In 2022, Flemish choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui took the reins at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. Trained by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Alain Platel, Cherkaoui is known for his intercultural and interdisciplinary exchanges. He has worked with numerous other choreographers and companies including the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Paris Opera and the Ballets de Monte-Carlo. He founded contemporary dance company Eastman in 2010 and directed the Royal Ballet of Flanders between 2015 and 2021.

Laurine Mortha: You're joining the Grand Théâtre de Genève as Director of Ballet, following on from Philippe Cohen. What made you want to take up this torch and write this new chapter in your career?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: There were many reasons. For a start, it was a return to my roots, because when I started out, I had the good fortune to work with the company as a choreographer. In 2005, when Philippe Cohen was in the early part of his directorship of the company, I created a show called Loin. It was a show that brought together many of the elements fundamental to my method of choreography and it was danced by a fabulous group of artists – at the time, I was the same age as them and we established a real complicity together. When Philippe asked me to take on the artistic direction of the company, I was touched because it was a kind of rite of passage. Philippe wanted the artistic direction to be taken by a choreographer who could create new works and continue to develop the repertoire. Another reason was my desire to work once more with Aviel Cahn [the director of the Grand Théâtre de Genève], with whom I have had the chance of collaborating artistically and professionally at the Royal Ballet of Flanders. And finally, on a more personal note, I wanted to explore life outside my native Belgium, in a company where I felt welcome.

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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
© Joris Casaer

Why were you particularly keen on working with the dancers at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève ?   

I have already worked with the company and I have kept up friendships with some of the dancers from then. I have also always been struck by its incredible international outlook, by the company's very cosmopolitan origin, but also by the geographical location of Geneva, a crossroads city between France, Italy and Germany. Although I was born in Flanders, I sometimes feel like a foreigner because of my background and the way my life has gone. In Geneva, at least I am a real foreigner! I often feel like a travelling director, shared between several cultures, and in Geneva, I am happy to find real multiculturalism. It also seems to me that the same openness exists in this company in terms of gender: it has never focused on the opposition between men and women, unlike many repertory companies which can still be stuck in older patterns. Finally, I am delighted to be working more closely with a smaller, more tightly knit ensemble than the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

What themes are you hoping to develop during your first season as artistic director?

First and foremost, the season is an ode to Philippe Cohen, with the idea of honouring his legacy and making a natural transition. This summer, the revival of my pieces Faun / Noetic was part of a logic of organic continuity. For this season, I want to explore the theme of meeting and overcoming borders. Geneva is a crossroads city, so I want to work on the theme of encounters between cultures, between genres, between dance styles, and even more broadly between the arts. This first season will be strongly focused on the dialogue between choreographers and visual artists, and the way dancers navigate between these two worlds (both as performers, but also as parts of a global artwork). For me, it is a way of thinking about what a repertory company is in the 21st century: how does it relate to its past and the present world? This idea of decompartmentalisation of the arts will be the common thread of the season and there will be other projects for the seasons to come.

What are these projects ?

I would like us to be more present in Geneva by creating new artistic collaborations with the incredible cultural institutions of the city, such as the Association de Danse Contemporaine, the Comédie de Genève, the Ballet Junior, and others. Aviel Cahn and I also have a desire for a more dynamic interaction between opera and dance, notably by creating a choreographed staging of an opera. 

You are currently working on a new work for Geneva, entitled Ukiyo-e, which is due to premiere in November. What can you tell us about it?

The new work will be the second part of a double bill, together with choreographer Damien Jalet and his piece Skid, created in 2017. My work will be a response to his, which featured a steeply sloping stage and dancers subjected to gravity. Damien and I both have a strong connection to Japan, which unites the two pieces. Skid was inspired by the Shinto ritual ceremonies of onbashira matsuri, dangerous mountain descents on large tree trunks. In response to this idea of gravity, I work on the idea of “ukiyo-e”, which means “floating world”. In the creative work, I imagine the energy of the bodies as that of water: bodies carried away by tsunamis or by calmer waves, bodies tossed in all directions as after a storm. The costumes will be created by the talented Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato. Alexander Dodge, with whom I collaborated in 2009 on Orbo Novo, will design the set, for which we have imagined staircases that echo the sloping stage of Skid. These stairs allow you to go up and out after the fall of Skid

Two of Damien Jalet's choreographies will be coming into the company’s repertoire: Skid and Thr(o)ugh. What made you want to bring these works to Geneva?

I've known Damien's work for over twenty years. It's both unique and very radical. His choreography is committed, but in my view, it also evokes the universe of science fiction, with frequent collaborations with visual artists like Kohej Nawa. The visually compelling experiences one witnesses give the impression of going beyond the human (for example with Vessel, created in 2019). Paradoxically, going beyond the human is often what society demands of humans: to work like machines, to respond quickly and conventionally. Damien's choreography is a reflection of that society. The two pieces that will be part of the new season are fairly different from each other. Skid is more contemplative: the dancers' bodies descend from the stage like angels from heaven and struggle to rise against gravity, against this nature that drags us down. When I discovered this piece, I too had the feeling that my heart was falling. Thr(o)ugh was conceived one month after the terrorist attack at the Bataclan, which had a strong impact on Damien. The show sounds like an alarm, the men's bodies are thrown into a form of frenzy, as if they were participating in a crash test. 

Next spring, you'll also be entrusting a new creation to the choreographer Fouad Boussouf. Why this choice?

When I discovered Fouad's work, I was dazzled by his relationship with the public. He develops works that create interactions with the audience of exceptional human warmth. There is a kind of goodness in his pieces, a goodness that is often wrongly perceived as naive – when it is so much easier to be a cynic (that includes me, by the way!) than to work at dispensing something of the order of sympathy and generosity. Fouad's multiculturalism, the intersection of hip-hop and contemporary dance, but also the almost folkloric ritual aspect of his work are also themes that fit well with what I want to be my first season in Geneva. But above all, it's his generosity towards the public that seduced me and that I hope will do the same to the Geneva audience.

Translated from French by David Karlin.
This interview was sponsored by the Grand Théâtre de Genève.