There are moments of astonishing intricacy and beauty sunk within this cluttered homage to the work of manga master Osamu Tezuka. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s multi-disciplinary piece is at times gloriously inventive but it also feels over-seasoned and tangled, squid-limbed.
Cherkaoui’s choreography merges animated sequences and live performance in a manner that brings to mind 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, his dancers interacting with images created by Japanese video artist Taiki Ueda projected on the screen behind them. Scrolls spill from the ceiling and kanji are formed and then dissolve into rivers of ink. A group of musicians sit on a platform on one side performing Nitin Sawhney’s atmospheric score while a table sits at the very front of the stage on which artists materials are strewn.
The dancers adopt the personas of Tezuka’s characters: one jitters, shimmies and fizzes like Astro Boy in his tiny shorts and bright red boots, another dons the flowing jacket and silver mane of Black Jack, the mercenary surgeon. A semi-naked man grapples in a pseudo-sexual way with a priest, in an overt reminder that Tezuka’s work was not just cutesy stuff for kids, far from it; he was willing to engage with taboo subjects, like sexuality, in ways that are decidedly more Robert Crumb than Walt Disney.
There are echoes of Cherkaoui’s earlier work, Sutra, in the piece too, both in the figure of the fanboy, the cultural outsider looking in, and in the figure of director – or the artist in this case – actively controlling the performers’ movements from the side-lines: at one point a piece of paper becomes like a voodoo doll, with a dancer flapping and folding as the paper is wafted in the air beside him. Two of the Shaolin Monks from Sutra also reappear and engage in a striking martial arts sequence as a series of cartoon ‘pows’ fly across the screen behind them, eventually merging like microbes to form a placid, floating Buddha.
The piece at times gets mired in the need to explain itself; there are long spoken sequences in French with the surtitles awkwardly placed on monitors at the sides of the room. The audience ends up being tugged three ways – in the act of reading, listening and watching – and this proves frustrating after a while. Some of what we’re told, about bacterial communication, ‘quorom sensing’ and Japan’s capacity for renewal after nuclear and natural disaster, is fascinating, but there’s too much of it. Even if the piece eventually archly acknowledges this excess of exposition, it still doesn’t quite excuse it.
There is also a sense of the material being over-stretched; the majority of the memorable images come in the tauter first half. The pictographic roots of Japanese kanji and their natural evolution into manga are fluidly evoked: lines, becoming words becoming whole worlds. Calligraphy is a recurring theme, ink on white paper, the elegance and precision each brush stroke; yet by the end. the performers’ limbs are smeared with ink and the delicate scrolls have become roads on which to walk. The philosophy of Buddhism which permeated Tezuka’s work – the connectedness of all living things – is also explored through Cherkaoui’s choreography.
It’s the interlacing of animation with live performance that leaves the deepest impression. Witty, playful and impeccably timed, these sequences are the things the audience are most likely to remember. But as it stretches onwards the piece loses this playful quality and becomes more sombre in tone as columns of ink are shown collapsing in the wake of a great wave.