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Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Interview by Haydée Touitou
Photography by Filip Van Roe

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

A million years ago, my best friend took me to a dance performance. We were still teenagers, but, having studied ballet and contemporary dance, he was accustomed to such shows. I wasn’t. Up to that point, I’d assumed dancing was similar to eating: everybody did it, sometimes alone, often together. If I was aware of ballet dancers, if I envied dancers in video clips, I wasn’t familiar with choreographers or contemporary dance. I wasn’t familiar with the feeling that first show left me with. A transfer had taken place between the dancers and me. All I wanted that night was to dance and never stop. It was 2008 at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, and that show happened to be Origine by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

The Belgian choreographer operates beyond, quote, unquote, contemporary dance, an expression he does not seem to fancy using. Or any other definition actually, as by attempting to define his art, it’s easy to realise how much it is in constant evolution, always in motion, permanently escaping any boxes you would like to put his practice in—‘a kaleidoscopic man’, as the artist Justin Morin writes in their book Pèlerinage sur soi (a possible translation would be ‘Self-Pilgrimage’). Justin, who kindly put me in touch with Larbi, also opens his introduction by stating, ‘I will have to get used to it, that man had freed himself from prejudice and easy labelling’.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui studied notably with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker at PARTS (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios), in Brussels, before being noticed by another choreographer, Alain Platel, who encouraged Larbi to create for Les Ballets C de la B in the early 2000s. Over the years, his work managed to exist outside a strict definition of contemporary dance, being nourished as much by theatre as by singing, and taking form in various shows, performances, films, and video clips. In Pèlerinage sur soi, Larbi explains that ‘we have a tendency to break out of reality, in order to put its bits into boxes: dance, theatre, singing … Those boxes too are then broken out of: abstract dance, minimalistic theatre, pop singing, traditional dance. We live in a culture of categorisation. However, all we need is to slightly move the boxes’ walls, spreading them or, on the contrary, tightening them, in order to create better-defined spaces, spaces that are fairer’.

For Larbi, the art he practises in fair spaces is meant to be rooted in transmission, but it’s also a reason for him to keep learning continuously; it’s a multidisciplinary artform that he conducts from his company Eastman and as artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium. One evening we spoke as he was at home in Antwerp. I wished I could do the interview in Dutch, I knew he could do it in French, but we settled for English.

Extract from Origine by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Why don’t we stay on the subject of languages. I wanted to ask you which languages were spoken in your home growing up?

I grew up here in Antwerp, Belgium. But my parents were always speaking French, my dad with his Moroccan accent and my mother with her Flemish accent. We would watch a lot of French TV, and then English came—Flemish people learnt English because everything was subtitled whenever we were watching, let’s say, a soap opera. We would hear the English and read the Dutch. So that helped us develop an affinity with English from a very young age. And then Arabic was around, but it kind of floated around me because nobody ever taught me Arabic, even though I’m Arab. I know words here and there, and I can kind of understand from the context what we’re talking about, but I have complete anxiety whenever I have to try and speak Arabic, because it’s just never been my language at home. So whenever I spoke to people about my culture, I spoke in French. Then I understand a bit of Spanish, I understand a little bit of German, even a bit of Japanese because I’ve worked a lot in Japan. Those are the languages that are around me.

What do you remember about your childhood home?

We were in Antwerp and we spent some time in a suburb there, and then we moved to a deeper suburb. I remember moments in my life—six years here, seven years there. It was always quite a long period. A big shift for me was when my parents divorced when I was 15 and I went to live with my mum. That created another opening to focus on myself, not trying to adapt to my parents but actually trying to find a space to become myself. That’s also when I started to dance in a more serious manner, when the different aspects of my personality were kind of coming together. It’s often the case for kids; between the ages of 15 and 20, they’re usually very self-obsessed. It was interesting because it happened with the divorce, and it gave me a bit more space to be and to understand who I was. As I am gay, it was a lot of extra pressure back in the day.

So we moved a few times and then I bought a home here in Antwerp, where I’ve been living for 21 years. I travel a lot for work, sometimes I’m gone for three months in a row. But I’ve kind of invested in this one little place that’s mine, that I’ve been renovating and shifting around, just to feel that I have something that belongs to me. It’s an illusion of course. The home for me is a way to protect myself, and it’s been very helpful in this corona period especially. I never knew why I was investing so much in this space, because I was never here, and then this year, with this tragic event, it suddenly made a lot of sense. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s why I’ve been creating this space for myself’. Because, actually, I was going to need it at some point.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

I have this image, dating back from when I was living in Belgium: I remember being amazed at how important home life is there. Is that something you would agree with, or is it just a caricature I have in my mind?

