Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a Flemish dancer, choreographer and opera director. He founded the contemporary dance company Eastman in 2010 and has been artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders since 2015. Trained by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Alain Platel, he is known for his intercultural dialogue and collaborations with many choreographers (Damien Jalet, Akram Khan, and more) and companies such as Paris Opera Ballet, Ballets de Monte-Carlo, or Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
© Rahi Rezvani

Laurine Mortha: Now that social and cultural activities are resuming, tell us about how the pandemic has affected you...

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: When lockdown was announced, I was auditioning candidates in Paris for Starmania for which I will create the choreography [a new adaptation of Michel Bergé’s 1979 rock-opera, directed by Thomas Jolly] and I had to go back swiftly to Belgium before the border closed. I had many ongoing projects and it was intense to undo all of them. We were supposed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Ballet of Flanders with The Rite of Spring by Pina Pausch and a new adaptation of Noetic, a piece I created six years ago. Everything was suspended and we had to think about how to organise ballet training in groups of six dancers. During the lockdown period, we worked with the Ballet on a “miniature” format, which are short movies staging one or two dancers and a musician. I created two of them: Murmuration, showing an empty theatre as a tribute to Baryshnikov’s White Nights and Pie Jesu, an ode to my mother and her relationship with spirituality to Fauré’s Requiem. With Eastman, we had to cancel the tours of Session and Nomad.

What is happening at the moment and what are you rehearsing?

Since the middle of July, I have been creating three solos with dancers from Eastman. It is a small format with only one dancer and one musician, so it is less risky than working with a group. We will perform these solos after the summer at Torino Danza and at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. It is more complex to work on reduced formats with the Royal Ballet of Flanders because small spaces can’t suit a “cruise ship” like a big opera institution (performances cannot break even with audiences limited to 200 people and health measures force us to keep distances of up to 5 metres between certain instruments!) Between September and December, however, we plan to perform one of my pieces, Faun, as well as Johan Inger's Brisa, as long as the health situation still allows this. We also have a project in the streets of Antwerp in October called Troost Parade (“Solace Parade”) with the film-maker Lukas Dhont, who shot the movie Girl on a transgender dancer, for which I created the choreography. I will also take part in a world premiere at Paris Opera Ballet in November, together with Damien Jalet, Mehdi Kerkouche and Tess Voelker, a young dancer from NDT. Opéra Garnier will be under renovation and the current stage will be extended forwards to provide a closer relationship with the audience. Exhibition and Pélléas et Mélisande will also be staged at Grand Théâtre de Genève in November and January. Finally, I am working on two film projects: Rebel with Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah and a movie by Joe Wright, with whom I worked in the past, on Anna Karenina.

On a more personal note, how were you affected by the brutal interruption of activities?

I have been absorbed by an intense series of actions, which have always compelled me me to move forwards and make choices – whereas I'm normally more of a slacker! When everything stopped and I found myself home alone, I went through different emotions: the satisfaction of being able to rest, a somewhat manic need to retain control (I sorted all my books by alphabetical order on my bookshelves!) and I thought a lot about the crisis. The health situation brought another traumatic experience back to the surface: I was in Japan in March 2011 when the Fukushima disaster occurred and I lived through the same feeling of insecurity and awareness of how fragile life can be. Being on my own also helped me to refocus, to reconnect with my identity in good as well as in bad days (without being able to blame other people or external factors) and to ask myself essential questions such as “if I die tomorrow, who would I like to have been?” More generally, I feel lucky at the age of 44 to have been able to work on so many and so diverse projects (contemporary dance, opera direction, films, collaborations with Broadway and Beyoncé). I also took singing classes during the lockdown, because it seemed important to me to keep studying, especially when one is getting older!

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
© Chris McAndrew

Has this crisis been an opportunity to get inspired? Many choreographers say that the crisis will make their work more radical: is it like that for you?

I like the notion of “radical art” and the desire to get straight to the point, but you can also be radical in kindness: be even more tender, attentive, empathetic, patient. We are now going through a time of very strong tensions in society, with radical positions taken on all subjects (including whether or not to wear a mask!). De-escalation and bringing together seem to me to be important issues. It’s always easier to be a Manichaean, to stand on one side or the other, than to defuse the bombs and work for a common existence. Likewise artistically, it is always more difficult to work with several people, but it is also what allows us to develop as artists. I learned a lot by working with Damien Jalet, Antony Gormley, Marina Abramovic, Dimitri Tcherniakov or Beyoncé. I am happy when I am defined as someone who brings people together, who seeks dialogue. I've tried all my life to define myself in order to exist: I have an Arabic name, white skin, I'm gay. As an artist, people have always liked to put me in boxes, I was considered a dancer when I started to choreograph, as a choreographer when I directed operas, and people often ask me what I am doing in the pop field (Beyoncé, movies). I have always looked for dialogue and meeting with people.

In this regard, Iolanta / The Nutcracker that you choreographed with Arthur Pita and Edouard Lock is an exceptionally successful example of artistic collaboration...

I'm glad you liked it! It was a very ambitious project, which mixed opera and ballet, with three associated choreographers. I learned a lot, especially thanks to Tcherniakov who was in charge of the directing and who is truly a genius. I liked the space he gave me. Even though we came from very different backgrounds, we shared a common perception of the music, which we both hear as very sad. This melancholy was a natural space of creation for me.

Why is it so important for you to work with other cultures?

We must constantly re-examine culture by confronting it with otherness and in the light of current issues. As artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders, I must of course write myself into the history of dance, but it is important to keep a dynamic relationship with this history: Jeanne Brabants, the founder of the company, created for it and forged its cultural identity. It is also important to re-examine what one might call "ballet dance colonialism" to take the best of it and go further. An example of this cultural "colonialism" of ballet is the gender duality, whereas there are many other genders in society. If it is not challenged every day, culture can become oppression. Mentalities change quickly: during lockdown, for example, we put online shows performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders including Mea Culpa, which I had originally created in 2006 with the Ballets de Monte-Carlo and which deals with the neo-colonialism of the diamond industry in Congo and child labour. At the time, audiences did not connect well with this issue, but when we took it up last year in Antwerp and put it online during the “Black Lives Matter” wave, the show had a lot more resonance. I’m very excited at the moment because I feel like we can cover more topics and put more things on the table. Breaking down prejudices is my biggest obsession… and it’s a job for life!

Translated from French by the author and David Karlin