Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui dances to an inclusive rhythm that brings in everything from Kathak to Manga comic art.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, dancer, choreographer and stage designer, was in Bangalore recently with Glimpses, a set of four duets performed during the Attakalari India Biennial 2013, a festival of contemporary dance and the digital arts. This eclectic and prolific artist of Moroccan and Flemish ancestry born in Antwerp, Belgium, grew up watching dance videos on TV with Janet Jackson and Prince among his early favourites. Unafraid of encountering many influences, his work melds techniques ranging from hip hop, modern jazz, ballet, Irish, African and Kathak into a choreographic approach that enhances the link between theatricality and dance. Simultaneously his work also represents a playful demolition of the divides between high and low art.
This gives his work a freshness and originality though his dance productions are never a bland or easy ode to text book multiculturalism. It is his ability to communicate the many sidedness of his dance influences and retain the element of surprise while traversing other cultures that makes the genre of contemporary dance in the case of an artist like him so fascinating to watch. Historical patterns, memory, tradition and the sheer here and now impermanence of dance and movement find their way into his work.
Among his best known productions are Sutra, which premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 2008. This award-winning and well received collaboration with Antony Gormley composer Szymon Brzoska and the Shaolin monks has toured the world. He has worked with companies like Monte Carlo Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Cullberg Ballet in Sweden and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in NY. He is clearly drawn to duets as a form and has worked with leading dancers across genres on these. Among his artistic collaborations are Zero Degrees (2005) with British-Bangladeshi contemporary and Kathak choreographer Akram Khan, Dunas (2009) with flamenco dancer María Pagés and Play (2009) with Paris-based Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa. In 2008 and 2011 he was declared Choreographer of the Year by the dance magazine Tanz. In In 2010 he founded his own company Eastman, based in Antwerp, Belgium. In 2011 he created TeZukA, a piece for 15 performers about the works of the master of Japanese manga Osamu Tezuka. He choreographed the ballroom scenes but also most of the movement-centric sequences, such as the love scenes, of Joe Wright's 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. Excerpts from an interview
You referred recently to dance as the most “up to date history lesson”. Do you think certain elements of dance can cross cultures?
I feel, in many ways, the human body is the point of reference. Across any culture one recognises and reads gestures, gazes and positions in a human body and compares notes with what one knows to be beautiful or ugly or elegant or profound or meaningful. Funnily enough in different cultures across the globe, certain things can be read very differently. In that sense, one needs a lot of empathy, openness and be ready to learn new things when looking at art from elsewhere. These dancers might just come with a very different set of art principles and it can at times be confusing. In this day and age, because of the Internet and the global connections and an overflow of information, it is easier to realise something elsewhere might mean something else. I’ve noticed that art migrates a lot, it travels and elements that we found beautiful at a certain place and a certain time might, five years later, suddenly re-emerge elsewhere as profound or ridiculous. It is a strange process of taste and fashion, and I’ve seen that only a small minority of people sees through the element of fashion. I don’t think it’s wrong or right, I just notice it happens often. On the planet, I don’t consider one place more advanced than another ever in art, I do recognise there are places where people are more open or feel curious for other experiences in art from abroad. Prejudice is a danger always in anything human, if people think they know what they will feel before they allow themselves to experience it.
How would you describe modern choreography contemporary dance if you had to explain this to audiences especially in regions like India that have many living art forms from the past?
If asked how to describe modern choreography, I would say it’s the next generation trying to reconcile all the information passed on through different traditions; it’s trying to access and handle it all, which of course is never easy, so a selection takes place, and certain things get highlighted others don’t. Modern choreography is also such an open concept, every individual artist fills it with different purpose and meaning.
Your recent presentation of Glimpses in Bangalore was a fluid and eclectic traversing of styles, movements, genres as well as emotional tones. As someone who began as a TV talent and then went on to work with hip hop, ballet, contemporary underground, musicals, what is that experience of coming together in a created work? Also, how do dancers and choreographers escape the easy clichés of multiculturalism which presents itself as a part of the sanctioned world culture of globalisation and our times?
Multicultural is a difficult concept to grasp, as every culture is multicultural. Take Kathak it is considered in the West and East as one of the main Indian dance styles, yet it is an intertwining of complex rhythms (maybe from Muslim tradition?) and representation and reincarnation of Hindu Gods by the dancer. In many ways, and I know this word scares people, it is a “fusion” of influences coming together and creating something particular and profound. I think in many ways I try to do the same, show all the elements I try to include in my life, my being. I integrate specific knowledge from my surrounding and try to bring about something that has its own unity, in relationship with its sources always.
Can you talk of the experience of existing between the cusps of cultures with reference to your trilogy Foi, Myth and Babel? Can you briefly describe your experiences with diverse artistes and traditions you have encountered and worked with? How well do you need to understand and practice these forms in order to be able to use them to create your own works?
Foi, Myth and Babel were works in which I used elements from my own spiritual journey between 2002 and 2010. In Foi, a Christian belief of angels manipulating us, a sense of guilt, shame and sadness. In Myth, a fight between us and the shadows within us, how we also need to accept these and live with them, love them as much as our brighter sides. Babel was a collaboration with Damien Jalet in which we take responsibility for our actions and are able through love, war and language, through sharing and fighting for territory, be with one another.
