Now the whole Earth had one language and the same words....Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the Earth.
—Genesis 11:1, 3–8 [New Revised Standard Version]
The Tower of Babel has loomed large as a cultural reference point since biblical times. Intended to explain the origin of Earth’s many languages, this formative myth cited in Genesis has captured the artistic imagination over centuries, from a 1563 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder to an 1869 opera by Russian composer Anton Rubinstein; Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and a 1928 woodcut by M. C. Escher; and, in the last few decades, a song by Elton John, a novel by A. S. Byatt, a film by Alejandro González Iñárritu—not to mention allusions in myriad video games.
Choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet join this esteemed list with their 2010 work Babel(words), but the artistic partners had more in mind than repeating the trope of a multilingual world devolving into chaos. Their interpretation begins as one might expect—with performers from 13 different countries, using not only the physical language of dance to communicate but also spoken words, through 20 different languages and regional dialects. The onstage community is fractured, but as the piece progresses, disjointed threads become woven together in a celebration of diversity and multiculturalism.
“In the Babel story, cultural diversity and differences in language are presented like a curse,” Jalet says. “But maybe diversity can be more of a blessing.”
Cherkaoui was born to a Flemish mother and Moroccan father, and Jalet is French and Belgian. Both were taught the story of the Tower of Babel in Belgian schools, where curriculum covers biblical stories as well as Greek and Roman mythology.
“In a way the story of Babel is part of our collective unconscious,” Jalet says. “We are brought up with all these different stories, and they leave a mark. They make us question reality.”
The two choreographers have been working together since 2002, when their piece d’avant was produced by Sasha Waltz & Guests. The duo crafted Babel(words) for Cherkaoui’s company, Eastman, during a time when Belgium went for 589 days without an elected government due to an impasse between opposing French- and Flemish-speaking factions. “Damien comes from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and I am from the Flemish-speaking part. We really wanted to make this piece together to break the myth of the other,” Cherkaoui says. “When you collaborate with someone, there’s an energy that is created in dialogue with another artist. With Damien it was important to show that we can collaborate—that there is a sense of shared responsibility.”
Cherkaoui previously explored deep divisions in cultures in his works Foi and Myth; for Babel(words), the third in this trilogy, he brought in his regular collaborator Jalet as well as sculptor Antony Gormley, who devised a set of five giant rectangular frames that become critical characters in the storytelling. (Gormley also designed the set for Cherkaoui’s Sutra in 2008, choreographed for Shaolin monks and featured at the first White Light Festival in 2010.)
“Everybody’s included in the same space, so everyone has to be aware that their actions will have repercussion for the group,” Cherkaoui says. “[The boxes of the set] seem to create a convention between an inside and an outside, but since they are open structures, they show the absurdity of defining a border.”
The open frames move along with the choreography, becoming an apartment building, a city, a tower, a prison, and a boxing ring in turn. On a platform near the back of the stage are the musicians—two from Rajasthan in northwest India, two from Japan, and one from Italy. The music drives the piece, incorporating Indian and Japanese rhythms as well as medieval polyphony.
“Musically we’ve been working very much with rhythm,” Jalet says. “We all have a heart that beats.”
To bring movement into being, the duo intentionally selected dancers not just from different cultural backgrounds, but also from different schools of dance training—hip-hop, contemporary, African, kung fu, ballet.
“The dancers that we chose were people who were very comfortable moving from one style to another, so they’re very open-minded and extremely adventurous,” Cherkaoui says. “It’s the chemistry of all of them together that creates the flavor of the work.”
“The story of Babel is part of our collective unconscious.”
Cherkaoui and Jalet feel Babel has an even more urgent message now than during its genesis six years ago. Jalet was near the Brussels bombings this past March, when 32 people were killed in explosions at the airport and a metro station. In the past year there have been mass shootings and terrorist attacks in Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, and Nice. In response, political fearmongering and national isolationism seem to be on the rise, such as when Britain voted to leave the E.U. due in part to anti-immigration sentiments.
“We live in Europe, where migration has always been present, and it’s left a mark on everyone, from Africa all the way to Asia,” Jalet says. “What are the things we have in common? Most of the time there is love, and there is fear. Those are the two things that motivate everyone’s actions. We are mostly trying to defend the idea of love, but also showing at times the aggression that comes out when people are moved by this other feeling, which is fear.”
The collaborators agree that art can spark understanding and cross-cultural communication—which is their hope for Babel(words), presented at the White Light Festival two weeks before the U.S. presidential election.
“With music and movement, there is something in those two forms of expression that really allow greater connection between human beings,” Cherkaoui says. “Maybe with language we can find a greater way to connect to each other. The whole world is in New York, so it will be beautiful to see that.”
Ann Crews Melton is a writer and editor based in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Photo: Koen Broos