Japanese comic strip meets contemporary dance in this show based on the work of Japanese cartoon artist Osamu Tezuka.
A show based on the work of Japanese cartoon artist Osamu Tezuka – revered in his homeland as “the god of manga” – is a prospect apparently designed to raise the hackles of anybody wary of contemporary dance. It certainly raised mine.
Despite the lofty reputation of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the half-Flemish, half-Moroccan choreographer whose new creation, TeZuKa, is currently in rehearsal in his native Antwerp, I was ready to be baffled by the sight of dancers “becoming” Japanese calligraphy, mimicking strokes of the pen with their bodies, and by the unfamiliar culture of an artist whose best-known character is a robot child named Astro Boy.
Yet within a couple of minutes of entering the theatre in Antwerp, all scepticism was blown away. It was a remarkable sensation: a lesson. What struck me was the sheer completeness of the enterprise; the certainty with which Cherkaoui is seeking to reveal the imagination of Tezuka.
With the help of some top-drawer collaborators – Nitin Sawhney with a sinewy and melancholic score, a set of beautiful simplicity by Willy Cessa, on-stage musicians and a cast of 10 drawn from both Japan and Europe – it is clear, even at the rehearsal stage, that Cherkaoui is giving us an entire world in TeZuKa, one that is both alien and resonant.
Amid long white blinds – like scrolls of paper – on to which are projected shifting squares representing frames in an animation, the dancers perform moves that do, indeed, resemble the strokes of a pen. But what they also conjure, far more tellingly, is the very act of artistic creation.
The piece also offers segments from stories by Tezuka, which generate a serious rethink of what animated art actually is (in Japan, of course, no such rethink would be necessary, but the British view of manga is rather less elevated). Tezuka began work in the bleak years after the Second World War – he died in 1989 – and saw what it meant to rebuild a society, how progress brings with it both good and evil. His stories are like little myths. At times, they are also incredibly dark and daring – “One story can take on four taboos,” as Cherkaoui says – and deal with issues such as homosexuality, incest and religion.
For example, a passage in TeZuKa depicts the relationship between a priest and a boy whom he has raped. Their twisted connection makes for an intensely powerful duet, while above the dancers’ heads, extraordinary images from the original cartoon are projected. It is an eye-opener in every sense and explains why Cherkaoui, three years ago and with the backing of Tezuka Productions, was inspired to create this work. “It’s impossible, in one piece, to honour him enough,” he says.
Now 35, Cherkaoui grew up watching Tezuka on French television, drinking in a morality that “shows consequences, but does not make judgments”. A character such as Astro Boy could be seen as merely a child’s superhero; in fact, as Cherkaoui convincingly asserts: “Comic books are not just for children – there’s real authorship in them, and because you also have to be able to draw, they are really just like theatre.”
His passion is echoed by Daniel Proietto, the Argentinian-born dancer who plays the priest’s lover and whose dark doe eyes are, as his choreographer says, “a bit like animé, you know?”
Proietto – who dazzled in Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight in 2009, and later in Faun, Cherkaoui’s homage to Nijinsky – is relishing the challenges of this dense ensemble piece. “It’s complicated but exciting. Tezuka is so rich. You constantly have to figure out how to solve problems. I find it magical.”
Cherkaoui clearly thrives on the responses of intelligent dancers. He draws an analogy between Tezuka’s work and his own creative process. “He would draw a character with a scar, say, and then afterwards find a reason why there was that scar… For me that’s something recognisable, because with choreography you will see something in your mind, but you only find out what it really is later on, by trying things.”
He himself used to draw, but moved into what he calls the “more sensual” world of dance. Watching a friend imitate Kate Bush was an early inspiration. Then came work with the Belgian collective Les Ballets C de la B. His career has been notable not just for its success – most recently, a 2011 Laurence Olivier Award for Babel – but for the diversity of the worlds it explores.
The 2008 work Sutra, for example, was a collaboration with Antony Gormley and Shaolin monks. In 2009, he worked with the flamenco dancer Maria Pagés on Dunas. Ook, an early work, developed from a workshop for mentally disabled actors. Last year, he was the choreographer on a production of Das Rheingold at La Scala. “That really did feel like a different world. Wagner was much more exotic to me than Tezuka.”
Cherkaoui is an intellectual at heart, highly courteous and articulate, a faintly donnish figure as he moves delicately among his cast before resuming his seat in the stalls behind a laptop, surrounded by books and photographs of Japanese costumes. “His mind is almost mathematical,” says a colleague. “He is on top of everything – budget, travel arrangements… He has hundreds of Post-it notes about the show, and the next day they might all be shuffled around, but he always has a sense of where everything is going.”
It is ambitious, though. To render one art form through another is not easy. The separate parts of this show are certainly mesmerising; one hopes that the whole will convey what Cherkaoui intends.
“As an adult, we sometimes try to undo our childhood. We are discouraged from saying what we really care about – things like cartoon books – but now I want to uncover it instead.”
Hence, TeZuKa: a deeply complex work, born of simple childlike passion.