What a great idea this was. Of course the high-profile names involved in zero degrees were bound to generate a buzz and attract a cross-over audience: visual artist Antony Gormley, most widely known for the Angel of the North; Nitin Sawhney, a consummate musician with numerous awards to his name; and choreographer/dancers Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, both internationally acclaimed and highly disinctive figures in the world of dance.
The roster of names was no doubt a boost for publicity and ticket sales. But the great idea – a risk, certainly – was for Khan and Cherkaoui to work together. The two had met before on a number of occasions, and they do share some common ground. Both are from European Muslim backgrounds, Khan British-Bangladeshi, Cherkaoui Flemish-Moroccan. Furthermore, as Guy Cools’ programme note ingenuously points out, neither drinks alcohol and both are relatively short.
But as dancers and choreographers they make an odd couple, Khan compact, grounded and precise, Cherkaoui as slim and as limber as a sapling. Khan trained in kathak and later contemporary dance. He continues to perform in the classical kathak style, alongside creating the more experimental pieces that have caught wider attention, first as a soloist and then as director of his own company. In those experiments, the classicism of his training was always evident: in the rigorous discipline of its phrasing, in the formal, even drilled geometries of its composition. Only at certain points in his last work, Ma, did Khan broach a more dance-theatre style that, as several commentators noted (not always positively), drew on his time spent at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s school in Belgium. Stylistically, those moments are the closest that Khan has come to Cherkaoui, who is best known for his work with Flemish dance theatre company Les Ballets C de la B. Compared with Khan’s pieces, Cherkaoui’s are anarchic, prop-ridden sprawls that harness the disparate skills of his idiosyncratic performers into loosely knit episodes, stuffed with allusions to history, contemporary culture and everyday life.
An unlikely encounter, perhaps, but zero degrees makes a virtue of it: pairings and encounters are its theme. In a plain white cube of a set, Khan and Cherkaoui begin sitting centre stage on either side of a thin white line that bisects the floor. In perfect unison, they recount Khan’s recollections of travelling from Bangladesh to India, of being hassled by border officials. It’s all done in a casual, conversational style – yet each tiny hesitation and gesture is precisely synchronised, to eerie and sometimes comic effect.
The story continues at intermittent intervals, telling of the body of a dead man on the train, of the reactions of bystanders and stationmasters, of Khan’s own feelings of dislocation and foreignness. More interesting than the narrative itself is how it is embedded into the choreography. In the beginning, Cherkaoui duplicates Khan. Later, he lies down as Khan sits astride his bent knees; they still chat in unison and mirror each other’s gestures, but now offset in skewed planes, as if addressing different audiences. Elsewhere they speak alternately, batting the story back and forth between them as they finish each other’s phrases.
an intense, private 'conversation' that involves just their arms: wrists spooling around each other like tentacles, forearms slipping and elbows hooking
The spoken story threads through a series of danced sections; these too are based on suggestive ideas of doubling and dialogue. Khan and Cherkaoui stand facing each other, on either side of the meridian that bisects the stage, in an intense, private ‘conversation’ that involves just their arms: wrists spooling around each other like tentacles, forearms slipping and elbows hooking – like creatures exchanging encrypted information through their antennae.
It’s a duet that reappears later in a different form, transformed from communicative to combative. This time they chop and block their forearms like martial artists, or feint and parry like fencers. You can all but see the to and fro of energy rebounding between them, just as you sense an almost magnetic pull and counterweight in long sequences in which they do nothing but spin or stamp rhythmically (Cherkaoui has picked up kathak footwork impressively quickly), spiralling and sweeping about each other like points on a tilting gyroscope. The balance of power between the two keeps shifting. At one point, Khan quite literally gains the upper hand: he bounces and dribbles Cherkaoui like a basketball, Cherkaoui’s hyperextended limbs flopping and splaying cartoonishly as he splats bonelessly against the floor.
you picture the weird angle on the world that he's getting as he lies back and watches his legs slide like wipers across his upturned face
Cherkaoui is indeed something of a contortionist: in a hypnotic floorbound solo he combines the elongated articulations of stick insect with the amorphous oozings of an amoeba. As he swivels his body into elastic bends and knots, you picture the weird angle on the world that he’s getting as he lies back and watches his legs slide like wipers across his upturned face, or hooks a leg over his shoulder and snakes his head out from under his knee.
Did I say solo? There are, in fact, no solos in this piece, for you’re aware throughout of the uncanny presence of Antony Gormley’s silicone dummies, cast from Khan and Cherkaoui’s own bodies. In the beginning they lie inertly, indifferently. Elsewhere, these alter egos haunt the performers like memories, act as intermediaries or stand-ins, or simply stand as mute witnesses – odd how the same objects seem like brute matter in one scene, pure spirit in another.
That imponderable difference, between the animate and the inert, the body and the spirit – between life and death – is the ultimate subject of zero degrees. Khan dances a grief-stricken classical kathak solo around the prone body of one of the dummies; the juxtaposition of artifice and emotion could not be more moving. Cherkaoui sings a solemn lament, and musician Faheem Mazhar’s voice wraps sinuously around the melody like a flickering shadow (nothing is singular in this piece). Khan’s eloquent, stylised arms gradually stiffen and quiver into rictus tremors before Cherkaoui picks up his rigid body, along with his dummy double, and carries them off stage.
This intimation of death, like all the choreography, is simple on the surface but turbulent with undercurrents. Mikki Kunttu’s lighting is aptly stark and subdued; Sawhney’s score, too, is both effective and restrained, thumping like a racing heart in one scene, plaintively melodic in another, and often simply letting silence fill the stage. But ultimately what makes the piece is the dynamics of the partnership between the performers: Cherakaoui seems to have found a new focus and intimacy, Khan a worthy counterbalance to his own rivetting persona.