Is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui a single person? Look at his work, and you wouldn’t think so. In the last year alone, he made Boléro for the Paris Opera Ballet, co-choreographed with Damien Jalet and in collaboration with performance artist Marina Abramović; a section of One, Cirque du Soleil’s celebration of Michael Jackson; Automaton, a piece about cyborgs for constructionist American dance company Pilobolus; and Valtari, a music video for Icelandic art-rock band Sigur Rós. Then there was choreography for Joe Wright’s film Anna Karenina (starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law) and for Wright’s staging of Aimé Césaire’s play A Season in the Congo, about the turbulent politics of decolonisation. For his own modern dance company Eastman, based in Antwerp, he created Puz/zle, a starkly beautiful reflection on meaning and existence, first performed in an Avignon quarry; while m¡longa, a collaboration with Buenos Aires tango dancers, was made for Sadler’s Wells in London. And he choreographed for Guy Cassiers’ production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Staatsoper, Berlin.
Cherkaoui is a protean performer, a shape-shifter by nature
This range of styles, sites, subjects and media is typical of this unclassifiable choreographer. Is there any way to make sense of such a varied body of work? One way is to see him dance. At 37, he performs less than he used to but retains some distinctive qualities: a hyper-flexible, almost contortionist body; an elastic manner of moving; a gift for mirroring others, whether they come from classical Indian dance (Play, 2010), flamenco (Dunas, 2009) or kung fu (Sutra, 2008); a readiness to use speech and song alongside movement; a haunted face. Watch Cherkaoui dance and his choreography begins to make sense: he is a protean performer, a shape-shifter by nature.
Look at the person as well as the performer, and the choreography becomes clearer still. “I think the work comes from different aspects of my personality,” says Cherkaoui on a flying visit through his hometown of Antwerp (in the last 12 hours, he has already been to London and Milan). “Part of me always felt like an outsider. There is no place where I feel safe, at home. But that also means I can go anywhere. I am already outside the comfort zone.”
Cherkaoui’s first steps in dance began in school at the age of seven, where he enjoyed folk dance classes. “But I was quite chubby then,” he confesses. “I didn’t have a good self-image – I still don’t – and dancing was not something I could imagine doing.” In his teens, he developed the sapling body you can still see within him, and moved from folk into pop dance. “A friend of mine was imitating Kate Bush in Wuthering Heights,” he says, “and I thought it was just magical. So we began copying other artists – Janet Jackson, Madonna, the kids from Fame – and I started organising numbers with friends from school. My mum would help with the costumes.” At 17, he was talent-spotted dancing to Prince at a local competition, and landed a weekend job as a backing dancer on a TV chart show. Soon, he was omnivorously taking classes in ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop. But at the same time, he remembers, “I was dealing with a lot of personal issues: being gay, being half-Moroccan half-Belgian, being from a broken family. I also had this kind of parallel life, a dancer on one side; a good school student on the other. My body was imploding, and I think dance was a form of healing. Eventually, the need to move became bigger than the need to be smart.” He ended up enrolling in PARTS, a renowned contemporary dance school in Brussels, then working for the dance-theatre company Les Ballets C de la B, in Ghent.
It was a background as eclectic and as heterodox as his choreography was to become. His earliest projects showed signs of the far reach of his imagination: Anonymous Society (1999), a surrealist musical directed by Andrew Wale, featuring songs by Jacques Brel; Rien de Rien (2000), his first full-length choreography, featuring a multiplicity of dance styles and spoken languages; OOK (2002), made with long-standing colleague Nienke Reehorst, a theatre piece about information overload for actors with Down’s syndrome.
What connects his output is not a style, or subject, or medium: it is an attitude.
If you ask Cherkaoui about his choreography, he’ll tend to talk about how he works rather than the works themselves. You begin to realise that what connects his output is not a style, or subject, or medium: it is an attitude. He is interested in connecting with other people – people with different languages, different training, different cultures and different personalities. The works are simply the visible result.
He offers his tango piece as an example: “I’m not a tango dancer. People were asking, what do you think tango is? And, I thought, it’s an embrace. I don’t know any other dance where people hold each other so closely.” For Cherkaoui, tango was an expression of the desire for human contact, of whatever kind. It was an intuition that connected him to dancers for whom the style was second nature. From then on, they could start working together.
Likewise, when working with Marina Abramović: “I was fascinated by the way she used her body ritualistically, almost as if she were part of an exorcism. Not of something inside her, but of the people around her.” It reminded him of Tempus Fugit (2004), the work he was performing when they first met. “I was being extreme with myself, falling on my knees really hard, suffering physically. But it was ordered suffering, so I could perform it again the next evening.” In other words, it was a rite of suffering. They may have been working in different media, with different aims, but they found this common ground – and it completely suited the almost shamanic monomania of their chosen score, Ravel’s Boléro.
Poetry or painting can be made in solitude, music composed on instruments – but the very material of choreography is people.
How to work with others, for Cherkaoui, is important for him as a choreographer. “Choreography is a very social art,” he says. Poetry or painting can be made in solitude, music composed on instruments – but the very material of choreography is people. The point of contact, for him, is the body. We have different cultures, different personalities “but underneath, it’s still arms, legs, a head. Find similar points of reference and before you know it, you are talking about the same thing.” That’s how he manages to work with artists as divergent as Abramović and Antony Gormley; with art forms as culturally distinct as medieval vocal music and Japanese manga; with dancers ranging from Korean b-boys to Shaolin monks to people who are not actually dancers at all.
Cherkaoui considers this ‘choreographic’ way of working together not just a matter of practice, but of principle. “The time of the individual is gone,” he says. “Working together collaboratively is the example we need right now. Not just artistically, but on a political level, on a spiritual level.”