All eyes in dance world on Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Summary

Can one of the most loved figures of contemporary dance restore the Royal Ballet Flanders to its erstwhile glory?

“I’m still as headstrong as ever”

One of Europe’s most celebrated contemporary dancers and choreographers will soon take over leadership of Royal Ballet Flanders. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui will succeed Assis Carreiro as artistic director of the company.

Carreiro was dismissed last August, leaving the company in an artistic upheaval, without a clear identity of its own.

Cherkaoui (pictured) represents the ballet’s last chance. He combines his new function with the leadership of Eastman, the contemporary dance company he launched in 2010. His right-hand man at the Royal Ballet Flanders will be Tamas Moricz, who is schooled in the ballet tradition.

The ballet’s repertory for the next 18 months had already been decided by Cherkaoui’s predecessor; after that period, he will take on the role of creator, as well as inviting fellow choreographers from outside the company to contribute. “We will have to create a whole new way of working,” he says. “But my enthusiasm at the prospect is stronger than my anxiety.”

Cherkaoui’s appointment sends an important signal. He is the first Belgian with foreign roots – his father is Moroccan, his mother Flemish – to lead one of Flanders’ major cultural institutions. As one of the most beloved figures of contemporary dance, he seems like the ideal person to break down the barriers between contemporary and classical and to put the Royal Ballet Flanders back on the map.

That, at least, is the hope of Kunsthuis Opera Vlaanderen Ballet Vlaanderen vzw, the umbrella organisation created when the opera and ballet fused early last year. Austerity measures led to the fusion; with additional income from sponsorships, co-productions and touring, management hopes to be able to increase artistic budgets. 

Cherkaoui was quietly reserved at the press conference announcing his appointment. He arrives at the company with no desire to overturn the furniture, he said. For him, contemporary dance and classical ballet are merely extensions of each other. 

If that’s true, then he’s the perfect man for the job: Since 2004, he has served as a guest choreographer of a foreign ballet company every season. From now on, he will be able to do that without leaving Antwerp. 

Flanders Today: Is this a new start for you?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Two paths have come together. From Les Ballets C de la B to Toneelhuis, I’ve felt at home in a lot of places. My own company became my laboratory, the child I raised by myself. That will always be my centre. But what I was missing was an anchor point within a ballet company.

My first production for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in 2004 was a revelation. It seemed to choreograph itself. The virtuosity, the sensitivity, the energy of the dancers opened my eyes and gave me a broader view on movement. A door opened that years before I had slammed shut.

Of course I’m coming in with my eyes open. The Royal Ballet Flanders has landed in a rut that it needs to get out of fast. Not everyone will survive, but other dancers will in turn be attracted to the new prospects. The first discussions brought clarity; there was a feeling of a real exchange of views.

How does it feel to be at the head of an institution for the first time?
I’m no good at institutional thinking; everything I do is outside the box. I hope to find the same kind of open-mindedness here. I’m still as headstrong as ever. But an institution is also a form of protection; it offers stability. I’ve put other things aside to take this on. If I’m going to Flanders Ballet in September, I’ll have four months to focus on the transition.

For the future, I mostly see possibilities. And while everyone is asking how I’m going to manage to combine everything, when I’m passionate about something, I keep on looking until I find a solution. Look, it’s not rocket science: There are more than enough examples out there of choreographers who manage to combine jobs.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity afforded by this appointment?
The reconciliation of ballet and opera, which can give the Kunsthuis a singular appeal. That will take time, but it can create some wonderful associations. Up until last year I never dared even think about opera. Then Shell Shock came to the Munt. For me, the solid presence of opera singers on a stage goes perfectly with the flowing movements of my dance vocabulary. Opera brings refinement to my work.

Photo by Koen Broos

Contemporary dance vs ballet: three questions

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s appointment as the new artistic director of Royal Ballet Flanders has brought rise to questions about the ballet’s past and future and whether or not he will be able to straddle two very different dance worlds. 

What can a contemporary dance choreographer do with a ballet company?
It comes as no accident that Royal Ballet Flanders has appointed a choreographer like Cherkaoui. Now that contemporary dance has become an art form in its own right, there are more and more international voices calling for classical ballet, as a historic art form, to undergo a revolution.

We’ve seen that from companies in Gothenburg, Lyons and Marseilles, as well as the Cullberg Ballet of Switzerland. The work of American choreographer William Forsythe, who built upon classical technique in the creation of a whole new language of movement, led the way in that development.

