Genesis Photo Koen Broos

Photo Koen Broos

Sadler’s Wells, London
September 28, 2015

Stuart Sweeney

A few days ago I was discussing with a friend Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk or total theatre in which music, dance and design combine to make a theatrical whole greater than the sum of the parts. Watching Genesis (生长), it occurred to me that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has taken this idea to another level by combining dance and music styles from around the globe alongside innovative design. Ever eager to explore possibilities with dance artists from other disciplines, here Cherkaoui worked with Yabin Wang (王亚彬), trained in Chinese classical dance, ballet and contemporary, first in Beijing and later in Antwerp. This fruitful collaboration led to the creation of Genesis with Cherkaoui as choreographer, Yabin as producer and involving their two companies, Eastman and Yabin Studio.

Cherkaoui seems rarely to be away from the London stage these days with his prolific, high quality output. Yabin is known in the West primarily for her electrifying dance performance at the start of the film House of Flying Daggers, but will return to London in 2016 for a commission with English National Ballet.

Genesis opens with medical figures in white gowns and face masks in a series of clear cuboids on wheels and initially the choreography is for the boxes as much as the performers as the plastic enclosures are moved in different patterns, creating walkways for the dancers to move with robotic regularity. Cherkaoui spent much of his early life in hospitals and the sanitised, inhospitable environment seen on-stage reflects his own disenchantment with Western medicine and his belief that the medical traditions of China and the East offer more for the inner person.

When the gowns are cast off, the humanity of the individuals emerges. Cherkaoui’s choreography energises the entire body with arms swirling and entwining while the dancers spin and slump to the floor. In a return to a medical scene in lurid red lighting, we see a time reversal where a body bag is unzipped and the figure inside is pulled about and then manipulated in rapid, extreme movement by a ‘doctor’ until the character is sitting up with splashes of blood. Kazutomi “Tsuki” Kozuki is outstanding as the body transforming from death to grievous condition to life.

Variety is provided in a range of ways; in one section crystal balls are deftly twirled around the hands of a solo artist, gradually increasing the number and then passed out to all the performers to strike them together in complex rhythmic sequences. The musicians from Poland, India, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Far East bring a range of exquisite musical styles to enhance the production, combined with electronic music for the medical scenes.

An outstanding component in this imaginative, fine work is the dancing of Yabin Wang. Her suppleness, precision and exquisite feet and legs conjure extraordinary shapes, but always used for expression, usually of angst and frustration at the forces and people restraining her action. She is a remarkable artist and I hope we see much more of her on the London stage.

The programme notes talk of birth, death and growth, but for me the prevailing images from Genesis are of the darker side of human existence. Nevertheless it is a work that captures the attention with the richness of its palette and Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk is brought to vivid life.