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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Art as a Creative Paradox


There are few genres Belgium’s Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui hasn’t tried his hand at. Over the past 25 years, his eclectic approach has taken him from television to the Shaolin Temple, from voguing and African dance to the contemporary scene. In 2015, he also became the artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders – an entirely new challenge. He spoke with ICONS ahead of his first creation for The Royal Ballet, Medusa.


ICONS: When did you first feel the urge to choreograph?


Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: I think I was 15 already. I didn’t grow up in a high art-oriented environment: my parents didn't have a lot of money, and the only art that would come into our house was either traditional music from Morocco or TV things. I was very influenced by pop artists in general. I would learn moves from video and invite my friends from school to my house to teach them and rehearse. I started making little changes where I felt it would be interesting or adding choreography because in music videos there are parts where you don't see dance. I had to invent what was happening.


ICONS: Did you have a sense that choreography was a profession?


S.L.C.: I think I did because I bought a lot of VHS tapes that had interviews with the people behind the artists. I saw Vincent Paterson, one of Michael Jackson’s choreographers, and I thought: it must be amazing to do this. Then when I was 17, I got noticed at a local dance contest. The jury members came from the world of TV; one of them asked me to come and audition for their show, and I spent two years working for television. 

My interest only shifted to contemporary art when I was 19. In 1995, I won the Best Belgian Dance Solo, a dance contest in Belgium that was a little like “So You Think You Can Dance.” I was there as a jazzy boy, with Prince music, and I mixed a lot of styles, from African dance to voguing. From that point on, everything changed: I met Alain Platel, the company Damaged Goods, Wim Vandekeybus. They were very generous and attentive, and that's also how I got into P.A.R.T.S., Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's school.


ICONS: Did you learn about choreography from being in the studio as a young dancer?

S.L.C: Yes. There is a lot of information choreographers don't give, but here and there, there’s also information you can pick up. I must say that P.A.R.T.S really helped me because we learned composition, how to choreograph. Even if I often do the opposite of what I was taught, I know how you can build a structure. It started with the composition of music, phrases, counter-phrases, repeated elements, refrains... And before you knew it, you could create a whole symphony. 

I had teachers like Thierry De Mey, who was amazing, and we would analyze existing works. We learned about the way the body could move, from release technique to Forsythe’s geometry, Anne Teresa’s spatial awareness, Pina Bausch's emotional commitment to a movement. My biggest affinity was with Pina, in the sense that I really felt emotions were what got me into movement. I went on to work with Alain Platel, who is very much in the lineage of Pina, because all these choreographers are related to each other in some way, whether they were reacting against one another or not.


ICONS: You also worked as a go-go dancer. How did that experience influence you?

S.L.C.: Yes, I used to dance in nightclubs, and that helped me a lot in my career. The hardest thing to do is to please an audience who doesn't want to see you dance at all, and that's what you get there. You had to stay interesting, try and find ways to cast a spell and intrigue people, so they would want to know where it was going. It's also what’s kept me in touch with pop music in general, whether it was through working with Beyoncé or Woodkid. A part of me always appreciates their ability to reach a bigger audience.



ICONS: Do you find that there are things you learned, moved away from and later went back to?

S.L.C.: Yes. I think I work in waves, in phases, and sometimes I let go of certain elements. For instance, one of the things that I'm obsessed with is body language, the way people communicate – the little gestures you use when you're speaking, where the eyes go when you're lying or telling the truth. I've always been interested in how truthful we are, how much we reveal beyond the words we're using. There are works where I was really able to go into this, like zero degrees with Akram Khan or Orbo Novo for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. But at other points, as with Sutra, my focus was completely different. It was more about movement culture, in that case with martial arts and Shaolin Kung Fu, and the way in which it could be read as dance if it was organized in a specific way. I tried to understand their physicality instead of pinpointing it as exotic or foreign.


ICONS: You’re now the director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Does working in Belgium bring something out in you that is less apparent elsewhere?

S.L.C.: I think so. It's such a small country, and it stands between very strong, very different cultures, like Holland, England, Germany and France. There is also a strong colonial past in Belgium, and Belgium, especially Brussels, has a central role within Europe. It really has had an influence on the flow of dance coming from all over the world: the quality of Belgian artists like Anne Teresa and Alain Platel is also linked to the quality of the foreign dancers they're working with, who feed their art. People come from Argentina, the US, Sweden, Spain, Russia... When you have that, you're literally connected to the world.


ICONS: How does the question of diversity inform your role as artistic director of a ballet company?

S.L.C: It's a very good question, and a tough one. Diversity is also about opportunity, and that's the difficulty: how many opportunities you get. I remember that I wanted to join a ballet school when I was 17, but it was too late, I was too old. It was horribly frustrating to be half-Moroccan, half-Belgian, and to feel like you were not going to be given that chance. I had to find a private ballet teacher, who happened to be a prima ballerina from the Royal Ballet of Flanders and was open to misfits like me.