Working with Akram Khan was like working with a twin brother I never had, we had many things in common, even if in the eyes of the outside world we were so different. I loved the focus on hands, something we share, as well as our search for reconciliation between East and West principles. With Maria I found a big sister. She has an amazing fluidity that I wanted to relate to. We appreciate each other very much and, both being choreographers, it was very easy to always agree on what the next step in the duet could be. Shantala is so precise and few people know, but also very funny (same as Maria by the way)! Next to having studied Kuchipudi, she is also a very smart person, knowing a lot about psychology and sociology, I enjoy dancing with her as she is so refined and positive. What matters always with all these dance partners were the people, they are carriers of knowledge, but it’s how they carry what they know that moved me into moving with and for them.
In a globalised world, where there are both inducements and pressures to co opt the specificities of local cultures how does a contemporary artist like yourself escape that temptation and create a work that draws from different localised traditions and pasts without trivialising their contexts?
Trial and error. I’ve always been analysing how people read my work, and I’ve just been looking how I could be understood better. It’s in the practice that one notices, but I don’t think I could sum up rules for it.
Are contemporary dancers necessarily rewriters and critics of traditional and classical forms and does the relationship between the two have to be oppositional? From your own experience can you tell me how you view a traditional art form and its apparent lack of a sense of the contemporary as well as an inability to speak to modern audiences?
The only enemy is prejudice; because we feel we already saw something, we have a hard time actually seeing tradition. “Modern” people can dismiss it like dismissing an apple and preferring a processed chocolate bar. Well as in food knowledge, more and more we encounter how healthy it is to go back to certain basic understandings of art (and food) and I feel we are trying to fulfil tradition. Not all contemporary choreographers are in opposition of tradition. We can sometimes fight with conservative principles, in which people are blocking creativity, but tradition itself lives in the here and now and is an amazing pool of inspiration.
Early on in your career you enrolled in Parts, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s contemporary dance school in Brussels, while continuing to perform with both a hip-hop and a jazz dance company. What was that experience like and what did it teach you at that stage of your career?
It was a culture shock, as I was part of a dance world that hated or looked down, in both directions at that time in Europe, at another part of the dance world I was part of. I’m quite happy to say that now more and more there is admiration being nurtured in both directions. But when I was young, it was at times, schizophrenic.
How do we escape the divides set up by notions of high art and pop art on the one hand as well as the art bubble insularity of conceptual dance? Could you please explain this by talking about your work on the Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka.
Well I feel sometimes we need to take a step back, to create some perspective and understand what a certain artist is doing. Pop has to do with popularity, a concept that often in the west means easy, accessible and therefore not profound. I feel it sometimes takes very high art to become popular; it’s not always as easy as we like to dismiss it. At the end it’s still about prejudice, and finding a way to have enough distance and a clear mind to feel or not a certain type of work. It’s a very personal journey. With Osamu Tezuka I touched upon an artist considered a God in Japan and the East, because of his prolific works and because it was drenched in so much humanity and had an almost prophetic nature to it. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a child. At the same time in Europe, for some, manga is an underground culture; far from the things certain people value. My work around him and his work was an attempt to honour him as I felt he had as much impact on my sense of ethics and aesthetics as Pina Bausch. I did feel it created a work that for sure made people look at manga and specifically Tezuka differently.
How does a contemporary dancer like yourself today find his audience and judge their response to his work?
I just feel it, there’s not much more to it than that. I try to manage all the energies thrown back at me when I do or propose something.
How do you strike the balance between being creative and reactively inventive and new as contemporary dancers are often expected to be?
I don’t try to be new, I try to be honest and follow my heart, my instinct and my sense of logic.
Is contemporary dance, specially when it draws from cultural influences around the world, too dependent on expensive spaces, sets, technology and a great deal of collaborative practices including film. How do you function within these realities and yet retain the primal purity and intimacy of dance as a universal language? Can you briefly describe your experience while working on Anna Karenina?
It’s all about expectations too. As artists we see all the beauty already in the dance studio, when the dancer has no make up, no special costume, when there’s no special light on it. But when 600 people are invited, one needs to find ways to highlight what matters to all these people. In dance it does mean that setting costume light become very important at times. With Anna Karenina it was an incredible collaboration with Joe Wright, in which he trusted me to reshape specific scenes by choreographing them. His concept of a transformable set felt very familiar to me, it gave me the possibility to walk into his universe quite easily as the theatre world does not frighten me. In movies it is quite incredible how at times things are created just for three minutes in a movie!
Can dance be political? Does dance theatre as a form speak differently to you and should dance and dance theatre be inflected by the time and place in which they exist and be driven by an artistic commitment?
I believe every act we do in life has a political consequence. If you drive a car or not, eat meat or not, are religious or not, dance or not… it all has a specific impact on our surrounding and it does change politics. It’s just a very slow process, and sometimes things do get far away from each other and disconnected. But nature binds everything together, so I know it has an impact eventually.
What does a young contemporary dancer need to do today to come into his or her own given the bewildering number of labels and influences that operate in this space? How can a contemporary dancer in India and his or her counterpart in Asia or Europe forge links and yet speak of their home cultures in distinctive ways. You mentioned something about enjoying the ability to break boundaries and geography rather than nationalities speaking to you. Could you explain that please in this context?
I feel it’s important to honour the ground you were born on, to honour the place that has nurtured you. At the same time that same place should never be idealized, it could be a ground that nurtured you, but rejected others for no valuable reason. In that sense generosity, open mindedness and resilience are elements I would wish any dancer or choreographer or human being really. And avoid bitterness, it poisons only your own well being, and it does not make you achieve anything but heartache. So positive energy and optimism no matter what I would also recommend, very difficult ofcourse, but humour helps. Just find things that also bring a certain fun with it... it usually means you’re on the right track.