They make an improbable pair – María Pagés an earthy flamenco dancer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui a contemporary dancer, as supple as a sapling. But they have one gift in common: exceptionally eloquent arms. In their spellbinding collaboration Dunas, it’s their arms that reach out across their differences.
At the beginning, restrained by swathes of cloth, they lean towards each other, and their arms entwine as sinuously as tendrils. Layers of translucent material shroud a distant glow of yellow light, turning the dancers into silhouettes, like mirages in a desert haze. Often, the lighting multiplies their shadows; brilliantly, these too are choreographed, creating hypnotic illusions of scale and depth.
Another illusion: the large projections of small sand-paintings that Cherkaoui is making on the side. A succession of finger drawings appear – Pagés becoming a tree, Adam and Eve, a food-chain of fish, Arabic writing, faces in a crowd – and are erased. There is a hallucinatory beauty to all these veiled figures and fading images, accompanied by Szymon Brzóska and Rubén Lebaniegos’s bewitching live music, and there are moments when the sand-drawn calligraphy, the winding dances and the melismatic voices merge into one continuous medium.
Themes become more defined in the second half, especially the Spanish and Moorish overtones. Cherkaoui’s erotic bellydance is answered by Pagés’s clattering castanets; later, he falls and flails abjectly before her cruel conquistador stamps. If these episodes are sometimes less assured than in the first half, they do connect the dancers (she’s Spanish, he’s part Moroccan) to a broader sense of history, so that their final tender, arm-entwining duet feels less like a personal story than one of cultural hope.