mon 24/06/2024

TeZukA, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

TeZukA, Sadler's Wells

TeZukA, Sadler's Wells

If it does nothing else, this dance show should whet your appetite for manga

TeZukA: amid the whimsy there are gripping visual fragmentsImages all © Hugo Glendinning/SWT

Edit, edit. Inside TeZukA there’s a charming, elliptical, hugely stylish piece begging to be sliced and trimmed into focus - just as the manga master Osamu Tezuka must have daily occupied himself with as he prepared his graphic cartoons. The visuals in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s piece are spectacular video animations of Tezuka’s fastidiously drawn scenes, the kerpows and the Zen landscapes, Black Jack, the transfigured rabbit.

If it does nothing else, this show should whet your appetite for manga.

Whether it whets the appetite for what dance can do is a more moot point. At two and a quarter hours long, this is a baggy experience, but it has many elegant things in it fashioned by Cherkaoui, who has often proved one of the best metteurs en scène in the dance world. Everything is arranged nicely: the trio of oriental musicians silhouetted upstage left on their little dais, the painting table downstage left, where a wizened little man in black is joined by a beautiful model on whose bare back he gravely paints Japanese characters.

Tezuka diagonalsSurrounding the stage, scrolls of ivory paper rise and fall, sometimes to be flooded with projections of manga drawings, or columns of Japanese writing. A scroll of paper, too, feeds a bumpy little tune through a music box, wound by hand by the negligibly kimonoed Hannah Peel, who has a back like an alabaster wall.

Nitin Sawhney provides gentle, musing melodies, weaving time and cultures together, Japanesey, Indianish, a pleasing atmospheric blend. And in the middle of the stage is what Cherkaoui - a Tezuka devotee - has made of his communion with his idol.

Delightfully dressed characters echoing Astro Boy (red wellies), or Ayako the imprisoned girl, or Black Jack, the mercenary surgeon, or Tezuka himself, in beret and glasses. A pair of amorously tangling boys who may or may not indicate Tezuka’s struggles with his forbidden sexuality. Two Shaolin monks, lean, wiry elves whizzing across the stage in somersaults and frenzied kung-fu bouts, exactly like cartoons are drawn.

Tezuka stranglingThis intriguing array of characters, though, tend to be milling about more than one would like, considering the exact planning and purposefulness of the cartoons from which they’re derived, which scroll behind them on the huge video wall, showing us manga newcomers what a high design skill and imaginative discipline is demanded by these dark, portentous volumes. You can’t call them comics, even if they look like comics. Not when one of the stories is about a girl locked in the basement by her own family.

But Cherkaoui lacks an equal gift for crispness. There’s a tiresome amount of lecturing, about Japan’s susceptibility to apocalyptic events, in 1945 and 2011, about Tezuka’s life, about bacteria, used as a link to Tezuka’s medical training and interests (and which I think, though I can't be sure thanks to the heavy accents and Sadler's Wells's skewed sound system, Cherkaoui is attempting to apply as a metaphor to the spreading of suspicion and prejudice that resist healing).

Still, you can just ignore the words, watching the rest of the stage, the musicians plucking and tapping on their zithers, violins and bells, the mysterious screeds of calligraphy, the coming and going of unearthly miracles of light and space machinated by Willy Cessa (lights), Taiki Ueda (video) and Sasa Kovacevic (costumes), each in their area contributing one of the best parts of the production.

Tezuka tumblingFor while Cherkaoui has a rare ability, evident in many of his works, for creating fresh, unselfconsciously limber movement, he doesn't exploit the characters' dance potential - is it deliberate? Astro Boy wobbles around in his red boots as if his wiring was awry; Black Jack and Ayako both talk at us, parading costumes rather than embodying characters. Much of it seems hesitant whimsy, bathetic where it deals with Tezuka's death, leaving the characters wobbling uncertainly around without a master.

Tezuka dark scrollsBut then amid the whimsy there have been gripping fragments of theatre. A forest of hanging scrolls become illuminated with letters, which, as a kodo drum rumbles in crescendo, shiver, seem to fall off the towers, then bleed and crumble into dust, before a black video tidal wave washes over the people standing fatalistically below. At the other end, witty and delicious, is a bit of Cherkaouian foolery where a girl unfolds and folds and crumples a sheet of cartoons - and a man lying next to her exactly replicates the changing states of the abused paper, his body folding and lurching into impossible scrunches.

Between such scenes there are enough longueurs and outbreaks of body painting to stifle enjoyment. Earlier this year I was held in a spell by Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, on the serious topic of religious texts, but if he’s trying to argue that Tezuka’s manga is equally deep and meaningful, he would do better to follow the master to the pictures, not the words. Innocence and freshness are Cherkaoui’s strengths; a bit more of them, a lot less of the earnestness, would do me.


Well said. I was excited to see this, but felt it shambling, unclear, too talky, not enough dance but worst of all, lacking the incredible energy and vitality of manga. Really, the prospect of a manga dance crossover is tantalising and should be fantastic, but this came nowhere near those possibilities. Pretty, yes, but that can't sustain a rambling muddle of Brian Cox lecture and half-dance, half theatre.

I have heard that this production is quite epic. Tezuka is one of the pioneers of manga in Japan and he really deserve this recognition.

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