I Went to a Noam Chomsky Ballet
Five 40-something balding guys have turned the philosopher's ideas into a man-dance extravaganza.
Fractus V by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Have you ever seen a balding 40-something man doing a flamenco dance-off against another balding midlife guy, both in high-heeled flamenco shoes and double denim? Dave's Epic Strut has nothing on it. It's so pregnant with awkward poignancy it's dilating.
One of the two men I'm referring to is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui—a highly esteemed Belgian dancer-come-choreographer, who, according to the Guardian, can twist himself "like a pipecleaner," and is now attempting to turn the works of political philosopher Noam Chomsky into a ballet, which he's titled Fractus V.
He's a dance auteur. And, in 2016, he's now also a 44-year-old man employing a company of five dancers, who are all as balding as he is. They look like they should be in a 1980s Aaron Spelling comedy-drama about men coming to terms with the loss of their virility.
Alongside the dancing, Chomsky was being broadcast in quotation throughout, mainly delivering a spiel about corporate mind control. Cherkaoui then tugged at the ideas in the quotes in ways both subtle and crashingly obvious. Take the show's best bit: On one side of the stage, he is sitting in a chair, watching his TV, in a mask, giving the finger, and laughing and gurgling like the consumerist moron he is and we all are. Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, some guy is having seven bells beaten out of him in dance form. After a solid dance beating, the man finally collapses onto an array of big white plastic triangles, which domino right round the stage, knocking Cherkaoui into the audience—imagine an OK Go video about the war in Yemen.
There are lots of these white triangular structures on the stage, and the dancers kept re-arranging them, like they were laying some of that IKEA fake-wood flooring, but they can't quite get it to align. Again and again, they pick up these big white triangle pieces and attempt to put them in a more pleasing shape for a buy-to-let new build. They do the Shiva thing with their hands to illustrate the complexity of information overload. In another section, a man is shot again and again and again in a vicious gunfire ballet, a bit like the slo-mo scenes in The Matrix.
If you want hardcore politics about class war, it's 'Les Miserables' every time.
Remember how revolutionary that slo-mo sequence seemed back in the day? Just like Chomsky. They both peaked at the roughly same time—back in a golden age of Ralph Nader and No Logo, when Michael Moore seemed more like a Twinkie-addicted puckish prophet than a crabby, fibby annoyer-in-chief.
In fact, the sense of "why now?" runs right through the evening. It isn't hard to work out why you would put on a Chomsky dance sesh; everybody loves to access their radical political economy via expressive dance. It's just a lot harder to work out why you'd do it specifically in 2016.
Chomsky's big idea was that the world is controlled by informational channels that spoon-feed us nutritionally void info-bytes, that the truth—or, more often, the context—of what we're told isn't verifiable. So unless we come home from our slob-jobs, open our almanacs, and start researching, there's no way the individual citizen can outpace the media-machine, which, he asserts, is constructed so as to reinforce our present oligarchy, a.k.a. the Man.
His solution, as described in 1988's Manufacturing Consent and recounted onstage, is that citizens should associate—they should consume alternative media and band together, syndicate, meet, discuss. Individuals, Chomsky suggests, are fed the lie that they are powerless and alone. And, alone in their houses, watching their TVs, being drip-fed by corporate media, they certainly are.
Chomsky's thesis, in other words, is that TV in the late 80s was rubbish. And I would entirely agree. However, this is 2016. TV's brilliant. Hasn't he heard about The Crown? Black Cocking Mirror? That Foxy Knoxy documentary? But like a really great Black Mirror episode, we're also already living in the future that Chomsky was casting his eyes toward. One in which the citizen can band together with others and get alternative info: Indymedia, Wikileaks, Medium, whoever your YouTube pulpit vlogger of preference is.
The fact that he's alive to see that future is unusual—it's like if Marx had turned up in Moscow in 1928. And the truth is that he was totally right and hopelessly wrong. Our new channels have pulled down icons; we've had Tahrir Square and the Trafigura scandal. But at the same time, they've centrifuged us into Trumpists vs. Black Lives Matter-ists, taken everything to the margins of the Canary or Breitbart. If anything's lacking, it's the center he decries: It's newspaper-funded investigative journalism that's declined as "the power" (a.k.a. "the money") has been stripped out.
Tellingly, whenever Chomsky has been wheeled out to comment on the foment in America and the world this year, he's sounded little different to most of the commentariat—like everyone else, he points out that there is unease over globalization, an anomie in the citizenry, we're more isolated, oppressed, and grumpy than ever before. Does this mean that he was right all along, and we've merely caught up? Or that, as the world has moved on, his ideas have been absorbed, run out of steam, or fused into banality?
At least the dance side of Chomsky's oeuvre remains super fresh—Fractus V was given a lengthy standing ovation. If you want a man-dance extravaganza, it's here. If you want hardcore politics about class war, it's Les Miserables every time.
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