The cast of Babel (Words) | Sydney Theatre

It’s a refreshing problem for a critic to have: a work that’s so extraordinary, one worries if one can even begin to do it justice in acclaiming it.

I’ve long been hard on dance. Why? Because all too often it manages to be pretentious while being inscrutable. Try hard. Anxious. At pains to impress, first and foremost, with intellectual vigour, rather than settling for the physical kind and going from there. Ground up, rather than top-down.

As I understand it, Babel started with three key collaborators in a room, wondering what they might do. Kind of like the Stones turning up for a session, just jamming and coming up with one of their best-ever albums. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley. Choreographers Cherkaoui and Jalet holding hands with visual artist Gormley. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, to observe their process, that of a holy trinity in the act of creation. The sacred analogy isn’t inappropriate, given the result: whatever their methods or means, the end well and truly justifies them.

I’m not sure if the chicken or the egg came first, but if I have it correctly (if I don’t, it makes a plausible story anyway) they found themselves with an ensemble of performers (18, from 13 countries, with 15 languages between them), musicians and dancers, many (or all) of whom can also act and sing, from more or less the fabled four corners of the globe. Being the biblical scholars they apparently are, they hit upon the idea of the Tower Of Babel. I am not a biblical scholar. And the Tower Of Babel babble, from Genesis, isn’t something I’ve ever really understood. Or, it has to be said, sought to. About all I know is, following the climate change trauma that was the Great Flood, the remaining souls left on the face of the Earth, who were of one people, voice and language (Esperanto, perhaps), finding themselves at a loose end, set about a masive public works programme to boost the flagging economy (despite the volume of water, liquidity appears to have been a problem).

This resulted in the white elephant that was the tower, a monstrous structure which would’ve made the Twin Towers look like urban molehills. For some reason God, apparently unappreciative of this monument to her magnitude, pointed the fickle finger of fate such that this elegant, dreamed for unity of humankind was thrown to the four winds, resulting in the multiplicity of languages, cultures, colours, creeds, religions and resultant wars that have plagues us ever since. Glory be. Anyway, it serves as a wonderful metaphor for ordained, or accidental, diversity and the challenges it presents.

Consequently, this work is about language, both verbal and physical; connection and disconnection; communication and miscommunication; unity and division. In stark contrast to so many danceworks, these collaborators have succeeded, admirably, in getting across big ideas, cohesively and with clarity. They’ve grappled with serious issues without (and here’s the key) taking themselves overly seriously. There seems to be an implicit humility; an admission they know little and therefore have no truck with pretension. If only more choreographers would, or could, lock on to this. If so, you and I wouldn’t have to emerge from an hour or two in a theatre, privately wondering, ‘what the?!’; noting the dissonance and distance from the intent expressed in programme notes. Where most (yes, I’d tend to go that far) dance concepts are inscrutable or, at best, nebulous, this holy trinity has managed to be as definitive as a good, straightforward novelist or playwright. Talk about miracles!

Gormley has provided large, shiny, welded steel (or other metal, I think) rectangular frames, of varying dimensions, but all large, as the set. It’s astonishing how readily these lend themselves to perceptions of, say, skyscrapers, or other confining spaces; impositions on freedom of physical and emotional movement. They are beautiful, architectural structures in their own right and watching them moved around, almost continuously, into different configurations is a movement and performance in itself. The only constant is change, we are told, and know full well from everyday experience, and this flow emulates that very experience.

In pointing to difference, through the linguistically (verbally) and physically, Cherkaoui and company succeed in underscoring the too easily forgotten reality that we’ve as much in common as not: unity is possible, but complicated and resisted via the media of divergent characteristics, habits, rituals, practices, laws, conventions and disputes over territory. We knew that, but we can never have too many reminders. And this memory-jogger is attended by much more wit, irony and humour that most. It’s all the more effective for it.

We observe the predictable patterns of crowds of city-dwellers, who move like sheep as if herded by some magnetic field, weather pattern, or lunar imperative. This anonymity, exacerbated by exploding populations, is emphasised by Ulrika Kinn Svensson, arguably the most gifted of all the performers (believe me, that’s really going out on a limb and saying something), who mimics a cyborg or robotic device with breathtaking exactitude. Her body is utterly transformed into a machine.

Other dancers bring a whole new level of meaning and intensity in evoking sensuality, in the most affectingly sexualised duet I’ve, possibly, ever seen. There is veritable clowning, too. There is a strident critique of the arrogance of the English-speaking world and the US in particular, coming poignantly from Darryl E. Woods, the American in the troupe. And there is much, much more.

Again, the work has depth, texture, accessibility, meaning, universality and spectacle, without succumbing to undue or tedious solemnity. The musicians (dimly perceived through a sheer black curtain much like a pair of tights (not that I usually wear them) are of such a calibre and the music of such interest I would’ve been as happy as Larry, or Tristan, or Tonia, to see and hear them. Patrizia Bovi, a doyenne of medieval music, sounds like she’s descended from the heavens above, on harp and vocals; Mahabub Khan’s muezzin-like wailings are enough to convert an atheist to prayer; the percussive ensemble comprised by Sattar Kahn (tabla and finger cymbals), Gabriele Miracle (zither, snare) and Kazumari Abe (taiko) has a subtlety not oft-encountered.

I was one of the first to spring to my feet in rousing acclamation. That spontaneous response was practically irresistible. I’d build a tower to bable myself, given half a chance and a good quantity surveyor.

The details: Babel (Words) plays two more shows at Sydney Theatre (January 13-14) as part of the Sydney Festival. Tickets on the venue website.