Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui — dancer, chore­og­ra­pher, thinker — is a man of the world. Jane Cornwell meets him in Bel­gium

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

THE cou­ples dancing tango in the late-night mi­lon­gas of Buenos Aires paid scant at­ten­tion to the slen­der man with the rim­less glasses and neatly trimmed beard sit­ting watch­ing them. As is the way with tango, that pas­sion­ate Ar­gen­tine dance, they were caught up in the mo­ment, their spines straight and bod­ies close, the light­est pres­sure di­rect­ing their moves but never in­ter­rupt­ing their em­brace.

“What at­tracted me to work­ing with tango was its in­ti­macy,” says Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Moroc­can-Bel­gian chore­og­ra­pher hailed as one of the most im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary dance­mak­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. “There are many ways of re­lat­ing to an­other per­son but tango is all about touch.”

He smiles across the ta­ble here in An­twerp, north­east Bel­gium, where we’ve met in a down­town brasserie serv­ing fresh mint tea in tall glasses, not far from the city’s grand train sta­tion and just around the cor­ner from his house.

“If I sud­denly held you now it would seem bizarre,” says Cherkaoui, 38, in his flu­ent, rapid­fire English. “But in mi­lon­gas” — des­ig­nated tango clubs — “it is nor­mal. A man can in­vite a woman to dance and she’ll aban­don her­self, an­swer him with her body, be­come a ve­hi­cle of an en­ergy that goes way be­yond any choices she’s mak­ing. I found that fas­ci­nat­ing.”

He felt lonely, he says, in the clubs he vis­ited by way of re­search for Mi­longa, a tango-in­fused piece open­ing next month at the Syd­ney Opera House and cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a cast of 10 tango dancers from Buenos Aires, two con­tem­po­rary dancers and a five-mem­ber live band. In de­vis­ing a work that uses the tango form to speak about re­la­tion­ships in gen­eral, Cherkaoui was ob­serv­ing its ten­sions as well.

“Con­tem­po­rary dance is the only (dance) medium where we can look at some­thing un­com­fort­able and be com­fort­able look­ing at it,” he says. “We know it is part of the process to learn more about our­selves.”

In­spired by the moves of Paula Ab­dul, Michael Jack­son, Kate Bush and other singer/dancers he saw on MTV, Cherkaoui got hooked on dance as a teenager. He took classes in bal­let, tap, hip-hop and jazz. He showed off at dis­cos. Talent-spotted, he danced go-go on TV: “I had that sexy, happy, So You Think You Can Dance men­tal­ity. But I wanted to go deeper.”

Aged 19, he put to­gether a solo per­for­mance that fused vogue­ing, hip-hop and African dance, and won a com­pe­ti­tion set up by Bel­gian chore­og­ra­pher Alain Pla­tel, founder of sem­i­nal Ghent-based col­lec­tive Les Bal­lets C de la B. The con­tem­po­rary dance world beck­oned. Cherkaoui en­rolled at PARTS, the dance school set up in Brussels by an­other noted Bel­gian dance-maker, Anne Theresa de Keers­maker. He per­formed in a hip-hop troupe on the side.

“I found a whole other realm where people were us­ing fields such as film and math­e­mat­ics, as well as more com­plex emo­tions, to fuel their move­ment pat­terns and make art,” says Cherkaoui, who as a child would draw clouds filled with things he saw in­side them. “I re­alised I didn’t have to com­pete all the time when I was dancing. I could be my­self.”

The son of a Bel­gian-Catholic mother and a Moroc­can-Mus­lim fa­ther, Cherkaoui grew up in An­twerp speak­ing French at home, DutchFlem­ish at school and say­ing his prayers from the Ko­ran in Ara­bic. His in-be­tween­ness con­fused people: even the act of hold­ing his fa­ther’s hand in the street, this light-skinned boy with a North African man, drew strange looks.

