Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Shantala Shivalingappa: Play

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
September 4, 2018

Charlotte Kasner

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has produced some of the most inventive and exciting choreography of recent decades. It was a delight to revisit Sutra recently, but then we had Pluto and now Play. Whilst Play is considerably shorter than Pluto and its foray into Japanese cartoons, it seems no less rambling. It’s also self-indulgent and without the benefit of the excellent set and lighting that had at least made Pluto bearable.

The stated aim of Play is to explore just that, and relationships, those games of chess and seduction where one tries to win over the other. To do that involves assuming another role, putting on a mask, avoiding one’s own history, although that’s impossible, of course.

A lot of time is taken up with musicians being wheeled around on rostra and it doesn’t help that there is no sense of narrative or any coherent thread running through the piece. When the dance eventually happens, Shantala Shivalingappa embodies eastern classicism. Cherkaoui merely produces a facsimile of it, however, which while competent, looks awkward and insecure. It feels like the first day of rehearsal when a dancer is asked to shadow another and mimic a technique with which they are completely unfamiliar. The shape is there, but the feeling is absent. Shivalingappa is firmly rooted in the earth, all her movements driving downwards and outwards. Cherkaoui floats, almost as if he is pulling up to go en pointe, his grace dissolving like dissipating mist rather than creating an earthy embodiment of eastern dance.

New ideas are introduced but run without developing. The inevitable video screen is used, albeit to good effect at one point when hands slap rhythms on a table, creating patterns as they drum, but to no effect whatsoever when projecting yet another mock chess game, which Cherkaoui has done to death by now. Like most of the other motifs, both go on far too long.

Scraggy, life-sized puppets and giant masks are manipulated. Apparently, these represent wish-fulfilment but, as portrayed could be anything. It is quite disturbing when the figures are hoisted above the dancers to dangle behind them like corpses. It is unclear what this is supposed to denote, if anything.

Elsewhere, there is a long, rambling monologue by Shivalingappa towards the end that amounts to a heap of psycho-babble. There is quite a lot of singing too, much of it poorly executed. The composition of the music was credited to the four musicians, all of whom could have guaranteed careers producing the sort of CDs that are sold with images of lakes and forests with titles such as ‘Tranquility’ and ‘Meditation’. The banality and triteness was enough to make one want to scream out loud for it to stop. One of the songs used is from a Disney cartoon. No one could accuse it of not fitting right in with the rest of the offering. It sent the man behind me into fits of giggles.

Cut to half the length and with a much stronger thread of narrative running through it, Play might work in a triple bill. It would at least have some sense of drive and purpose, although nothing could rescue the music.

The couple sitting next to me was clutching a small flowering plant; a birthday present. I didn’t check, but I feel certain that the poor thing was wilting after being subjected to 75 minutes of Play.