No, I think you really have the right mindset about it. I think there is something very specific here, maybe because the weather is sometimes so bad. It’s a culture—I mean, I hate the word culture—but there is something specific to Belgium because of the country’s history and the need to protect itself from the outside. I feel an anxiety in a lot of Belgians about the outside. Of course, you want to have fun and go out; there is a lot of that in Belgium too—it’s the land of beer. But at the same time I agree with you: people focus on their homes. Also, it’s funny how the city is built, because it’s very organic, it’s full of secret spaces. So you can have a house and suddenly there is a really long garden or something, and you wouldn’t know by looking at the front of the house. What I noticed in Antwerp specifically is that it’s full of little hidden gems. I’ve been very impressed sometimes visiting somebody and realising there’s so much inside. Some people are also very stylish here; it’s a city where a lot of people are creative and stylish with fashion, but there are also people like Axel Vervoordt, incredibly creative in the way they find a balance between the past and present, how they deal with the city’s medieval setting, how they bring it into the here and now. It can be a bit overwhelming, because it’s easy to think you have bad taste. When certain people have a bit of money, they can really get it right. They can also get it really wrong. It’s true there is a love for the inside, a love for the home, and people are sometimes proud to bring others inside, to show off their home, which is also a bit twisted. There is a bit of vanity to your inside space.

I remember in your book, Pèlerinage sur soi, written with our friend Justin Morin, you describe how different the switch was from spending all year in Antwerp and then going to Tangier, Morocco, in the summertime.

Yes, we had an apartment in Tangier and we had a bit of a holiday routine. It was very simple, very banal, going to the beach and then visiting some family members who were living a bit higher up in Tangier. It was a lot of Moroccan food; everything was always about preparing the food and eating it together. Prepare the next lot of food and eat that together. For me, with the ritual of the whole family being together and because I didn’t speak the language, I was always a bit shy. I kind of felt like the stupid one; I had to be there, so I was there, and I liked my cousins who could speak to me in French and translate or help me out. I always felt out of place and completely at home, all at the same time. But I also had that feeling in Belgium; I could visit the homes of typical Flemish friends and I would be just as lost and just as familiar with it. I could always see both sides, and so I was never completely relaxed, or never felt like this was my community. When I was young, about five or six, I remember my parents really doubting whether they wanted to live in Morocco or Belgium. I was open, I didn’t really have an opinion about it. I was a bit afraid of the language, but for the rest I was actually quite like, ‘OK, if that’s what’s going to happen, then that’s what’s going to happen’.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

In the book, you have a wonderful expression that could apply to what you are describing: melting together elements that are ‘allegedly incompatible’. That expression really resonated with me, and I wanted to ask you if never feeling completely at home helped you somehow to feel more at ease in foreign countries?

Absolutely. The fact that I had such an awkward youth helped me to manage other foreign environments much more naturally. Nothing ever felt exotic. I might have had some sort of culture shock in Japan in 1999, but it was gone the second time I went. In the 20 years that I’ve been going back and forth, I’ve started to know my way around places, even if I don’t have all the tools. You have one sense that’s missing, because you don’t speak the language, but at the same time you have all the other senses, which are super open because you need to figure out what to do. It has helped me; you’re kind of like a chameleon. It’s been a blessing to come from more than one culture; it gives my identity more perspective, and because I wasn’t born with just one angle I don’t think everything else is wrong or better. It’s just different. In the beginning it can be quite overwhelming to not feel completely embraced by your surroundings, but as an adult, that’s just what we all eventually have. It’s a form of maturity to realise you’re on your own and that there is a beauty in connecting to others, even though you’re on your own. I think it helps us to mature a little sooner, which gives you the possibility of exploring more within that.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

At the risk of asking you a naïve question, do you remember when you were first aware of what dancing was?

There were a couple of moments, in a way. The youngest moment was when there was music on, and my mum and dad were dancing along. They were listening to Andalusian music, there was a groove to it, and I could see them going along, I could feel that with them. So there has been something from a very young age, even though there wasn’t art in my life, in terms of the art of dancing. But dancing was there because it was part of the culture; it was part of the weddings I had been to in Morocco, it was present as a form of celebration, as a release of tension. Then I saw Fame, I think when I was eight years old. I was really impressed because they were studying dance. I couldn’t believe that existed. I remember thinking, ‘Is there a school for dancing?’ I was so jealous. I was like, ‘I want to go to school for dancing!’ I even have a picture; I’d seen Fame and suddenly I turned around and jumped, just as my dad was taking a picture. Everybody wanted to do sports, I just wanted to dance.