It’s one thing to create a contemporary choreography tailored to the requirements of classical dancers. It’s another entirely to ask a choreographer without ballet training to watch over the needs and technical excellence of a ballet company. Following the example of the Royal Ballet Flanders, Cherkaoui will share the director’s function with the classically trained dance teacher Tamas Moricz. Another plus point: Moricz is a long-time student and associate of Forsythe, and so will be in a position to bring his works, which helped the ballet make its name internationally, back to Flanders.

The question remains how Cherkaoui will manage to run both his own company and the 46-strong ballet corps. Eastman was launched only four years ago, but its production and touring schedule is already tough and its repertory extensive. On the other hand, Cherkaoui does live for his work, and it’s not at all unusual these days for directors to collect multiple posts: French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, for example, runs his own dance company in Los Angeles while co-ordinating the Paris Ballet.

This latest change of regimes allows Cherkaoui the opportunity to give the ballet back a face of its own. That’s important, following the fusion with Opera Vlaanderen, from whom the ballet has always sought to be separated, and following the image problems of recent years – sudden changes of management, financial mismanagement and a reduction in the scope of international tours.

Does Flanders actually need its own ballet company?
Since the Ballet Royal de Wallonie went down the contemporary route in 1991, Royal Ballet Flanders has been alone in representing classical ballet in Belgium. As a major cultural institution of the Flemish Community, it can count on a subsidy of €5.7 million a year without the need to argue its case every two or four years – not much in comparison to the budgets of foreign companies, but almost the whole of the subsidy available for the local dance sector.

No other company has dancers in full-time employment, whereas all the dancers of Royal Ballet Flanders have one-year contracts. However, the resources they receive don’t translate directly into visibility. The kind of venues the ballet requires are thin on the ground in Flanders. In addition, the ballet had the reputation in the past for financial mismanagement and for doing little to make and maintain links with the much-praised local contemporary dance scene.

Of course, ballet is a discipline that demands a great deal of time and resources. It’s impossible to perform a Romantic classic like, say, Giselle, if your corps de ballet is not perfectly in tune with each other.

The question of the existence of the ballet is actually a broader question of the cultural landscape. Cherkaoui will take on an ambassadorial function to give Royal Ballet Flanders more credibility as a major institution and, therefore, as the principal representative of dance in Flanders. Ultimately, renewal in the Flemish dance world, now as before, mostly comes from the contemporary side – the perfect example being Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s troupe Rosas.

What are the challenges facing the ballet in the 21st century?
The beauty of ballet is timeless. The question is: how do you reconcile the huge production apparatus and the specific requirements of ballet with the rapidly changing social and economic reality in the world outside? Royal Ballet Flanders has a very clear mission regarding repertory. There’s nothing wrong with that. But why not use that as an occasion to attract foreign companies and to create a new image for yourself with quirky, challenging interpretations of older works, as well as contemporary creations that Cherkaoui himself is perfectly capable of choreographing?

The limited budget requires difficult choices; it’s no longer possible to justify repertory for repertory’s sake. Cherkaoui’s international success and reputation make it possible for the ballet to become better known in Flanders and in Europe, as well as presenting the opportunity for a unique co-operation between classical and contemporary dancers.

Diversity will be another challenge for a company with an overwhelmingly Western repertory, a strict internal hierarchy and a predominantly white audience. Cherkaoui has already demonstrated, with his Mea Culpa created in 2006 for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, that classical ballet can accommodate social themes such as slavery and colonialism.

“Political thinking is inherent in my personality,” the choreographer said recently. “I cannot be other than the way I am.” The hope is that he is able to communicate that self-assurance to the ballet to allow it to develop a strong new identity of its own.

This article originally appeared in De Standaard in Dutch. Geert Van Der Speeten contributed to the interview with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The entire piece was translated into English by Alan Hope

Royal Ballet of Flanders

The Royal Ballet of Flanders is the only classical ballet company in Belgium. Based in Antwerp, it has long been considered one of the top dance companies in Europe.
Merge - The ballet company is set to merge with the Flemish Opera by 2014.
Budget cuts - The Australian-born artistic director Kathryn Bennetts is credited with reinvigorating the company after it languished in the early 2000s but left in 2012 due to budget constraints.
Award - The ballet company won the Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Company at the 2013 National Dance Awards in London.
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