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Jack Anderson

Cherkaoui's Dancing Brain

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: "Orbo Novo"
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
October 20-25, 2009
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
$49, $35, $19, $10
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, October 22, 2009

It's not often that dances inspired by strokes come along (and thank goodness, perhaps, for that), and should schedules ever announce one, it would be easy to cringe with anticipatory fears that it will be either sentimental or hysterical, or both. Yet here was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Orbo Novo," a dance inspired by a stroke that proved absorbing choreographically, musically, and scenically, with neither gush nor delirium.

Cherkaoui, a choreographer of Belgian-Moroccan descent, took his inspiration from "My Stroke of Insight," a memoir in which Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, describes her slow recovery from a severe stroke. But Cherkaoui avoids a biographical approach in "Orbo Novo" ("New World"). Rather, he makes the production itself a new world, a complex theatrical organism dancing to a score notable for its gravity by Szymon Brzóska, played in the shadows at the back of the stage by the Mosaic String Quartet and pianist Aaron Wunsch

Near the beginning of the 70-minute piece, dancers recite, both clearly and well (something dancers cannot always do with ease), passages from Dr. Taylor's book. She remembers having her stroke, then explains how the brain is divided into two hemispheres: the right, which focuses on the present moment and immediate experience, creating a sense of total harmony with everything around us, and the left, which distinguishes past and future, thereby providing us a sense of personal temporal identity.

Cherkaoui does not belabor these distinctions, although his choreography does call attention to such dualities as man/woman, inside/outside, and open/closed. He is greatly aided by Alexander Dodge's set of enormous latticed fences that can be moved about and rearranged. Sometimes they serve as walls, sometimes they open outward, whereas at other times they can be pushed so closely together as to form puzzling labyrinths impeding escape.

The choreography often contrasts constricted and expansive movements. There are bends, stretches, and turns, to right and left, and passages of fumbling and teetering. A dancer's body may turn floppy or twitch as if out of control, yet Cherkaoui avoids melodramatic excess, even when dancers locked inside the structures mutter and pace like patients confined to cells in Bedlam. As might be expected, throughout the work people also climb the structures and dangle from them, Dodge's constructions evoking both prisons and playground jungle gyms. In the work's final section dancers creep between the slats, all but one managing to exit.

Cherkaoui's choreography cannot really make these struggles, vivid though they are, seem to be occurring inside a brain. Perhaps no choreographer could do that. That's why the spoken recitations are useful, for they help orient the audience thematically, while the choreography makes the struggles within the brain look real and important. Exploring an interior world, "Orbo Novo" creates a new world on stage.

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