Taking the sand dunes of the Saharan desert as their inspiration – as a symbolic bridge between two cultures – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and María Pagés explore their shared heritage and the fluidity of identity in Dunas. While on the surface seemingly worlds apart, Belgian contemporary dancer-choreographer Cherkaoui is half-Moroccan, while flamenco extraordinaire Pagés hails from Andalusia, the part of Spain where African influence is most evident.
The sand dunes are represented by large, translucent sheets and veils; Cherkaoui and Pagés are strangers in this vast, unknown landscape. The dunes provide an ever-evolving backdrop and also emphasise the fluidity of identity in a visual and physical way; when Cherkaoui and Pagés touch each other, they become one entity – it is unclear where one ends and the other begins. At times, the use of lighting coupled with this layering of material, creates multiple versions of the dancers, symbolising the different aspects of a person’s identity, the faces they present to the world.
Pagés is an incredibly expressive dancer, her every move tells you a story – it’s difficult not to be engrossed by her performance. But, if anything, Cherkaoui is the more impressive performer, highlighting the multi-disciplinary nature of his chosen dance form: he joins Pagés in flamenco, he draws and even sings. But when performing in his ‘own’ style, he exudes a kind of understated elegance which is in direct contrast to Pagés’s fiery, dramatic displays.
Each performer’s individual styles shines through even as they perform in unison: at one point, Pagés’s angular arms and punchy movements literally provide the backdrop to his melancholic lyricism; it is as if she is his tougher alter-ego. There is one particularly enchanting sequence in which the two dancers are veiled, their wrists twisting, turning and interlocking through the sheets – the use of the wrist is a crucial element of Wing Chun, and this softness acts as an antidote to the aggression elsewhere in the performance, an extension of the idea of the ying and the yang.
The piece puts the concept of identity into the wider context of mortality. Via a series of sand drawings which are projected onto the backdrop, Cherkaoui ponders the idea of life and death, the drawing and erasing of these sketches suggestive of the cycle of life. This is, arguably, one concept too far. Dunas suffers from an excess of ideas crammed into one piece, many of which feel unfocused and underdeveloped. At one point there is a superbly elaborate tap sequence, in which the lines of the performers harmonise with the lines projected onto the bare stage. The sequence is accompanied by a simple, modern score (as opposed to the Arabic-tinged music that flows through the rest of Dunas), however, it feels out of place and too stylistically distinct from the rest of the piece.
Other sections are far more satisfying. This is particularly true of a sequence where hand-drawn branches appear to sprout from Pagés, curling across the backdrop as she moves at the centre of the stage; it evokes the aliveness of her movements and the natural growth of life. Eventually, the branches blossom into a tree before the whole thing is wiped away. It’s a powerful sequence, rich with metaphor, and it’s a shame that these moments are not developed further, instead they too often give way to a scattering of other, less coherent thoughts.