Light slowly rises on the vast, cavernous Sadler’s Wells stage. A motorised crane judders into life. Beneath it, the inert body of a small child lies in a crumpled heap. At the rear of the stage, an elevated steel platform gives way to a rolling floor system. We’re in a barren and unfeeling landscape: industrial in construction and foreboding in atmosphere. The only sound we hear is the sterile whirl of the crane’s motor; the only movement is the automatic sweep of its searching arm. Darkness continues to give way to light. In the sickly, orange glow – reminiscent of the sodium glare of street lamps – we notice the limp figures of more children. We cannot identify the person operating the crane: is it controlled remotely or is the device self-operating? It isn’t certain. What is certain is that the opening of Enfant works against every convention we might reasonably expect to see in a piece of dance theatre. There is no fleshly interaction, no autonomous human contact. Instead of viscerally stimulating physicality, these inanimate bodies are scooped up and manipulated in mid-air with mechanised purpose. The effect is haunting and immensely disquieting.

But you see, here’s the thing: even to label Boris Charmatz’s Enfant a piece of ‘dance theatre’ feels reductive. Enfant operates in the space where dance, live-art and installation intersect. It is resistant to categorisation. It is illusive, unpredictable and volatile – dangerous, even. The crane lowers two children onto the platform, and another onto the rolling floor. The platform rises in a continuous pumping motion, causing the children to convulse uncontrollably. The body of a small boy repeatedly slopes downhill as the floor continues its monotonous ascent. These images evoke the horrors of child slave labour, as the unconscious forms of these children are first robbed of agency, then ‘reanimated’ into performing a number of involuntary functions by this cruel, cold machinery. The audience become spectators in a ritualised evocation of the child suffering under industrialised conditions. As a result, Charmatz’s beguiling construction is reconfigured into something that resonates with an urgent political purpose.

From the rear of the stage, nine adult dancers emerge from the darkness and approach the children. Some of the dancers carry the bodies of more children with them, still unconscious in their arms. Now the dancers begin to interact with the lifeless forms of the children; they breathe a kind of temporary life back into these immobilised forms. Their bodies replace the machinery with human touch and allow for a wider and richer variety of movements and physicality. A dancer swings one child in a circular flying motion. One lifts another child onto the back of a dancer as he crawls across the stage on all fours. Meanwhile, two dancers rehearse a Punch and Judy style routine with another pair of children, sitting them on their knees then shadow-boxing the air with the children’s tiny fists. Dancers lie down and scramble about in a frantic, fighting motion; the children are made to do the same, in a pattern that resembles a desperate attempt to wake from a terrifying nightmare. Are these dancers embodying the cognitive world of these unconscious children – a world that is externalised through ritualised physical actions? The playfulness of the choreography in this section certainly suggests the possibility, yet it isn’t long before an atmosphere of dread begins to creeps back into proceedings.

This is achieved with the introduction of Oliver Renouf’s heart stopping soundscape. An ominous, pulsating bass undertone rises in pitch. It is accompanied by what at first sounds like the clang of machinery, then takes on the distinct tone of birds screeching, before finally settling into the chants of children playing – the overwhelming din of the playground. The dancers break out into primal yelps and stomp there feet in a tantrum. Things taken a decidedly stranger tone when the disembodied vocals of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ begins to play over the rumbling score. This prompts the adult-dancers to erupt into a sporadic dancing, some of it reminiscent of the choreography seen in a Michael Jackson routine.

It’s a bold move and one that has prompted its share of criticism. Jackson’s lyrics, in which the singer questions the paternity of a child (“the kid is not my son”) underlines the anxiety already bubbling beneath the surface of Charmatz’s choreography and Renouf’s score. Charmatz confronts collective anxieties over the issues of child abuse and molestation. He takes the very real, socially pervasive and economically ingrained realities of child labour and enforced poverty, and pits them against the imagined fears represented in Renouf’s nightmarish sound design. The adults submit to their fear of the invading predator, but remain totally absent from the industrially-organised violence we witness earlier in the performance.

Issues to do with the question of agency recur throughout Enfant. The sight of these children being ‘controlled’ by the ensemble of adult dancers is an understandably disconcerting one. Criticism of this aspect of the performance has focused overwhelmingly on aspects of touch, whilst ignoring the wider issues under examination. Thus, audiences and critics risk falling into the trap that Enfant sets out to untangle: of reading the performance through the narrow lens of a media-fuelled fear of physical transgression. In Enfant, children are not simply raw materials. They become co-creators in Charmatz’s overall choreography and design. This is a performance that throws itself open to the possibility of disruption, and this is revealed to us when the children awake from their slumber and engender a series of improvised sequences.

Finally, the children are joined on stage by the figure of the Pied Piper (Erwan Keravec, complete with bagpipes). In an ingeniously-conceived sequence towards the end of the performance, the children, now skipping defiantly across the stage with improvised relish, turn the tables on their adult masters. Attaching the crane harness to the Pied Piper, they lift him and his bagpipes into the air, in a liberating reversal of that renowned fable. Enfant thus ends with a rebellious gesture: the children have emancipated themselves in a thrilling episode that overturns the fate set for them by the Pied Piper’s ominous playing.

Enfant presents a politically-charged disentangling of our socially constructed notion of childhood. Throughout this mesmerising performance, Charmatz and his cast of professional and amateur performers challenge our fears and shatter our received wisdoms. It examines ideas of trust, justice and fear, whilst exploring the liberating potential of disruption and chaos.

Enfant played at Sadler’s Wells on 29 and 30 January. For more information, see the Sadler’s Wells website.