Gender equality is another element. If you analyze the work of contemporary choreographers like Crystal Pite or Hofesh Shechter, their movement vocabulary is the same for the women and the men. This hasn't always been the ballet tradition. Gender dissociation is also a form of social control: it's making sure that people behave in certain ways because they're represented in certain ways. We're all complicit in presenting to each other how to be, how to move. That's why people have such a hard time with works like Pina Bausch's Café Müller because she was changing the status quo. She was going somewhere else while using the language of ballet. People started calling it Tanztheater, but I question this distinction: she comes from ballet, from that kind of expressiveness, and she went further with the pantomime that is intrinsic to ballet. She pushed it so it would be closer to the actual theatre. People call it something else because they don't want to blur the lines.



ICONS: How has the ballet world shaped you as a choreographer?

S.L.C.: It's gotten me to look at the architecture of a movement, to understand that sometimes, even when I know what I want to say emotionally, it's interesting to make choices that are also linked to aesthetics in order for people to understand me better. People may want you to say things very bluntly, and at other times to do so in a much more articulate way. I don't really make that distinction for myself: I'm as interested in body language as I am in ballet. There are things I can do with ballet steps, and others I can do with normal gestures. 

The first time ballet really had an impact on me again was when I worked with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, with dancers like Bernice Coppieters, for In Memoriam in 2004. It was amazing to see how they would expand certain things I would propose with their ballet training. I've always been really nostalgic at that time because we were from the same generation, the dancers were close to my age. We were building together. It was the right place for me to fall in love with ballet again.


ICONS: You mentioned being very conscious of ballet's gender norms. As the leader of a company now, how do you approach them?

S.L.C.: I think programming can help. I try to take the dancers on a journey each season. Recently, there was a gala for one of our principal dancers who was leaving. I included Béjart’s Boléro because it was all men, but on the same evening, I scheduled Chronicle, which featured all the women. There's a strength to both works: in Chronicle, the women are actually fighting, and for me, that's similar to Boléro. Then when the dancers do Alexander Ekman's Joy, there is a community onstage between all of them: they can be as one. Next season, we're doing Pina Bausch's Sacre du Printemps. We've been working with the Foundation for the past three years to make it happen after staging Café Müller. I’m interested in the way the genders are separated in Sacre, yet share a lot of the movement. It's like a ritual.

There is also the issue of pointe shoes. For In Memoriam, my first ballet, I actually asked the men to wear pointe shoes too. I felt that if the women had to do it, I wanted them to do it too. Some could, of course, because they have really amazing feet. Sometimes, as a choreographer, you can make ballet a little more democratic. Everybody has to go through the same thing, and instead of bringing the level down, you bring it up. But it wasn't easy: we had to fight, some people felt it wasn't for them. It required a lot of diplomacy.


ICONS: You were the choreographer for Lukas Dhont’s film Girl, about a young transgender ballerina, Lara. The film and the casting were criticized by some transgender activists…

S.L.C.: It was such an incredible project to delve into the question of gender. We talked about what kind of movement we needed to give to Lara. The specificity of Girl was that the role was played by a boy. We're all thinking about equal opportunities, the limited options you have as a trans person to get a role, but it was also important that in the film a dancer was able to dance really well. We had found a transgender actress, but it was going to be very, very hard to get that person to really dance as well. Victor [Polster, who plays Lara] was just perfect, and he had the right type of femininity. On top of that, he was 15: he doesn't even describe himself as anything. It was very tricky. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't...

One thing that I always want to add, because I have trans friends, is that we're all part of the LGBTQ+ community. We know exactly what it's like to be dismissed. I know being trans, gay or lesbian is different, and we can create tribes among ourselves, but I do feel like we are a family. As an Arab, I can also tell you a lot of stories about the difficulties, the prejudice we encounter. I’m very sensitive to this.


ICONS: Do you think directors and choreographers in the dance world could do more to include transgender performers?

S.L.C.: Absolutely. When you're trying to stay yourself, like Chase Johnsey [the first non-binary dancer to perform female corps de ballet roles with English National Ballet, in 2018], it's very hard. People will tell you that we all have to adapt, but when it's your identity, it's very difficult to find a place where you belong. Contemporary choreographers have a tendency to avoid this issue because they usually already have a less gender-based movement language. That's something I really admire. 


ICONS: How have you found juggling between the roles of director and choreographer?

S.L.C.: It's very hard. It's all about managing emotions and time. Planning is everything. I'm not going to pretend I know exactly what I'm talking about, but it's almost like having kids and working. Both are full-time but somehow you have to understand when to do what and delegate. Finding ways to trust your team is important, as is accepting that you can't be everywhere at once. Technology does help: Orbo Novo is currently being staged in Norway, and I follow it through the videos they send me. The rehearsal director reports back to me. 