Then I started seeing hip-hop on television and started trying out what I was seeing. That’s how it went, back then especially. It kind of straightaway had an impact on you. So I was really young and had already started to see a tension between the language of Fame and the hip-hop, and I was like, ‘How am I going to put these things together?’ Even though I was not a dancer—I was just a kid—I was impressed by this physical expression and had started to feel like it was hard to remember the moves of this one thing while also being influenced by this other thing. If I ever improvised, I wouldn’t even know where to begin because it was just a lot of information.

Then when I was 14, I saw an old Kate Bush video. That really triggered the dancing again. I loved the spookiness of her approach, the way she was singing and dancing at the same time. It was like mime dancing. It was very contemporary, and I thought it was lovely and beautiful and crazy. So it came in waves. Then I saw Pina Bausch when I was 19 and knew that’s what I wanted to do. Suddenly I wanted to commit to something. Because I’d tried voguing, African dances, jazz dance, hip-hop, and everything felt only partially satisfying. When I saw Pina, I thought, ‘That’s the language I feel most comfortable in’, because of the way it also uses theatricality and other kinds of elements. I felt like it was accessible to me, in relation to everything I had as baggage. I never got to dance for her, but that was one of the things I really wanted to do at some point. And that’s when my life started to go in the direction of contemporary dance, because suddenly I could connect this deep artistic desire and also this deep desire for communication through movement. Much later I learnt about fragility and about the idea of taking off masks, or daring to reveal inner turmoil.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Before we go on, can I ask you what the Kate Bush video was?

It was ‘Wuthering Heights’! And then later, when she did ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)’, I was really sold on that video. I’ve seen it on repeat and every time I stop and watch it again out of pure pleasure. If you watch what I did for Woodkid, with the two dancers, it’s really informed by my love for Kate Bush. It had a huge impact on me back in the day; I loved the strength of the woman, the elegance of the man, the equality which was quite revolutionary. People thought the women had to do this, the men had to do that, and to finally see this kind of modern dance where there was equality between the genders was a real relief. Now there is so much more representation—it’s not that it’s mainstream, but it’s there. For me, Kate Bush was one of those magical beings who was able to be everything.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

When you were finally able to go to dance school, where did you study?

I had one year of studying with Marie-Louise Wilderijckx, who is a very specific ballet teacher here in Antwerp. She was my personal teacher, and she helped me because I had a lot of catching up to do in ballet. There were other teachers in Brussels, like Isabelle Becquet. They really invested in me and put in a lot of energy. They tried to get me to understand more about movement and would correct me and be tough with me. Then I went to the conservatory here for one year. From there, I went to PARTS with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, where I did one year, and then afterwards Alain Platel noticed me—there’s a long story with him. Eventually I ended up working for him, first as a dancer and then three years later he invited me to choreograph for Les Ballets C de la B. That’s when my career as a choreographer started officially in Belgium, in 2000, and I’ve been making work since then. Sometimes dancing myself still, sometimes just creating works for other dancers.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Was being a choreographer something you had envisioned when you started to dance?

I remember even when I was 15, I was already organising friends to come to my place and learn moves. I would teach the moves, so I always had that in me. Even when I was working with Alain Platel—he’s very much a director who empowers us to create our own moves based on the things that he wants to dig into. In a way, he kind of pushed all the right buttons for me to dare to become a choreographer. Though I must confess, every time I made a piece when I first started doing choreography, I wanted to quit afterwards. I was always like, ‘This was so emotionally draining’. It’s such a cliché as an artist to say that, but it really made me feel like I had nothing more to say afterwards. It took me years to get used to seeing work more as a way of saying part of what I have to say, rather than saying everything at once. So I’ve been able to create work where the focus is one specific topic I want to address. When I worked with Damien Jalet on Babel (words), it was about territory and language. We dug into that, but then afterwards with Puz/zle I started from scratch and wondered what stone is to me and how I relate to stone. In the beginning, I remember telling everybody I worked with that it was the last time. It was just so stressful. I’m very sensitive to feedback and I always felt misunderstood. Now I just accept that I’m going to be misunderstood. The first thing I say to young choreographers is, ‘Don’t worry that others don’t get what you do. It’s important that you get what you do, and they will catch up’. It might be that people get it right away, or people show you things that you didn’t see, or it might be that they get it much, much later on. And that’s OK. Artists really have a space to invite people into their world rather than create something that fits what other people want of you.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Speaking about the audience’s reaction, I have to tell you the first time I saw your work, it was Origine, and it was actually the first time I’d seen, for lack of a better word, contemporary dance. The only memory I have is just how much I wanted to dance afterwards, because it was so contagious to see the dancers. Is this contagious aspect of dancing something you think about when you create?

