I’m familiar with the phrase “The audience leapt to its feet,” but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen. Until last week. After Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan have been performing their duet zero degrees for about an hour, Cherkaoui slings Khan over his shoulder and walks into the wings. The four musicians at the back of the stage continue to play. After a while, the lights go out. When they come on again, and the two men reappear, the mass of spectators—in the orchestra seats, in the balconies—rise as if a wave has rolled through City Center.
With good reason. zero degrees isn’t about virtuosity, although both dancers are masters. It’s about deep, soul-shaking performing, in which every move seems to flow from a wellspring of feelings and experiences. Everyday acts lead to extraordinary ones. Nothing is excessive, nothing underdone. Everything is clear; everything is mysterious. Khan—London-born, Bengali by birth—often collaborates with artists from other cultures. Cherkaoui was born in Antwerp to a Flemish mother and a Moroccan father. Both have studied contemporary dance with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and others. Cherkaoui has a contortionist’s flexibility; Khan is an expert in the Kathak style of North India.
I can’t say exactly what zero degrees is about. Similarities and differences, for sure. The sense of being adrift in a culture whose customs frighten and anger you. The transference of guilt and self-doubt. Friendship. Two linked stories impel what happens onstage. Although the experiences described belong to Khan, the two men recite them sitting cross-legged side by side (and later with Cherkaoui lying on his back and Khan seated on his colleague’s bent knees); they speak and gesture in unison. Here’s the gist of the text: While traveling from Bangladesh to India, Khan and his cousin were stopped at the border, and guards took Khan’s passport away. We feel the confusion, the helplessness, and Khan’s growing terror at his potential loss of identity in a foreign country. To his mingled relief and anger, his cousin bribes the guard, and they board the train. But there’s an inert figure lying partly in, partly out of the car. He’s dead. Shouldn’t we do something, Khan asks. No, his cousin tells him, we have to wait for the police; interfere, and you, a foreigner, will get into big trouble. Guilt, sadness. Khan can’t wait to get to a Kolkata hotel with familiar amenities like a hot bath.
The telling of this is a small miracle. The performers articulate every pause, every change of rhythm and tone in perfect synchrony. The involuntary gestures that accentuate speech become choreography, sometimes heightened by Khan’s fluency in the hand language of Indian dance. Cherkaoui is taking on Khan’s plight, entering his body and mind. Events that we hear of occasionally resonate in the dancing. The police in the train station simply dragged the dead man away, his head bumping the ground as they went. At one point, Cherkaoui has collapsed, and Khan drags him, then squats and deliberately pushes the other’s head against the floor, as if fascinated by its ability to bounce. Squirming, we laugh anyway. Much later, there’s a complicated sequence in which Cherkaoui tries to figure out how to link together Khan and the two dummies who share the stage with them and haul them in a chain across the floor; in the end, he lies down at the end of the line, as if hoping that the more erect of the two artificial doppelgangers will manage the job.
These lightweight, featureless, beige dummies by sculptor Antony Gormley are modeled after the two choreographer-performers. Khan’s double has few joints and can stand by itself. Cherkaoui’s, like him, is doubled-jointed. He drags “Khan” to watch him while he softly and easily knots and loops his own amazingly flexible limbs and body into uncanny positions. He also arranges “Cherkaoui” into a twisted pose (the dead man perhaps) and stamps repeatedly on him, while Khan, lying in the same position, jerks in response. When Cherkaoui sits and sings a mournful song (in Arabic, I think), he does so holding the hand of “his” dummy, who’s draped across his lap.
The two men work as both friends and adversaries. Face to face, they touch elbows and begin wreathing their hands around in fluent patterns. Repeated and enlarged, this motif becomes thrusting and parrying, and then pulls the men into spinning around the stage. Eventually the dialogue becomes a violent exchange. Khan is incredulous (“What are you doing?”) when he notices Cherkaoui lost in a curious, mincing walk on tiptoe, his now bare feet worming around each other. But before long, Khan has joined in. When Khan starts a vigorous, rhythmically complex stamping related to Kathak, Cherkaoui is beside him in an instant.
Often they perform in silence, but Nitin Sawhney has composed a fine score for violin, cello, voice, and percussion, played live by Laura Anstee, Coordt Linke, Faheem Mazhar, and Alies Sluiter. Sometimes the music has an Eastern sound, especially when the vocalist chants the syllables that accompany Indian dancing; sometimes it has a more contemporary thrust.
Whether casually looking at each other or dusting themselves off after an outburst, the men give the appearance of constantly pondering possible next moves. Dancing emerges like inner tempest. Khan and Cherkaoui move beautifully together, but really they’re very different. Cherkaoui can look like a rag doll or silkily, effortlessly elegant. Khan is sturdier, and flexible in a different way; he purls movement out, then pounces on it with the compact speed of a carnivore. His fast is very fast, his slow full of pulled-out complications. In their simple T-shirts and wrap-around pants by Kei Ito, they have the look of athlete-priests performing some exculpatory rite by re-living the emotional complexities of both Khan’s travel experience and their own collaborative process.
During a vigorous dance passage near the beginning of zero degrees, master lighting designer Mikki Kunttu throws the two men’s shadows on the gray scrims that enclose the stage on three sides; once, even though they’re far apart, their shadows appear to hold hands. How many degrees separate friend from foe, rescue from disaster, life from death, joy from grief, you from me? Often, not even a millionth of a degree.
Having had this closeness so thrillingly demonstrated, we spectators pour out of the theater on a wave of happiness, clustering in small knots to question and marvel. Critics go to the theater, Joan Acocella once wrote, “like dogs to dinner,” ever hopeful. In zero degrees, as in his Kaash (2002) and ma (2004), Khan gives us a feast.