Search NL

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Eastman

When Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was awarded the Prize for Best Belgian Dance Solo in 1995 – an initiative of choreographer Alain Platel – it was because he is an unusually gifted dancer. It motivated Platel to invite him to participate in the creation of Iets op Bach (Something to Bach) (1998). Platel's working method is that of a collective action-reaction process, in which a lot of input is derived from the participants. It constituted a valuable learning environment and stimulus for Cherkaoui. He produced his first major choreographic work under the auspices of Platel and his ‘les ballets C de la B’. Rien de Rien (2000) already set the trend for an impressive path that would lead him to become one of the world's greatest in his field over the next fifteen years. He joined the artistic team at Antwerp's Toneelhuis (2006-2009) and when he founded his own company Eastman in 2010, he became artist in residence at deSingel in Antwerp. Since 2015, he has also been artistic director at Ballet Vlaanderen, a remarkable event: a contemporary dance figure at the helm of a bastion of classical ballet. However, this was not an unexpected move since Cherkaoui had previously choreographed for the company and moreover, he had also worked on commissions from numerous other reputed classical companies and opera houses all over the world. Examples include the Brussels Munt/La Monnaie, the Swedish Cullberg Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet. He is now also Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London.  

Cherkaoui likes to acquire insight, takes nothing for granted, analyses, identifies links and connects. He does this at the artistic and social level, and also connecting both levels. He casts off constraints, rejects dogmatism and increases support for reflection and dance.

It is something he was born to do: as a descendant of a Moroccan Muslim father and a Flemish Catholic mother, born in Antwerp in 1976, his genes include a number of multicultural items. During high school, he studied the Latin-Maths option, had a great fascination for physics and also drew a lot. To a certain extent drawing is finding a way through the information you are faced with and trying to make connections. This fascination, this urge to analyse, understand, explain and connect was so dominant that Larbi needed an outlet in the form of a physical activity and because he was not interested in the competitiveness of sport, he opted for dance. He initially felt at home with show dance and street dance, to go on to study at the University College for Dance (today's Royal Conservatory of Antwerp at Artesis Plantijn University College) and then at P.A.R.T.S., Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's dance school.

Cherkaoui likes to acquire insight, takes nothing for granted, analyses, identifies links and connects. He does this at the artistic and social level, and also connecting both levels. He casts off constraints, rejects dogmatism and increases support for reflection and dance.

An introduction to the work and thinking of big names from dance history lead the way for Cherkaoui. William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown and naturally De Keersmaeker refined the mathematical, structural, architectural thinking as well as the unbridled freedom in dance creation and social involvement. It led to an artistic pathway that was steered by a permanent (re)search, not of an individual coherent dance language, but for the language that the specific message or story of each project requires. And vice versa: the diverse (dance) languages he uses also conjure up new artistic and social messages. While dancing, Cherkaoui’s curiosity about other dance languages grew. Show dance, street dance, postmodern dance, contemporary dance etc. he positioned them side by side or interwove them and added other dance styles to them. In Rien de Rien a former ballet soloist (Marie-Louise Wilderijcks) is seen on stage with a musician, singers, contemporary dancers and a child. The musician takes the place of the Imam in a mosque, an old religious, Italian song is sung that was once rejected by the Catholic Church and an Arabic proverb is displayed on the rear wall. Religious, verbal, musical and dance stories and messages intersect, cause tension and create a beautiful whole. Dancer-singer-choreographer Damien Jalet was already involved in Rien de Rien. In 2002, Cherkaoui created d’avant with him, a contemporary choreographic piece to medieval music for dancers from Sasha Waltz. In 2010, they created Babel (words), which won two Olivier Awards (the British Oscars for the performing arts), and in 2013, they created a version of Ravel’s Bolero together for the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, the set of which was designed by the performance artist Marina Abramović.  

An introduction to the work and thinking of big names from dance history lead the way for Cherkaoui. William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown and naturally De Keersmaeker refined the mathematical, structural, architectural thinking as well as the unbridled freedom in dance creation and social involvement.

