THE DANCERS BRINGING BACK TANGO
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui — dancer, choreographer, thinker — is a man of the world. Jane Cornwell meets him in Belgium
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-