No, not really, but I love the fact that you pointed it out. I really never thought of it as something contagious, so it’s really interesting. What I do know is that sometimes I want certain movements that I make to be transmitted. I really want as many people as possible to pick it up. And I love complicated things; it’s not like the ‘Macarena’. You have to make a real effort if you want to get this. I loved that people would learn what we did in zero degrees with Akram Khan, but it needed to be an effort. Not because of flexibility, but because of the way it’s put together; it has a certain mathematical, tricky articulation.

But I love the fact that Origine has sparked something in you. The four dancers were lovely performers. One’s from South Africa, Shawn, and Tsuki is from Japan—we still work together today—and then Daisy’s from America, and Vala’s from Iceland. I really loved the fact that they’re from such far-away lands—far away from Belgium—and somehow we could bring them all together in one energetic flow.

With the music, I love working with a type that maybe doesn’t have a lot of dance connected to it, but somehow I see a dance in it. I was able to develop part of the work because I had the privilege of working with very beautiful music that somehow found a way to integrate itself with the dancing we created. It was never just made on top of the music; it wasn’t there to illustrate the music like some other choreographers would do—which is also very valid. I want the choreography to be able to stand on its own. Even if you take the music away, it would still feel worth watching. I love the multiplicity of stories where the lyrics are sung in a language most people wouldn’t understand, but, for those who do, it adds a layer. It’s a specific music from a specific time or place that some people will be able to pinpoint and others won’t, and they will just discover it.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

In Origine, the set design was supposed to represent home life. I am not sure I remember correctly, but was one of the dancers pretending another dancer was a vacuum cleaner?

Yeah! It totally happened. We were speaking with the dancers about the ways we use other people, and how sometimes people are used as objects. We were discussing how we can portray this or play with this cliché. I’ve been trying not to fall into any stereotypes for myself, and it’s been a real identity puzzle, or a Rubik’s Cube almost. Eventually I started to become this kind of ghostly nobody, because I’m unable to point to one thing. I know what I don’t want to fall into. I just enjoy undoing stereotypes as much as I can. Whenever someone in Morocco is really proud of me, then I say that I’m gay and I ask, ‘Are you still proud?’ Or are you suddenly afraid, because it’s illegal to be gay in Morocco right now? What should we do about this? What can I do, being half-Moroccan?

I love to provoke switches, like when I worked on the movie Girl by Lukas Dhont, which is about a transgender ballerina. I did the choreography, and I’m very proud of that movie. Even if I know some people in the trans community disapproved because we didn’t have a trans person play the role. But for me, in that movie, it was as much a dancer as a trans person. Victor, who played the role incredibly, was 15 years old, which is still an age of ambiguity. It’s not like a 30-year-old famous Hollywood actress taking a role away from a trans person. He was a 15 year old who’d never acted in his life, so it’s also a discovery of identity. There was something very authentic about his performance. On top of that, Nora, the person whose story it really is, actually cast him for the role. Nora decided that it was going to be this gay boy. So I respect it if she feels this person can actually play her. When I talk to friends in the trans community who are dancers, they understood the movie because they understood the obsession with the body was from a dancer’s perspective.

As dancers, we are very obsessed with physicality, especially in the ballet world. That aspect was triggering sometimes for members of the trans community who were not dancers. We are all part of the same LGBTQ+ community, but I like these discussions of why this time it’s OK, why this time it’s not OK. And I love that the new generation is very involved in all of that. It’s quite powerful. It scares me only on the level of tribalism—that people get into little tribes—so that would be my only advice to young people: don’t get trapped in your tribe. It’s good to have clarity as to who you are and what you represent, to define yourself if that helps you. But it’s also important to realise that we are all one, and we are all the same.

Apartamento Magazine - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
choreography, interview
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