Calm after the storm: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui leads ballet through 50th season


The artistic director of Flanders’ famous dance company, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui reflects on leadership, empathy and multiple identities

Golden jubilee

“Birthdays are always tricky,” says Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. It’s mid-week in Antwerp and mid-season for Ballet Vlaanderen, which is in the midst of celebrating its 50th anniversary.

It’s a time for reflection, certainly, but not a time for living in the past, insists Cherkaoui (pictured). In planning the season, “we wanted to stay true to ourselves, to make sure that we didn’t go into some faulty kind of nostalgia. At the same time, we thought it was important to acknowledge history.”

To that end, the ballet has published the book 50 jaar Ballet Vlaanderen, a history of the company in words and images. In terms of the season’s programme, old is new again. Popular productions are being reprised, others are new, innovative productions of classic works.

“Like Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, for instance,” says Cherkaoui, “things that I really felt, from the beginning, would be important for the company. Finding the work that kind of resonates with how I see the company today. For the 50th anniversary, I was looking for that.”

A new lens for an old story

It’s also Cherkaoui’s five-year anniversary as the company’s artistic director, and the 10-year anniversary of Eastman, his own contemporary dance project. Considering what’s on his plate, you would think he’d be rushing through an interview, nervously checking the time.

But he isn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. From the still opulent café in Antwerp Opera – closed now until a new manager can be found – he is the epitome of calm. While his words come quickly – jumping from one topic to another as links form in his mind – his voice, his body and his mind seem completely, utterly relaxed.

“I try not to burn myself out by being just everywhere because that’s not me, and it’s not going to be good for anyone,” he says, matter-of-factly.

I’m pretty good with contradictions and understanding someone else’s perspective

That’s one of the reasons why he has handed over the ballet’s next big production to a guest choreographer. After he and his team selected the piece with care, he hand-picked the right person to recreate it from the ground up.

Rasa should prove to be a perfect instalment in Ballet Vlaanderen’s anniversary season: A ballet with a contentious past transformed into a self-aware present. It is a new production of La Bayadère, a 19th-century ballet by French choreographer Marius Petipa and hailed as his masterpiece.

It is the story of an Indian temple dancer and the warrior for whom she pines. Her love is requited, but powerful outsiders have designs on them both, leading to romantic tragedy.

While La Bayadère continues to be popular, it has also become controversial in 21st century concerns about appropriation and exoticism. Cherkaoui asked Argentinian choreographer Daniel Proietto to rethink the ballet, and – with the help of Indian Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa – he has recreated it as Rasa (pictured above), confronting the troublesome aspects of the original while keeping the passion intact.

This respectful approach to a piece without taking away any of its power is one of the strengths Cherkaoui has brought to Ballet Vlaanderen. Having worked extensively in Asia, including with Shaolin monks and in celebration of Japanese manga gods, Cherkaoui brings a level of cultural sensitivity to the ballet that it has never seen before.

“We were talking with the dramaturge of the house, and La Bayadère came up, and I was there with my but, but but…,” he says with a laugh.

Right place, right time

Some of his insights come from cultural immersion and collaboration, and some come organically from his own multiple identities: Flemish, Belgian, Moroccan, gay. “I’m pretty empathetic,” he admits. “I’m pretty good with contradictions and understanding someone else’s perspective, even if it’s not at all like mine. I’ve always had to have that skill, even as a kid, being half Moroccan and half Belgian. I’ve always had to explain the other side, give people some sort of other angle to a certain reality. I do every job with that.”

Ballet Vlaanderen was in a turbulent period when Cherkaoui took over. Australian Kathryn Bennetts – credited with taking it to its current world-class status – walked away in 2012 when it was decided that the ballet would merge with the opera.

Her replacement, Assis Carreiro, was neither dancer nor choreographer, and eventually the dancers – one-third of whom exited the company – submitted a motion of no confidence to the board.

You have negotiate with yourself. Who am I going to be today? Am I going to be the diplomat or am I going to be the visionary?

The next choice had to not only be more appropriate but put everyone’s fears to rest. Cherkaoui ticked a lot of boxes. He was from the ballet’s hometown of Antwerp and spoke its language. He had an international career, a background in numerous styles, including ballet and a stellar reputation as a choreographer – but also as a person.

“But what mattered was what I was going to do with all of that,” he says. While some pundits thought he was too married to edgy contemporary dance to effectively direct a repertory ballet, the choice has paid off in spades for Ballet Vlaanderen. “It’s the calmest it’s ever been right now,” he admits.

At the same time, he downplays the period before his arrival as par for the course. “This company has always been turbulent. That’s one of the things that I learned when I worked on this 50th anniversary book, that there was always something. From the moment this company was created, it has been in a whirlwind. It has never stopped.”

‘No one is an island’

Until now, it would seem. So what did he “do with all of that”? “I’m quite diplomatic, and I’m patient,” he offers. He’s also backed up by an incredible team. He mentions company manager Kiki Vervloessem and dramaturge Koen Bollen by name. “No one is an island,” he says.

As a team, he continues, “we try to be attentive to any kind of potential problem, something that could get out of control. And we’re trying to be very transparent. That helps a lot, when you can put everything on the table, when nothing is hidden.”

Leadership, though, “is complicated,” he concedes. “People want paradoxical things from leaders. They want them to be open-minded and to listen, and at the same time they want a strong line to follow. And these things are incompatible. You have negotiate with yourself. Who am I going to be today? Am I going to be the diplomat or am I going to be the visionary?”

Of course it’s not just his collaborators that have expectations. The audience does, too. “People think artists can say whatever they want, but actually it’s much more complicated than that,” he says with a smile. “It’s a real negotiation with your surroundings every day. It was the same for Jeanne Brabants.”

He’s invoking the name of Ballet Vlaanderen’s first artistic director. A pioneer in Belgian dance, the company would very likely not have existed without her. Born in 1920, she had to leave the country to study dance because there simply were no options here.

She eventually started the ballet school, still in Antwerp to this day. She died just a few years ago at the age of 93. Cherkaoui met her a few times.

“There’s a really beautiful quote where she talks about how she became the director,” he says. “She was in a dance piece, and she was playing the back of the donkey. And she said: ‘To go from the back of the donkey to becoming the director of Ballet Vlaanderen, there was quite a long way’.”

Cherkaoui laughs. “There will never be enough books written to describe what that past was! And I can kind of relate to that. I really know what she means.”

Rasa premieres on 25 January in Antwerp and runs until 2 February. It then moves to Ghent from 7 to 12 February
A word on tickets: While a quick look shows that there are very few seats left to any performance of Rasa – or even the rest of Ballet Vlaanderen’s season – it’s wise to check back a few days before every performance. Sometimes tickets are reserved for VIPs and then released if they are not needed.

50 jaar Ballet Vlaanderen (Dutch, €49.99) is available from by Lannoo, in local bookshops and from the ticket office at Antwerp and Ghent opera houses

Photos: Cherkaoui ©Dries Segers, Rasa ©Filip Van Roe