Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a huge fan of comic books, Japanese manga in particular. And perhaps that’s the problem with his new work TeZukA, inspired by the “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka: he appears more in thrall to his subject than in command of it. The work begins promisingly, with a childlike figure entranced by the open book gripped between his toes like a wayward tailfin. Along toddles a part-boy, part-robot in cute boots: it’s Astro Boy, Tezuka’s best-known character. Further dancers emerge from the shadows into tight, criss-crossing choreography that reminds you of Japanese letterforms. This is a recurring theme in the piece, conveyed by the interplay of characters as personae and characters as writing.
But Cherkaoui repeatedly scuppers his own stagecraft by explaining it. There is a lengthy exposition (in French with surtitles) linking the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the atom bomb and the genesis of both Astro Boy and TeZukA. There’s also a speech about the connection between Tezuka’s medical training and the character of Black Jack (who gives long, mystifying lectures about bacteria), and some heavy-handed theses relating manga to Tezuka’s life or Japanese history. This all feels more like text for the programme rather than for the performance, and also makes the characters themselves – Astro Boy, the Insect Woman, a philosophising cross-dresser, even Tezuka himself – feel more like appearances than presences, ciphers for ideas rather than protagonists of their own stories.
But story is only one aspect of this multimedia piece, which is stronger on design and imagery, much of it related to paper, writing, drawing and ink. The dancers paint each other with letters and move like brushstrokes. Scrolls unfurl from the ceiling, on to which are projected animated columns of calligraphy; or they’re rolled out like parchment pathways, paper trails for the characters to follow. There are projected sequences from Tezuka’s own books, and often the performers interact wittily with video, as in a kung fu fight accompanied by cartoon ker-pows and scribbles on screen, which coalesce into the shape of a giant Buddha.
Nitin Sawhney’s score, played by three musicians on stage, is an inventive and often felicitous mix of styles and timbres, but it can also moon about frustratingly like a wan poet. And despite moments of limpid beauty, so can the piece itself, which fizzes with ideas that then fizzle out. Plenty of life has been put into this large and ambitious work, but it hasn’t taken on a life of its own.