Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's ballet premiere comforts a world under duress


For Antwerp choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, every fall is an opportunity to rise up, again and again

Long-awaited homecoming

Antwerp choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has created his first piece for Royal Ballet Flanders, the company now under his artistic direction.

The choreography Cherkaoui wrote for the new Fall is set to music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and is being staged with a previous work of his, 2009’s Faun, as well as two pieces by leading Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen, 1975’s Four Schumann Pieces and 1997’s Solo.

This mixed bill guarantees not only interaction between different generations of dance choreographers, but also between the different moods of the times in which the pieces were created. “For a repertory company, it’s important to offer these kinds of dialogues between different zeitgeists,” Cherkaoui explains.

Though the pieces of van Manen, now 83, are more static than those of Cherkaoui, 39, they share a mutual interest in group dynamics and innovation. “Today, his 1975 choreography may look ‘classic’, but back then it was revolutionary,” Cherkaoui says. “Just like van Manen, I’m driven by the question: What do I have to bring to the stage now?

“At this moment in time I want to give solace to a world under pressure,” he says, answering his own question. Pointing out that he sees a lot of tension and anxiety as well as ignorance, he says: “I feel we cannot digest the information overload any more, so I’m offering a moment of contemplation. Hopefully it will come with some understanding.”

Fear not, want not

Does Fall also play on the idea that we’ve arrived at the point at which our civilisation falls? “I haven’t looked at it that way,” he admits. “But that’s a nice way of putting it. On the other hand, if we understand our fears, they can drive positive action.”

As a choreographer and director, Cherkaoui himself has had to find ways to deal with the apprehensions of others. This year, three out of 14 members on the Royal Ballet Flanders’ board of directors voted against his appointment. “Change always brings tension. Some people were afraid, but they would have been afraid of anyone,” he reflects. “Luckily, I didn’t take it personally.”

The knowledge that most choreographers helming ballet companies today have roots in the contemporary scene also helped. “Often choreographers also come from other disciplines. Look at the Belgian scene: Wim Vandekeybus was a photographer first, Alain Platel a remedial educator and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker trained in classical dance before she went minimal.”

When a dancer is afraid of making a certain movement, it’s my responsibility to convince them their body is perfectly trained to do it

- Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

In Cherkaoui’s view, this type of metamorphosis is typically human. “I saw the same thing when I worked with the Royal Danish Ballet. The new director Nikolaj Hübbe came from a Balanchine background. As a result, he encountered a lot of resistance.”

For him, this sort of opposition springs from ignorance. “If you don’t know, you can be afraid of people.” That why he sees it as a big advantage that he’s already worked with foreign ballet directors who have waded through similar waters. “I often call them to ask how they would solve a problem.”

Aside from an increased workload and budgetary concerns, according to Cherkaoui, creating a choreography isn’t that different from steering Royal Ballet Flanders as an artistic director. “Both are the solution of a complex puzzle,” he explains. “Developing a choreography, I have my eureka moment when the dancers understand me and I am able to take away their fears. When a dancer is afraid of making a certain movement, it’s my responsibility to convince them their body is perfectly trained to do it.”

Experts in falling

For a physically challenging choreography like Fall, this type of reassurance proved especially crucial. “The idea behind the performance is the fact that falling is a natural thing. It comes with gravity. The question is: Do you always stand up? Do you always land back on your feet again?”

Having developed strong reflexes himself, Cherkaoui knows what he’s talking about. “It’s called experience, isn’t it? Dancers are experts at falling and getting up again. For them, every fall is an opportunity. In Fall, we show the capacity of the human body to rise again, with a lot of lifts and rolling motions.” Fittingly, Pärt’s music is also part of the 2013 Hollywood movie Gravity.

How does Cherkaoui's very physical choreography connect with the melancholic, spiritual mood of Pärt’s music? “His repetitive compositions are more complex than one may think at first,” he explains. “Just like my choreography, the music has an accumulative quality and unfolds gradually, making you curious after the next step. There’s a constant transformation, spreading nuances and tiny differences, just like a wave, or the track of a falling leaf. You know, there’s a whole process of discolouration before a leaf really disappears.”

It’s this permanent evolution Cherkaoui had in mind when he opted to set Fall to the composer’s “Fratres” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” compositions.

We show the capacity of the human body to rise again

- Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

His new role at Royal Ballet Flanders felt like a homecoming for Cherkaoui. “Finally, I am able to do in my home town of Antwerp what I previously did for ballet companies in Stuttgart, Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.”

Throughout his life, entering all sorts of dialogues has been key to major steps in his career: pursuing a degree in translation studies, studying at De Keersmaeker’s P.A.R.T.S. school, and establishing his own Eastman dance company internationally. “My entire life, I’ve been this sort of ambassador for diversity,” Cherkaoui says. “Born in Antwerp with an Arabic name to a Moroccan father and a Belgian mother, we spoke both French and Dutch at home.”

“It’s not necessarily my aim to leave my mark here, but I do want to keep on making my work with a certain calligraphy. I want to reconcile dancers, choreographers and others, but building on what others before me started, maybe with some more focus on the international aspect. I have a very strong feeling that precisely because the Ballet has been through a rollercoaster of experiences, there’s space to do things.”

22-25 October, Opera Ghent, Schouwburgstraat 3
30-31 October, 5-10 November, Opera Antwerp, Frankrijklei 3

Photo by Filip Van Roe

More performance this week

After intense rehearsal sessions at the Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul and cultural site Matterhorn in Borgerhout, Antwerp choreographer Marc Vanrunxt brings four young Turkish dancers to the stage in a piece that explores his fascination with time, space and politics. 27 October, Kaaitheater, Sainctelettesquare 19, Brussels; 28 October, CC Berchem, Driekoningenstraat 126; 29 October, STUK, Naamsestraat 96, Leuven; 30 October, De Spil, Spilleboutdreef 1, Roeselare 

Canadian Stage • Stan Douglas
Would you like to see actors on stage while a black-and-white 3D film is simultaneously projected on stage? Then this latest piece by the discipline-crossing African-Canadian artist Stan Douglas is for you. His new piece takes you back to a post-war Vancouver where gangsters clash with corrupt policemen. (In English) 29-31 October 20.00, deSingel, Desguinlei 25, Antwerp

Are we not drawn onward to new erA • Ontroerend Goed / Spectra
This latest play by the boundary-pushing theatre company led by Alexander Devriendt does exactly what its title suggests. Like a palindrome, it takes you forwards and backwards, while William Basinski’s groundbreaking “Disintegration Loops” are played live by the Spectra Ensemble. 4 November 20.30, CC Berchem, Driekoningenstraat 126; 14 November 20.00, CC De Grote Post, H Serruyslaan 18A

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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