoughts and preconceptions. But in ‘Babel,’ they finally take responsibility for their own lives.”
In fact “Babel” draws on a story in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. This tells how survivors from far and wide who gathered in Babylon after the Great Flood, at a time when everyone on Earth spoke the same language, tried to build a tower they called Babel as a gateway to heaven. However, the Lord viewed this display of people’s collective power as dangerous arrogance — so the Bible says he decided “to confound their language, that they may not understand each other’s speech … (and) scattered them upon the face of the Earth.”
In our email exchange, though, Jalet said their “Babel” arrived at a different conclusion from that punitive Lord’s.
“We wanted this piece to be urban, portraying the saturation of many of today’s cities that are actually like modern Babylons,” he said, adding: “In my street in Brussels, there’s a synagogue, a Greek church, a Flemish school, a Koranic one, a sex shop and an organic-food market.”
Drawing on such realities, he asked: “Isn’t our relationship to space just mental, and aren’t borders just conventions? Also, isn’t there an extremely political background to language — which is ultimately a dialect backed up by armed forces?
“In ‘Babel,’ we try to explore the contradictions inherent in how order contains chaos within — and vice versa. After all, the Babylonians viewed Babel as the ‘gate to heaven’ — whereas in Hebrew it means ‘chaos.’ That ambivalence is at the root of this work.”
To render this on stage, Cherkaoui and Jalet assembled 18 dancers from 13 countries, who speak 15 languages between them and come from seven different religious backgrounds — and whose professional resumes range from hip-hop to classical ballet.
But Cherkaoui was clearly delighted. “They all found a way to understand Damien and I, and they made up ways to all communicate,” he said. “It was like nobody owned Japanese, for example, because everybody could speak a kind of Japanese, and everything developed gradually together. So there was lots of action and reaction, and creating ‘Babel’ was a very collective process.”
Jalet offered another take on that process, saying: “There’s a scene in which an actor arrogantly tries to use his American English to dominate the others — but they just answer him in their own Swedish, Arabic, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and Hindi, or whatever. At that moment, you realize how incredibly broad, beautiful and fascinating are humanity’s range of sounds and ways of using the larynx.
“It’s a scene I love, because it destroys the idea of competition between cultures. In that moment, you can’t accept the fundamental message of the myth of Babel in the Bible; language variety is not a curse, it’s a blessing.”
Cherkaoui had something else eye-opening to observe about that biblical fable, saying, “We both wondered why that Catholic God didn’t share the space with humans. [laughs] After all, he’s meant to have created humans, making them like his children — so why not share the space with them? It’s a very twisted story and he was, in some ways, very human — by which I mean selfish and greedy.
“Then, due to his punishment, people spoke different languages — but I believe that made the world much more flavorsome and interesting. So we wanted to look at the story as having a positive side, not only a negative one.”
Elaborating on his point, Cherkaoui referred to a scene in “Babel” near the end, “when all the dancers are connected by their feet. They try to walk together but it’s very slow, as they have to look after the others — yet that’s very beautiful.
“So to solve conflicts all over the world, like in Palestine, East Asia and the Middle East, I just hope people’s sense of compassion will rise above their intelligence — because you can be intelligent but still do terrible things, can’t you?
“Life is more beautiful when you share, when you take the time to share.”
On stage this all translates to simply dressed actors of assorted ages, colors and ethnicities running nimbly around without apparent purpose through and among Gormley’s metal-frame sets, or lining up and trying to move in unison — or sometimes even pairing off to dance intimately together.
Altogether, it’s an astonishing microcosm of everyday urban life, in which we routinely encounter an endless gallery of humanity.
Lest you think “Babel” is all about kinetic and corporeal expression, though, there’s a five-piece multinational ensemble — including the taiko drummers Shogo Yoshii and Kazunari Abe performing on different days — playing music which at times accompanies songs sung live in various languages.
Despite this evident harmony amid disparity, though, Cherkaoui reflected seriously that, “People should not underestimate geography. Languages may have spread far and wide, and many modern cities are very cosmopolitan, but all that is superficial. I think it’s still often geography that tells us how to talk, live and behave.”
Similarly, Jalet added: “I think ‘Babel’ touches the identity crisis we are going through worldwide. So, are we going to continue defining ourselves in a kind of tribal way with a closed and frozen — and excluding — ancestral picture of what we think our culture is? Or are we capable of embracing a more global way of seeing ourselves and the others?
“I guess ‘Babel’ is an invitation to consider identity in a more flexible way — not as something you need to retain unchanged forever. That way, it could transform, and so eventually grow.”
Interesting notions, indeed, to be airing in today’s Japan.
“Babel (words)” premieres in Japan on Aug. 22 at Sapporo Geibunkan as part of the Sapporo International Art Festival; it then runs Aug. 29-31 at Tokyu Theatre Orb in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, call 03-3477-9999 or visit sapporo-internationalartfestival.jp, bunkamura.co.jp or theatre-orb.com/lineup/14_babel.