An amalgamation of cultural and religious influences from the distant and near past and the present, from diverse geographic regions meet, play side by side or search for new stories in symbiosis. 'Making connections' has become something of a mission for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Proof of this includes the wonderful Foi (2003), about the power of faith, and the fascinating Tempus Fugit (2004), about the apparent absoluteness of time and the diverse experiences and interpretations of time in different cultures. The following is a clip from Foi.

An amalgamation of cultural and religious influences from the distant and near past and the present, from diverse geographic regions meet, play side by side or search for new stories in symbiosis. 'Making connections' has become something of a mission for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

In a stunning post 9/11 decor the musicians - singers from Capilla-Flamenca – are positioned above the dancers' heads, in three large windows. They communicate directly with events unfolding below them. There is also singing below and sounds are bounced off in all directions. Following a disaster a mishmash of people slowly realise that they are still alive. Angels should bring solace, but do they? At these moments the good and evil in people come to the surface. While some cling to faith - but what do you still believe in? - others crawl away in fear. Lamentation, penance, hypocrisy, insanity, sadism and masochism rear their heads. Goodness too, sometimes. Foi is a hard yet witty production.

In 2005, Cherkaoui joined forces with the Bangladeshi-British choreographer and Kathak dancer Akram Khan to create zero degrees. Learning and decoding each other's dance languages and shaping stories, mixing cultures, languages and colours to create a production. He would apply this method more often at a later stage, with a flamenco dancer, a tango dancer, a classical ballerina, Shaolin monks and many more. He accepts the challenge to understand another's dance by learning the steps and techniques with great patience and empathy, associative thinking, searching for common ‘cells’ (behaviour, properties and perspectives etc.) and mirroring, assimilating, reflecting and translating them as best he can. This is not to copy, but rather to seek a complementarity. And he also introduces the other to his world of dance. This search for the other's identity, the fascination for differences, and the discovery of what you have in common, shared values, builds bridges that enable mutual communication to flow, which is contagious.

Learning and decoding each other's dance languages and shaping stories, mixing cultures, languages and colours to create a production. He would apply this method more often at a later stage, with a flamenco dancer, a tango dancer, a classical ballerina, Shaolin monks and many more.

Sutra (2008) was created by Cherkaoui and the visual artist Antony Gormley, with whom he had previously worked on zero degrees and who would also put his name to the scenography for works including Babel. The simple wooden boxes that Gormley designed are brought to life during the performance in stunning geometrical constellations. They are manipulated by a number of incredibly virtuoso monks from a Chinese Shaolin temple. Cherkaoui displays these monks’ movement techniques in their authenticity, full of respect and admiration and with staggering visual, poetic and moving choreography.

Cherkaoui continues to reconcile East and West, for instance by arranging for musicians from all corners of the world to play together. He will continue to develop sweet symbioses and metamorphoses, in the '0° zone' or in between life and death, water and ice, summer and winter. And he will continue to raise social themes that fascinate, thrill and disturb him as a man and as a citizen. As in Fractus V (2015), in which he addresses the way in which we receive information, which may or may not have been manipulated – that might vary depending on the cultural and religious context – and how we handle it. The texts by the Jewish-American Noam Chomsky form the basis of this choreographic piece.

Nevertheless, besides all the spiritual, cultural and social considerations, visual beauty and dance as calligraphy are just as powerful. Sensual movements, the visualisation of time and melody, abstract constructions: they make each production a new style exercise.

Because Cherkaoui connects intellectual and artistic thinking, searching and creating so closely to a social and spiritual commitment, he has received countless awards at home and abroad and in 2016, an honorary doctorate from the University of Antwerp.  

Author:
Katie Verstockt

Katie Verstockt is a journalist, teaches dance history and movement and is a dance coach. She teaches on the dance course at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp and has written for publications such as Knack, Ballet International and Ons Erfdeel.