I do have to stay very stoic, and I've been studying ways to deal with my reality. I've always been interested in how to manage the mind. As an artist, I'm emotional, I'm very sensitive and scared. A lot of elements are outside my control. I'm both someone who goes with the flow and a control freak, so there's a lot of paradox in me, and Stoicism, as a philosophy, has really helped me. It was great to find a philosophy that was purely practical, not spiritual. I'm also vegan, I don't drink alcohol, I don't party. I live a bit like a monk, and that helps me manage the tensions that are constantly there. When dancers have a problem, sometimes as a director you're a little like a social assistant, even though they're truly great. They just look to you for solutions.



ICONS: How did you prepare before going into the studio for Medusa, your new work for The Royal Ballet?

S.L.C.: I was interested in the story for a couple of reasons: first, who am I going to make the ballet for? I’m making it for Natalia Osipova, and there is a history between us -- we've worked together twice. I've seen her perform many of her roles, and I thought her Giselle especially was incredibly beautiful. There is a certain madness in her, as well as both extreme force and fragility. I wondered what character would make sense for her. Also, from Faun to The Mermaid I made for Carlos Acosta, I've always been intrigued by mythological characters. I love nature and the animal world; it's often a starting point for me. 

I had followed the difficult conversation around rape onstage at the Royal Opera House. It's good that it happened, but I thought it was a pity that it came so late. People are starting to understand that their inaction means they can be complicit. In Medusa, there is rape as well, and I was intrigued by the challenge of choreographing that. I wanted to make it so that people could bear it and move forward to see the transformation this character goes through. Medusa changes nonstop: she is a beautiful, virgin priestess who gets abused, which makes her unsacred in the eyes of Athena. Athena punishes her because she is no longer a virgin, but how? By making her incredibly strong. She looks at you, and you turn to stone. She will never be bothered anymore because she is made into a monstrous, fascinating creature. I was interested in this empowerment of a victim.


ICONS: Did you consider not showing the rape at all?

S.L.C.: It's stylized. The rape happens onstage; you see the movement, but the way it's stylized – of course, it's not rape. It's a translation of that moment. The music and the mood shift, and it takes time. I have people around me who have experienced rape. I've heard lots of stories, and that input has informed how I want to set it up. I stay very true to my movement style, and it's the intentions between the two dancers that make it clear what is happening to her. You understand it's not what she wants, and she's unable to liberate herself from the situation. 

What's complicated with Medusa for me is that the one mistake she makes isn't that she's beautiful: it's that she believes in the gods in the first place. That would be my analysis. She thought that the gods would have her best interests at heart, which is why she gives herself as a virgin to Athena. Poseidon takes her, and she ends up being punished by Athena. The only thing she did wrong was to trust them. She should have been her own person and stayed away from these people in power because power corrupts.


ICONS: What is your creative process like with the dancers for work like Medusa?

S.L.C.: I look at the different physical possibilities of the dancers involved, and how they could interact with one another in order for me to tell this story. Since I only have half an hour, I had to make some dramaturgical choices. I wanted Perseus to meet Medusa before she became a monster, for instance, so there was an actual history between them. Whether the dancers are conscious of it or not, they also have input into the movement. They will interpret something I propose, and it can be better than what I did. Unconsciously, they're constantly suggesting things – I always pick up signs.


ICONS: Do you consider your work to be very collaborative?

S.L.C.: It depends. There are periods when I get extremely collaborative, for instance, if I'm creating with people I've worked with for ten years. They can read my mind, and the question even arises as a dance-maker: is a specific idea hers, his or perhaps mine, but fed back to me three years later? When people have worked with you for so long, they are a part of you, and you're a part of them. Generally speaking though, I listen to everyone. I learn from every place, every person, every critic, everything I read. I listen to the cleaning lady when she tells me it's boring. Sometimes other perspectives hurt, but they're very interesting. I look for the sources of these points of view, why someone would find something beautiful and someone else won't.


ICONS: How have you found The Royal Ballet’s dancers?

S.L.C.: What’s great in London is that they have a lot of exposure. They had already worked with Hofesh Shechter, Wayne McGregor... When I come into the room, I'm not that alien. I can see that in their bodies there is a lot of awareness linked to previous experiences. It was different when I arrived four years ago at the Royal Ballet of Flanders, where I felt that they'd done contemporary things, but within a certain genre of ballet. I could feel they didn't have a lot of experience otherwise. Now we've done Akram Khan's Giselle, so many works, so when I work with the dancers, they're very familiar with what I’m doing. The only thing I have to be careful about is that it doesn't become routine. As a choreographer, I have to stay on top of my game and keep surprising myself.


ICONS: You now have 20 years' experience as a choreographer. Do you find expectations have changed very much?