“My dual up­bring­ing has def­i­nitely fed my work,” he says of an oeu­vre marked by dif­fer­ent ideas and me­dia; by col­lab­o­ra­tions — of­ten duets — with a wide va­ri­ety of per­form­ers; by themes in­clud­ing iden­tity, re­la­tion­ships, spir­i­tu­al­ity and re­li­gion.

“More im­por­tantly, my back­ground helped me un­der­stand my sin­gu­lar­ity. We all want to feel part of a big­ger whole, to have a tribe to be­long to; as a gay man, I know I can tap into that part of my­self and have an in­stant sup­port net­work.” He pauses, smiles. “But be­ing a kid of mixed ori­gins, and feel­ing like I was the odd one out, meant I re­alised quite early on that we are all alone even­tu­ally.”

Cherkaoui was mak­ing work for Les Bal­lets C de la B — his first full-length piece, 2000’s

Rien de Rien, made him a crit­ics’ dar­ling from the off — and for yet an­other re­spected Bel­gian chore­og­ra­pher, Wim Wan­derkey­bus, when he be­gan look­ing around and de­con­struct­ing no­tions of com­plete­ness. No cul­ture was “pure”, he con­cluded. No so­ci­ety was free from out­side in­flu­ence. “Ev­ery time you meet some­one you change be­cause you’re ab­sorb­ing some­thing of them,” he says. “Af­ter that, there’s al­ways a fight be­tween dis­tin­guish­ing yourself and ac­cept­ing the other.”

He gives the ex­am­ple of Bel­gium, where a fierce lin­guis­tic apartheid op­er­ates be­tween Flem­ish-speak­ing Flan­ders in the north and French-speak­ing Wal­lo­nia in the south. On both sides, a mix of reli­gions and an­ces­tries — Dutch, French, Ger­man, Span­ish, Swiss — lend rich­ness to the cul­ture: “Which height­ens our abil­ity to con­nect to one an­other.”

Add Bel­gium’s rep­u­ta­tion as a mag­net for for­eign dancers, thanks in part to the main­stream at­ten­tion gar­nered in the 70s and 80s by in­no­va­tive bal­let chore­og­ra­pher Mau­rice Be­jart, who had a school in Brussels, and it’s no won­der Cherkaoui’s work bears a myr­iad in­flu­ences from else­where.

His com­pany East­man, which he founded in 2010, is largely made up of im­mi­grants — in­clud­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally, Aus­tralian dancer James O’Hara, whose fluid moves are show­cased (along­side those of fel­low Aussie Ni­cola Lea­hey) in Val­tari, a video Cherkaoui chore­ographed in 2012 for Ice­landic band Sigur Ross.

His eclec­ti­cism is there is the com­mis­sions he un­der­takes for com­pa­nies in­clud­ing the Paris Opera Bal­let, Lon­don’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre (where he is an as­so­ciate artist) and Brussels’s il­lus­tri­ous opera house La Mon­naie De Munt, for which he is about to chore­o­graph

Shell­shock, a World War II-set dance or­a­to­rio com­posed by Ni­cholas Lens and fea­tur­ing lyrics by Nick Cave.

“It keeps life ex­cit­ing to have dif­fer­ent things go­ing on,” says Cherkaoui, who over­saw the chore­og­ra­phy for the 2012 film Anna Karen­ina with Keira Knight­ley, and who was re­cently in Lon­don to ac­cept an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Pro­duc­tion for Puz/zle — cre­ated with 11 dancers and mu­si­cians in­clud­ing Cor­si­can men’s choir A Filetta and Le­banese singer Fa­dia Tomb El-Hage.

A num­ber of Cherkaoui’s pro­duc­tions have vis­ited Aus­tralia, where he’d love to do a res­i­dency: “Aus­tralian dancers have a strong earthbound tech­nique, very fluid and ag­ile. You can feel that they’ve walked in sand with bare feet.”

Zero De­grees, a duet with Bri­tish-Bangla-

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