“I will defend my territory, but I also dare to move this territory”

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, dancing in plural

‘Fabulous news and well deserved it is, that Sidi Larbi receives the 2012 Flemish Culture Prize. His work bridges gaps, opens eyes, and creates universes into which one is absorbed as a spectator.’ That was Goedele Janssens’ response on the de Singel culture house website following the announcement of choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s show Puz/zle in May.

  • Bart Lasuy Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Bart Lasuy

I was well prepared for my conversation with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, but I could not shake my nervousness. After all, he is an internationally celebrated choreographer with mounting successes and the winner of the most prestigious prizes worldwide. But I had a trump card. I know Bouchra, someone he has been sharing school desks with for years. ‘Sidi Larbi was outstanding at mathematics and our teacher was of the opinion that he should make use of this ability to become a civil engineer or something of the sort’, she mentioned about a year ago, when Sidi Larbi’s name came up.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui does not build any walls around him. He is very modest, talks smoothly, and gives you the feeling that you have known him for years. He was charmed when I told him about Bouchra and the story of the math teacher.

It touched him that she still recalls. Bouchra was a good friend of his, the only one who could understand him. ‘I felt connected with Bouchra. We’re both from an immigrant background. We both had a hard time at home and both we worked very hard. It’s no coincidence that she’s become a medical doctor and I entered dance’, says the choreographer. ‘For both of us, it’s a way to look for healing. Healing in an environment that brings us some pain.’

No competition

‘Choosing dance was not only motivated by the aesthetic, but also by the healing’, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui continues. ‘I had to move. I needed a better body, a healthier and stronger body.’ As a kid he often felt lonesome. At home he had to endure the bad years of his parents’ marriage. That hurt him. ‘My father was always honest and made comments like ‘Yes, but for children this or for children that.’ Whether you like it or not, if you say something like that, it appears that the children are to blame and parents must be aware of that’, Cherkaoui says. ‘You can’t blame the cake you’ve baked.’

He often mixes in some English when speaking, but his French is flawless as well. It is because of his background. Besides Arabic, his Moroccan father also spoke French and Spanish, and his Flemish mother was multilingual as well. At home they spoke French and his mother told her two children everything twice: once in Dutch and once in French. The television played French channels. Thus, Cherkaoui’s identity has been plural from the start, and that is reflected in his work. He searches, sniffs and tastes, and the result always turns into something unique. He has proven this time after time. And in every performance, a piece of the man can be found. In Babel (words) for instance, a piece he created with his French-speaking colleague Damien Jalet, he touches on the subject of language and territory, and how languages can claim a territory. It is a story of Flemish and Walloon people, of Dutch and French, and about the Flemish Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the French-speaking Damien Jalet. The two had already been collaborating for years, so the wish to make Babel was conscious and unconscious at the same time. The two choreographers make things work, as does Belgium.

Cherkaoui does not like competition, but is not nonchalant either. He could not settle at the Higher Institute for Translators and Interpreters (HIVT), where he started studying after his secondary school. There was an atmosphere of competition and a way of life of drinking and partying he disliked. ‘I felt horrible there’, the choreographer admits. ‘I didn’t feel like being accepted. The first thing they told us newbies was that we wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t tolerate that’, Cherkaoui goes on. ‘I need desire, because whenever I feel unwanted, I turn my back and head for the door.’ And that is what he did. While he was studying at the HIVT, he was also taking dance classes. The following year, he changed his course to full-time dance training. ‘In art, there is desire, there is an audience coming towards you. And if there is desire, I’ve got a whole lot to offer. If there is none, I haven’t got anything to offer’, he says.

Luck

‘The problem with understanding is that we think we’re able to understand everything. There’s so much we can’t understand of each other, and that’s nothing out of the ordinary.’
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui started his career as a dancer in variety entertainment and television programs. In Brussels, he took classes at the P.A.R.T.S., the dance school headed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. In 1995 he received an award for the best Belgian dance solo, and from 1999, he became a professional dancer. From then on, the successes have been mounting. But the choreographer attributes that to luck rather than to extraordinary talent.

‘I’m lucky people recognise themselves in my work. Maybe it’s due to my different identities. There’s always a part of me that’s accessible to somebody, because in a certain way it is mathematical, or mystical, because it’s about cultural issues one feels for, or because of a certain level of entertainment. It’s not hermetic. I have a background in variety entertainment so I know how to keep the audience’s attention. It’s always an exercise to find the balance between something that keeps on attracting while giving it content and profoundness at the same time.’

Literally translated, Sidi Larbi means “Mister Arab”, and Cherkaoui “he who comes from the East”. For that, Eastam has become the name of the company he set up in 2012. ‘I like the paradox’, Cherkaoui says, ‘to be so white, sound so Flemish and still being named “the Arab”. It’s not easy to embody impossible combinations and I’m proud of that.’

Collaboration is always a cultural exchange, as Cherkaoui sees it. That was his experience with, among others, the British-Bengali dancer Akram Khan, with whom he made Zero Degree (2010), and with Maria Pagès, the flamenco dancer he produced Dunas (2009) with. With every person he has something in common but also something different. Akram Khan is Muslim too, but in his environment dance is accepted and the ties with his family are strong. In Cherkaoui’s case, he had to struggle with his family to get into dance and consequently had to cut himself loose from them. With Maria Pagès, he shares Moorish roots. In the show, they come towards each other, but then distance themselves again. The choreographer finds it an interesting theme. ‘There’s a moment of encounter and a moment of separation. There’s the resemblance and the difference, and that’s very normal’, he says.

Writing with water

Whether the public understands all his pieces or not is not an issue. ‘The problem with understanding is that we think we’re able to understand everything. There’s so much we can’t understand of each other, and that’s nothing out of the ordinary’, Cherkaoui conveys. ‘For a long time, I was mad at the world that didn’t understand me, until I turned the question around. It’s not like I understand everybody, I came to realise.’

‘Puzzle is a performance in which I run through the history of man in two hours. In the final part, the stones we use suddenly turn into a wall. A dancer is tagging and says he wants to make a doorway. The other dancers start tagging too, only they tag with water. What they are writing, one can’t read. That was a way to express that we can keep on writing, but in the end it is futile and they get shot nonetheless. But from every death, new life arises.’

‘Through my work I try to process things I can’t understand. I understand anger, misunderstandings, and the fact that people don’t understand each other. I turn away from that. If everybody would tell me to leave, I would, though other people might say: “But we’ve got every right to be here” and they too would be right. I realise that human struggle is part of human nature. My attitude is like a monk’s. I will defend my territory, but I also dare to move this territory.’

‘In art I’ve succeeded in realising a couple of things for myself and for a close group of people around me. I’m 37 right now. Emotionally and spiritually I’m at a whole different place, but I’ve created a temple to defend myself. I need this temple and I think this goes for everyone in their own way.’

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