Requiem reborn with Eastern-inspired take on traditional mass

Summary

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s bold reimagining of Fauré’s Requiem will see dancers from Royal Ballet Flanders share the stage with Opera Vlaanderen’s Chorus for the first time

Renaissance

From collaborating with kung-fu monks to celebrating Japanese manga gods, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s extraordinary works are all about breaking boundaries. His latest – his third original production as artistic director of Royal Ballet Flanders – is no different, as he sets his bold choreography to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, which was first performed in 1893.

Fauré’s requiem – traditionally, a Mass for the repose of a dead soul – is unusual as the genre goes. The Frenchman was an agnostic, and – though his parents died soon after one another around the time he started it – he claimed that he wrote it “for pleasure”.

At any rate, his most famous large-scale composition is surprisingly optimistic: free of the bluster and heavy religious overtones typically associated with the funereal mass.

Cherkaoui’s Requiem will premiere in Ghent as part of the triple-bill East. The follow-up to West, which launched Royal Ballet Flanders’ Borderline season via American greats like Merce Cunningham, it presents the work of three choreographers straddling the borders between East and West.

Playing with boundaries

First on the bill, Kaash is an early piece by British-Bengali choreographer Akram Khan, rooted in the ancient Indian dance form Kathak. The ballet will dance a short version of the full-length ballet, which explores Hindu deity Shiva, with contributions from Anish Kapoor (scenery) and Nitin Sawhney (soundtrack).

Secus, meanwhile, sees Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, director of Tel Aviv’s Bathsheva Dance Company, play with the boundaries between exaggeration and understatement through his trademark dance language, Gaga.

I felt there could be a connection with my music, and I immediately wanted to make it even more intimate than the original

- Composer Wim Henderickx

Arising from Naharin’s faith in the healing powers of movement, Gaga relies on dancers unlocking their body’s unconscious actions. The work’s notably diverse soundtrack marries Bollywood and The Beach Boys.

In keeping with the theme, Cherkaoui’s own contribution is far from a simple interpretation of Fauré’s decidedly French music – with Flemish composer Wim Henderickx creating a new, Eastern-inspired orchestration of the score. “We had wanted to work together for a very long time, as we share each other’s passion for the East and West, for these different cultures,” says Henderickx.

Artist-in-residence at Antwerp’s deFilharmonie, he has previously explored Indian ragas and created a tantric cycle inspired by the Far East. While it was Cherkaoui’s passion for the Requiem that dictated its selection, Henderickx came around to its charms.

“It’s not like Brahms’ Requiem or the other big ones, but rather very intimate,” he says. “In that sense I felt there could be a connection with my music, and I immediately wanted to make it even more intimate than the original.”

Something new

He initially set about adding in Eastern instruments like the qanun or oud, but soon realised that wasn’t going far enough. After finding his way into the piece through its iconic “Pie Jesu”, which inspired a lament of his own, he began afresh with new intent.

The final version now begins and ends with Henderickx’s own music, featuring various interventions along the way. “The whole piece became something new,” he says. “Of course it is based on the Requiem, and I didn’t touch Fauré’s melodies or harmonies, but, on the other hand, it’s a new project. The music turns into another world, into a contemporary world that is also inspired by the Middle East.”

I wanted to bring a lot of people together … to suggest the inside of the human soul

Cherkaoui’s works often have an explicitly political bent: in Requiem’s case, Fauré’s artistic vision becomes a springboard to explore modern concerns. The performance will be staged against an abstract backdrop representing a slum, a devastated city – or perhaps a tortured soul.

 

In this sense, it functions as a kind of counterpoint to Philip Glass’s Mahatma Gandhi-inspired opera, Satyagraha, of which Cherkaoui has just created a new version featuring dancers from his company, Eastman.

Satyagraha will play at Opera Basel during Requiem’s run – the Flemish Opera will perform it in future – and will offer a political response to crisis in place of Requiem’s more interior exploration of human loss.

Despite its focus on the inner world, Requiem will draw on an unusually large cast. Avant-garde Antwerp-based collective HERMESensemble will perform the work live, with rising French-Algerian soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul juggling the classical content and Eastern arabesques. For the first time, the dancers of Royal Ballet Flanders will share the stage with Opera Vlaanderen’s Chorus and Children’s Chorus.

“It’s a very big production,” says Henderickx. “I think the ensemble is nine musicians, and then there are a lot of dancers, a lot of choir members, and I also added a children’s choir to keep it gentle.”

He wanted to bring a lot of people together, he says, “not in the kind of bombastic musical atmosphere that’s often done with this piece, but to suggest the inside of the human soul”.

Open atmosphere

The collaboration was a new experience for everyone involved – and, for Henderickx, a very liberating process. “Working with other art forms, and especially with dance and theatre, you are more open. You dare to do different things,” he says.

“If it’s a concert piece, you almost don’t want to touch the masterwork. It’s something you approach only with great respect. That was also the case with this production, but I felt completely free knowing that it was a combination of dance and music.”

While such unusual cross-pollination – and the heavyweight theme – might overburden a dance work, Henderickx is confident that this won’t be the case. “There’s this whole big machine of singers and musicians, but it all works seamlessly,” he says.

“I think that’s the quality of Larbi, too, to create an atmosphere that is open – for the dancers, but also for the singers and musicians. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s very natural.”

18-22 March, Opera Ghent; 12-19 April, Opera Antwerp

Photo: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui oversees rehearsals of East
©Ignacio Urrutia

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