In Play, dancers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Shantala Shivalingappa try out roles, instruments and games from chess to flirtation. With fine musicians joining in, the show is playful in the best sense, both affectionate and curious.
As a choreographer, the Flemish-Moroccan Cherkaoui has always been drawn to collaboration, working with artists including monks from the Shaolin Temple in China and flamenco star María Pages. He’s also made dances for Beyoncé, including the recent APES**T video. This project with Indian classical star Shivalingappa started in 2008, at the invitation of Tanztheater legend Pina Bausch. As in Bausch’s works, gender roles and social conventions are under scrutiny, but it’s a gentler kind of investigation.
It starts with all six performers on a platform, alongside a range of instruments from around the world. Everybody sings, everybody plays, from medieval polyphony to Indian and Japanese styles. The musicians, Patrizia Bovi, Olga Wojciechowska, Gabriele Miracle and Tsuabasa Hori, will sometimes step into the danced action, too. In Filip Peeters’ set, the platform is in sections, a series of plinths that dancers and stagehands slide about like chess pieces, framing and reframing the action.
The opening dances are very clearly on Shivalingappa’s territory. Cherkaoui is a deft and flexible performer, but his costar brings virtuoso elegance to these steps. She holds herself in delicate tilting lines, the angle of head, arms and torso giving her moves both steely strength and velvet softness.
As they try out masks and puppetry, Cherkaoui comes into his own. In one scene, his puppet teacher lays down ever more complex steps for Shivalingappa to perform. He gives the puppet a powerful personality, high-handed and ambitious.
There’s an entrancing scene where two of the musicians interrupt, setting up a four-person rhythm game – hands tapping on a table, filmed from above and projected on a screen. Watching the video, you can follow the brilliant intricacies of the patterns; watching the stage, you see the teasing glances, the competition, the shared pleasure in their skill.
Play is deliberately episodic, switching from an onstage chess game to a dance with masks or an overlong lecture on mind training. It has a sense of exploration, of the delight of discoveries made together. Whether dancing a sensuous tango or giving a charmingly goofy blindfolded rendition of “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Aladdin, Shivalingappa and Cherkaoui play with serious intent.