S.L.C.: I think what's wonderful is that people are more and more open to different things. Twenty years ago, people would maybe choose: I like this, so I don't like that. It's similar to the change in musical tastes: you can now like both classical and pop music. Now I can work with tango dancers, and they're fascinated by contemporary dance, and contemporary dance is fascinated by ballet, and ballet dancers by hip-hop... I love that ability to appreciate different qualities.


ICONS: Do you have any strategies for working with people who aren't familiar with your style?

S.L.C.: I use references that they have in their lives – that the movement has to feel like water, for instance. I try and tell them not to do what they're used to doing, and to accept that it's also interesting. Most of them understand that very quickly, so we can experiment and explore. Ballet dancers have worked so hard to have their shoulders and hips on top of each other, for instance. It creates this incredible stability that you need in order to do what they do. Of course, they can still dissociate these parts of their body, do other moves: they just have to choose to.


ICONS: What motivates you to keep making new work?

S.L.C.: I think it's linked to the fact that the world is such a messed up place. We always have this image of society going forward, and only forward, but we're not. We're going in circles and constantly repeating mistakes from the past. There are so many things that deserve attention, reflection, and perhaps need a piece of art to undo the knots that are being created in your stomach or in your mind.


ICONS: What advice would the Larbi of today give to young Larbi?

S.L.C.: To be even more open-minded than I was. I think there are a lot of things that I could have done more quickly if I didn't have convictions that held me back from developing certain skills. I was 30 when I realized some things that I could have realized when I was 20. I was so convinced that some things were impossible for my body, for instance, until I understood that they were possible – I was just doing it wrong. You can also close yourself off from the work of certain people because you feel it's not your cup of tea. Actually, it was absolutely my cup of tea: I was just too afraid of it. When I went into contemporary dance, I let go of a lot of work from the ballet world, until I went to Monte-Carlo and started to see the work of Jean-Christophe Maillot. It brought me back to the world of stretched legs and pointed feet, which I had completely forsaken before 2004. Even release technique – I did it when I was younger but I was very reluctant because it wasn't muscular enough. Now I use it all the time. A lot of the elements that make up my identity are linked to the identity of my dance ancestors. 


ICONS: Does it make it harder to develop a choreographic identity of your own?

S.L.C.: I've always been a bit of a chameleon. I'm very good at learning to abide by the rules of others – I grew up having to. But inside of me, there is a lot of information that is dying to get out. I'm 43 now, and I always think: come on, Larbi, be honest. Put it all on the table. Don't hold back. But I have to encourage myself to do that. I've had moments, like when I did Sutra when I really did what I wanted to do. Everybody thought I was crazy to work with Shaolin monks, and it was the healthiest thing I could have done at that point because I was so done with dancers. I had no more patience. At that moment, I just felt very alone. I felt like no one really understood what I was doing. I thought that I needed to go to a place where they might understand me and honestly, at the Shaolin temple, they understood me much better. 


ICONS: What do you think is constant about your work?

S.L.C.: I think a certain melancholy, a sense of displacement, the feeling of being at the margins of society. But I also realized, the more I talked with choreographers, that all of them feel that. People always feel like they don't belong. And I'm definitely communicating that.



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Acclaimed choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui presents Medusa, his first work for The Royal Ballet in London, UK. Inspired by the Medusa myth, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has reinterpreted the narrative for this new ballet which is set to the music of Henry Purcell with electronic additions by Olga Wojciechowska. Casting includes Royal Ballet Principals Natalia Osipova as Medusa, Matthew Ball as Perseus and Ryoichi Hirano as Poseidon and Royal Ballet Soloist Olivia Cowley as Athena.  Set design is by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the Royal Opera House Production Department, with costumes by Olivia Pomp and lighting design by Adam Silvermann.  The ballet will be live-streamed, to cinemas on Thursday 16 May


Within the Golden Hour / Medusa / Flight Pattern
Wednesday 8 – Tuesday 21 May 2019
Evening Performances 8, 9, 15, 16, 21 May at 7.30pm and 18 May at 7 pm
Matinee Performance Saturday 18 May at 1.30pm
Live Cinema relay Thursday 16 May 


Tickets available from the Royal Opera House Box Office +44(0)20 7304 4000



Video sample of  Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's past work -  a trailer of Stoic:



More about Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and his company Eastman can be found at:


Photo credits:

Portrait of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui - photography by Rick Guest
Firebird (2015) - photography by Filip Van Roe
Fractus V (2015) - photography by Filip Van Roe
Icon (2016) - photography by Mats Bäcker
Puz/zle (2012) - photography by Koen Broos
Session (2019) - Co-directed with Colin Dunne, music by Michael Gallen - photography Koen Broos
Stoic (2018) - photography by Mats Bäcker

Interviewer: Laura Cappelle
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc. May 2019 © All rights reserved.