Haunting work … Apocrifu (2007), a show Cherkaoui produced with his own troupe
Bendy Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui achieves a high-wire balancing act between different media, ideas and angles, at the same time as juggling the eclectic styles of his diverse performers.
Cherkaoui was born in 1976 in Antwerp, Belgium, of a Moroccan father and Flemish mother. At 15 he became hooked on dance, inspired by music videos and television (Prince, Janet Jackson, Fame). He was talent-spotted and, still in his teens, became a dancer on TV. At the same time he began to take classes in all kinds of styles – ballet, tap, hip-hop, jazz, flamenco. At 19 he entered a national dance competition set up by Alain Platel, founder of the seminal dance collective Les Ballets C de la B – and won first prize for his solo performance, which mixed vogueing, hip-hop and African dance. Through the competition he was introduced to a new world of contemporary dance. He enrolled in Parts, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s prestigious contemporary dance school in Brussels, while continuing to perform with both a hip-hop and a jazz dance company.
In 1997, Cherkaoui joined Les Ballets C de la B in Platel’s international hit Iets op Bach; in 1999, he choreographed and performed in the award-winning Anonymous Society, an offbeat Jacques Brel musical by Andrew Wale and Perrin Manzer Allen. But his choreographic career took off in 2000 with his precocious first full-length work Rien de Rien (2000), “a piece of such diverse range that it seemed to recalibrate the coordinates of 21st-century dance-theatre”, wrote Luke Jennings. In 2001, he spent a year working with Nienke Reehorst (former performer with Meg Stuart’s Damaged Goods and Wim Vandekeybus’s Ultima Vez) and a group of actors with learning difficulties; in 2002, he worked with “Eurocrash” supremo Vandekeybus himself. For Ballets C de la B, he created Foi (2003) and Tempus Fugit (2004), before leaving in 2006 to become associate artist at the Toneelhuis theatre in Antwerp.
Foi (2003), Cherkaoui’s dance piece for Les Ballets C de la B
Cherkaoui is a remarkably productive choreographer, and outside Ballets C de la B he has worked in three main fields. First is his own amorphous troupe, which fluctuates in size depending on the needs of the piece – together they have produced shows including Myth (2007) and Apocrifu (2007). He has also worked for several long-established companies (Monte-Carlo Ballet, Geneva Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Cullberg Ballet in Sweden, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York); as well as in several duets – Zero Degrees (2005) with British-Bengali wunderkind Akram Khan, Dunas (2009) with flamenco dancer María Pagés, and Play (2009) with Paris-based Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa.
Dunas (2009), a duet featuring Cherkaoui and flamenco dancer María Pagés
Having spent the last few years doing globe-trotting tours and far-flung commissions, in January 2010 Cherkaoui will launch his own company, resident at the Toneelhuis in his home town. It will be called Eastman, the literal translation of his own Arabic surname.
Physically, Cherkaoui is a slender, sapling figure; he can twist himself into pipecleaner contortions, or flow through space with liquid limbs. Choreographically, he is nothing if not eclectic. His installation Zon-mai (2007) – a house of screens, its “rooms” made of films of his motley diaspora of dancers performing in their own homes – is most emblematic of his approach. He enjoys working with performers who have different techniques, physiques, ages, nationalities and languages; but rather than trying to unify them, he mobilises their physical and personal differences. The result is not some sentimental rainbow community, but multiplicitous, prop-ridden sprawls that harness the performers’ idiosyncrasies into loosely-knit episodes that are stuffed with allusions to history, mythology, everyday life and inner desires. Even in his duets, Cherkaoui chooses partners – Khan, Pagés, Shivalingappa – who are distinctively different from him. The exception is Sutra, his masterly 2008 work with a group of Shaolin monks: here, Cherkaoui sets the monks as a group, with himself as the outsider.
Divine inspiration … Cherkaoui and a group of Shaolin monks in Sutra (2008)
Cherkaoui is eclectic with subject and tone too – switching between sacred and profane, drama and comedy – as well as with media (sound, props, speech, writing, film). There are some recurrent themes: personal and cultural difference, religion and spirituality. He often uses medieval polyphonic music. He’s theatrical, but his choreography is more like a network than a narrative. Some choreographic motifs recur, too. Watch particularly for duets, where Cherkaoui is interested in the different ways people connect with each other: one will turn into a puppet master, or shadow the other, or they’ll merge into a composite creature.
Dancer Reehorst and singer/dancer Damien Jalet are close and long-standing collaborators. Cherkaoui often works with musicians from the early music scene, especially singer Patrizia Bovi, vocal trainer and ethnomusicologist Christine Leboutte, and Jean-Claude Acquaviva of the group A Filetta. Karthika Nair is a powerhouse of a producer, who’ll remain until Eastman is launched in 2010.
Cherkaoui would love to meet Kate Bush and tell her what a decisive role she played in his career. His first wake-up call to dance, at the age of 13, was watching a friend act out Bush’s Wuthering Heights. He’s also a big fan of Running Up That Hill.
Decisive influence … Kate Bush’s music video for Wuthering Heights
In his own words
“I was mad on drawing when I was a kid. I wanted to draw reality, but when I drew clouds, I’d also draw the things I could see in them. The great thing about dancing is that you’re both the pencil and the artist. I still translate the world into something beyond the facts.” – Cherkaoui in the Independent, 2008
“I had started to make choreography – I’d mix this, with this, with this and make my own work, and then people said, ‘this is contemporary dance you’re doing’ and I said, ‘contemporary what’?” – Cherkaoui remembers his teenage choreographic experiments, londondance.com, 2008
“I’ve always considered myself lucky with my background because I had this double lineage. I never felt I was in the path of one culture, one vision or one truth. I’m a very big doubter; I like doubt. I think it is one of the most important things one should have in one’s life.” – Interview with Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times 2009
In other words
“An international reputation for his silky intermingling of hybrid movement forms an emotionally intense theatre.” – Roslyn Sulcas, New York Times, 2009
“Part contortionist, part visionary, part poet.” – Alistair Spalding, director of Sadler’s Wells theatre, Telegraph, 2007
“Cherkaoui’s eye for the singularity of body language is so witty and sharp, that we still end up feeling as if we know a startling amount about these people and the noisy, disjointed world we all inhabit.” – Judith Mackrell on Rien de Rien, Guardian, 2001
“Yes, the music is often medieval polyphony, but then the choreography is itself a kind of polyphony.”
You could say that on Newsnight Review, and Paul Morley and Germaine Greer would be looking daggers at you, wishing they’d said it first.
“Could do with some more meat on his bones. He’s not very beefy is he?”
Now watch this
A witty “composite creature” from D’Avant (2002)
Sutra, with the Shaolin monks of China (2008)
Apocrifu (2009) on religion and the power of the word
Excerpts from Orbo Novo, “an old word for the New World”, (2009)
Dunas, a duet with flamenco dancer María Pagés (2009)
Where to see him next
See the Eastman company website for performance dates.