He is half Belgian, half Moroccan. A dancer and choreographer, he works with the most famous ballet companies in the world and he illustrates original concepts on stage that he connects through the curiosity he manifests for the world around him. When everything is linear, he is afraid it will be too simple, too easy, too boring. His artistic style combines fine movements, contemporary or street dance forms, repetitive gestures and words. He is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
He began his dancing career when he was 15 years old and now, 28 years later, he is the artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. He is known for his unique vision, his collaborative projects, for the space that he leaves open to interpretation and for the connection he makes with the people around him. He relaxes while working, without taking too much time off, and he does everything from pop choreographies for Beyoncé, to jazz, hip-hop, tap or flamenco choreographies, to projects in which he collaborates with other world-renowned artists or with Eastman, his contemporary dance company in Antwerp.
With only a few weeks left before he arrives in Sibiu, I managed to squeeze a short phone call with him in his busy schedule, which happened during one of his rare spare moments. Sidi Larbi is rehearsing for a performance. I am trying to concentrate all my curiosity in 10 minutes and, on the other side of the phone, Sidi Larbi seems not to be in a rush – his answers are clear, simple, structured. Sidi Larbi is totally dedicated to the projects he is working on and he is also known for the zen atmosphere he creates during the rehearsals.
I read a lot about your performances and I learned that your dance language embraces dialogue. Which are the main themes that you communicate to the public? What are the themes of our times?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: I think that it is about being inclusive. Understanding that things and people have similar values, that we all are connected. For me it is all about interconnectedness.
As an artist, I grew up having to find my own voice, but I was also really much more interested in finding my voice in relationship to the voices of others.
When I develop a performance I always think a bit polyphonic, you know, we think together, we can each have our own journey, our own voice but together it creates a symphony, some sort of harmony. So it is finding harmony in a very physical way, by dancing together or singing together or speaking to one another.
That is why dialogue is, for me, the essence of human nature, it means to be in a relationship with one another and to find ways to coexist and to hear each other. It is also about listening. I think a lot that people want to speak a lot, but there’s also the importance of hearing each other and being able to respond according to what is being said to you.
I have focused a bit on that as an artist. To find ways to respond to the world around me in a delicate manner.
That brings me to the performance session that you will have in Sibiu during the Festival. How important is the sensorial connection? Should we create unity on stage or should we be aware of our differences?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: I think it is really about the topic of the performance with Colin Dunne. The performance is dance focused and visual but because of the style of Colin’s traditional Irish dance, he actually creates rhythm and creates sounds with the shoes he is wearing. Or even when he is barefoot he is actually always creating rhythm and beats. So we have this percussive element. We have two musicians but neither is a percussionist. Colin as a dancer is also somehow creating the rhythm. It is all about sound and being able to generate movement through sound and rhythm. I use a theremin, which is a very old kind of analogue, electric instrument, that uses magnetic field in a way to create soundwaves. So you can have something very futuristic, which is also very old at the same time. And depending on how close I am to the instrument, it has a higher pitch or a lower pitch. Through my movement I can create sounds. It is really about listening. The show is about trying to hear the things that are in there, trying to find the harmony.
This year’s theme of Sibiu International Theatre Festival is The art of giving. What are your thoughts about the idea of giving in regards to performing arts? Should the public only be on the receiving end, or do they also have to give something back to the performance?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: I think the audience always gives so much back when they applaud at the end of the show. There is attention, so people are watching which is really incredible and there is also interest in the work when people come and watch something. So there is a lot coming from the audience in a certain way. Also, the gift can be a reaction during the show, like laughter. There is always a part of giving back to one another, there is a constant exchange.
What do you start with when you create a performance? What is the source and how does it evolve to the final act?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Sometimes it can be a theme, someone I want to work with. Maria Pagés or Colin were people that I admire very much and I was very keen on sharing the stage with them and being in an artistic process with them. Sometimes it is that I am making a piece on a subject that I find interesting to dig in, to develop, and to share with the audience my own thoughts about this subject – so it really depends. It is often either connected to a theme, like a specific subject that I would like to address, or it is connected to people who I want to share an artistic process with.
You are very open to diversity, to differences, to multisided thinking also when it comes to movement. What can we learn through art about cultural differences, about multiculturality, about giving and acceptance?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: I think art it is just a point of departure. Every single piece of art that you encounter can give you perspectives. Even if you don’t like it. If you don’t like something you can ask yourself why don’t I like it – what is it about it that makes me feel disconnected from it? And sometimes it is because your value system is a bit different, sometimes you don’t know enough about it. It is like finding your position in relationship to the position of others. And I think art is one of the fields where people have a lot of opinions about pieces of art – you know, this is a beautiful painting or this is not a beautiful painting… Everybody is always talking about what they like or dislike in art and actually, if anything, art is the only place where people do this in an intelligent way – because very often in other places, like in politics, people are much more shy to really take a stand.
And I think it is really important to learn to change your mind, learn more about other things. Pieces of art teach us to expand our mind.
I remember when I was watching art and I didn’t like it and was thinking of it for some weeks and afterwards I said: No, it actually really helped me to see things differently. So, it is also a way of relating to yourself, to think about things that come from elsewhere. And I have always done that with music that comes from other places. I have always been able to give a formal translation of places that you cannot visit. Not through the lyrics but through the way it is being sang, it describes the geography from where it is coming from. I find it very fascinating how pieces of art can show you parts of the world that you might never be able to visit but somehow, thanks to the music and thanks to the movements, you feel it like it came closer to you. Because it was traveling away from Belgium or from America or from Ireland or from Japan, from Sweden, from Spain, from Morocco – these things can constantly give you the feeling that you are traveling through the artwork of other people.
*Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui will receive a star on the Sibiu Walk of Fame during Sibiu International Theatre Festival. The audience can watch him perform alongside Irish dancer Colin Dunne in Session on June 14 and 15.*