Sunday, 28 May 2017
Babel (Words) | Sydney Festival
Written by Augusta Supple   
Tuesday, 10 January 2012 18:28

Babel (Words) | Sydney FestivalPhoto – Koen Broos

In the inside cover of each Sydney Festival program, you’ll find the show which is destined to have the ultimate enmasse “wow” factor – the show that blasts its way through all advertising, all promotions and sells out after everyone has been lathering each other with effusive talk which hypes up the event into the “must see event of the festival – previous years it was Robert Lepage, or the Schaubuhne’s Hamlet – this year it is Babel (Words).

On the vast stage of the Sydney Theatre – usually reserved for grand scale work and bold touring out-of-towners and Cate Blanchett – there is a series of steel framed structures. They sit simply, occasionally catching light, like an oversized desk toy. The start is spoken by a woman, gesticulating wildly as she explains the history of human communication.

According to the book of Genesis in the Bible, language was splintered by God as punishment for building a tower and all the people’s language was confused. The story explains why there is a diverse array of languages.

Babel comes from the Hebrew word “balal” which means to jumble.

And this production is a jumble of form and genres, performance modes and practices, cultures, music, bodies which is drawn from eighteen performers from thirteen countries with fifteen languages – but there is a precision in it’s content which defies the usual association of chaos with the word “jumble.”

Using both physical and verbal languages, performers respond to a collage of ancient musical styles described in the program as “an intense vocal fusion of East and West, live Hindi beats, taiko drumming and medieval music.” The performers shift: sometimes a forceful unified ensemble – sometimes a splintered cacophony of solo work – sometimes a sensuous duet. It is technically precise and often the vocal work is very crisp.

With set design by acclaimed British sculptor, Antony Gormley, and co-choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet – there is no shortage of spectacle. No shortage of impressive physical vignettes executed with precision by musicians Patrizia Bovi, Mahabub Khan, Sattar Khan, Gabriele Miracle and Kazunari Abe and performers – Navala Chaudary, Darryl E Woods, Damien Fournier, Ben Fury, Paea Leach, Christine Leboutte, Ulrika Kinn Svensson, Kazutomi Kozuki, Sandra Delgadillo Porcel, Helder, Seabra, Jon Filip Fahlstrom, James O'Hara and Damien Jalet.

However, although this work is, from all outward appearances, one which confronts ideas of nationhood and of cultural identity – it failed to reach into real confrontation. It did not show the true consequence of prejudice between cultures or nations – the holocaust, the war on terror, a world which is fractured and destroying itself through the superficiality of our species and the fear of difference. What is presented is a fairly homogenized whole – one where English is the predominant language, where despite the varied cultural backgrounds, some performers were consumed by a very European contemporary dance mode. It is a fairly safe and friendly show – more of a medative reminder that under our skin, we all feel pain and love, and reach for apples.

Without truly committing to the idea of cultural atrocity, without us witnessing the horror of miscommunication or misunderstanding – a horror that goes beyond an airport interrogation and without acknowledging the political consequences of “difference”, the content morphed into a harmless investigation about self in society.

As such this was a fairly simple experimentation with cross-cultural performative practices and an entertaining presentation of a multiplicity of styles. As far as a portrayal of the story of Babel – the story was used as a departure point for the artists to explode into investigations (but not interrogations) of themes of identity and to express all they can about tensions between the internal and the external world. And that is entertaining – though in sections long winded and at some points so exhaustively examined it leaves little room for the audience to come to any great independent epiphany.

But, this is a technically impressive piece of work – which has already delighted Sydney by its message of inclusivity and unity. And what's not to love about that?

Sydney Festival in association with Sydney Theatre present
Babel (Words)

Venue: Sydney Theatre | Walsh Bay
Dates: January 9 – 14, 2012
Tickets: $89 – $79
Bookings: 1300 668 812 |

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