United Kingdom Various 13th Century Composers, d’avant: Sasha Waltz & Guests, Southbank Centre, London, 6.5.2015 (JO’D)
Juan Kruz Díaz de Garaio Esnaola, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Luc Dunberry, Damien Jalet
Direction: Juan Kruz Díaz de Garaio Esnaola
Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Dance: Luc Dunberry
Song: Damien Jalet
Musical Direction: Juan Kruz Díaz de Garaio Esnaola
Set design: Thomas Schenk
Costume design: Sylvia Hagen-Schafer
Lighting design: Rudolf Heckerodt
Created in Germany in 2002, but only now being given its UK premiere, d’avant is a combination of thirteenth-century song (mainly) and contemporary dance. What makes it unusual, and gives it immediacy, is the fact that movement and song are performed by the same four men. This reflects the wish of its director, Juan Kruz Díaz de Garaio Esnaola, ‘to bring singing and movement to the same level in theatrical discourse’.
Although the programme note points out that the four performers were equally involved in the development of the piece, ‘Choreography’ has Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s name beside it in the credits. Much of the movement bears a resemblance to other, later work by the Belgian choreographer who has recently been appointed Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Bodies extend across the stage floor in almost watery rolls and flows (Faun, 2009). Two men perform a tango-like dance with weighted, masculine light-footedness (m¡longa, 2013). One man stands directly behind another so that seen from the front they seem to swap arms (Apocrifu, 2014).
Visually, the piece is striking. Its set is the scaffolding, ladders, light bulbs and netting of a building site. In front of this lies a sunken circle of dust-covered bricks. The four men are dressed, incongruously, in suits: grey, black, blue and bright red. Over the course of the piece, these suits will become as dusty as that worn by Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
The men have received vocal training. Their voices harmonise. Where d’avant is less successful is in its structure. The work suffers from an excess of creative input as it appears to question the meaning, or lack of it, of symbols and ritual. It juxtaposes the Crucifixion, a boyband and its fans, a protest march in which the Union Jack is one of two flags thrown to the ground and stamped on (somebody in the audience cheered), a love parade, a football match (with one of the performers as the ball), and a Holy Week procession in Spain. The programme note describes these different sections as ‘freely arranged atmospheric images’. Over the hundred minutes that the piece lasts a desire for coherence begins to be felt.
Working together, though, the performers manage to make several of the images memorable. The different coloured suits are exchanged to make the top half of one man become the bottom half of another. With the help of the other three, Juan Kruz Díaz de Garaio Esnaola undergoes a breathtaking series of age and gender transformations during a single, brief upstage-downstage walk.
More importantly, perhaps, the men also cooperate through their voices. The piece ends in stillness with three of them singing as the red-suited fourth, his back to the audience, makes use of a concealed hose to suggest (in a way that seems real at first) that he is copiously urinating. When he stops, an oddly significant silence and darkness fall.