Marina Abramovic Damien Jalet Riccardo Tisci Element Noetic Faun Boléro Ravel Orchestre Grand Théâtre de Genève Ballet
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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
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November 15, 2023
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Elements, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Take On Humanity, Dance And Creation

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has settled (for the time being) in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, where he is currently the director of the Ballet. In collaboration with Damien Jalet, Marina Abramovic, and with costumes by Riccardo Tisci, the artist presents his show Elements. While you get your tickets, meet the artist!

Dany Niederhauser: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us. Your journey into dance is quite unique because you started at the age of sixteen. Could you tell us more?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: One of the first things I realized was that dance is a form of celebration. When I saw my parents dance as a child, it was often because everything was going well. When I was young, I was very quiet and more of a drawer; that was my way of expressing myself.

Around the age of 14-15, I reconnected with my body during puberty and felt the need to find my physicality. And I love sport, but not the competitive aspect of it, or the idea that there had to be a loser. For me, dance was a space where we came together, where there was no competition. It was at that moment that I started imitating artists. I was a big fan of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and all the pop artists. I saw many people expressing themselves through movement, and it attracted me.

Then when I was 15 or 16, I started looking for dance classes, and at 17, I was lucky enough to be noticed and recruited by a dance company for television. So, while I was still in school, I was already working as a dancer on TV, and in the evenings, I was dancing at a nightclub. I then discovered contemporary dance when I was 19, and I felt that I was meant to do that. It allowed me to address more challenging and concrete issues.
D: Your art is described as transcending artistic, geographical, and gender boundaries. How do you incorporate elements from the West, the East, and other influences into your choreography? How do you manage to create such artistic diversity while maintaining harmony and formal beauty?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: It all comes back to my origins. My father is Moroccan from Tangier, and my mother is Flemish and Catholic. I went to a secular school where the curriculum mostly focused on science, Latin, Greek, and mathematics, all of which were part of a very refined and intelligent Western culture, but it tended to give very little space to whatever culture came from the East.

As a child, I also watched a lot of TV, particularly Japanese anime with deep philosophical themes, Shintoism, and Buddhism. I was drawn to Hong Kong films, Bruce Lee, and Hollywood movies, exposing me to American culture. Now when I start to create a performance, it is natural for me to try to harmonize all these elements because they are all part of me and who I am. If there is an element missing, if it feels incomplete to me, then I need to work with artists from elsewhere. I need to work with multiple perspectives to create a whole that is as inclusive as possible.

D: You are one of those choreographers who are changing things in the highly structured world of ballet and dance. What traditional beliefs or conventions would you like to see changed to allow more openness, diversity, and forms of artistic expression?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: The former director of the Grand Théâtre de Genève, Philippe Cohen, who was in charge for 19 years, already tended to emphasize that dancers on stage were human beings, and there was no need to divide them into girls and boys. I felt comfortable taking over a company that already had this philosophy.

It's true that in classical ballet, gender roles can be very challenging for many. It's important to understand that there is more to identity than just A and B. This is something I would like to see put into practice in classical dance. Some classical dance directors are working on this, making superhuman efforts, but there is also still a lot of fear and resistance.

I don't have this problem at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, as the repertoire is always new and contemporary, and I work with choreographers who are aware of these gender issues.

It's also important to remember that historically, classical ballet had a very colonial approach and background. It's a dance that overruled all others. At one point in Europe, people believed that classical ballet was the basis for all forms of dance, which is just false. In hip-hop and street dances, the bases come from the people, and the people inspired the aristocrats to dance as well. They adapted things to make them supposedly more "refined" and fit into the codes that reassured them. We must also address the racism present in the selection of dancers. When we want to train individuals in ballet, there is a great deal of racism that needs to be completely deconstructed. We need to change the image of the pink tutu and white slippers based on white bodies. It needs to evolve, and there are many artists in this world working hard to make progress. I am very grateful and proud of them.
D: You are presenting the Elements performance at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, consisting of three pieces: Faun, Noetic, and Boléro. Could you explain the meaning of these three pieces and their relationships to each other?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: One essential thing to note is that all three pieces were created with music played by an orchestra, which holds everything together. In terms of the music, two of them are well-known compositions. Faun is set to Debussy's L'Après-Midi D'Un Faune, Boléro is choreographed to Maurice Ravel's music, and the score for Noetic is by Szymon Brzóska, a young Polish composer.

I created these different pieces before becoming the director of the Ballet of Flanders in 2015. It was a very productive phase in my life when I was solely an artist, without the added roles of director, manager, social worker, or administrator.
Faun was created in 2009 in England, Boléro was a collaboration with Damien Jalet, a choreographer with whom I have been working for 23 years. It was a true joint project. And then I created Noetic in 2014.

Faun is a very intimate, animalistic, and erotic duet, yet it retains its innocence. I wanted to explore a kind of innocent sensuality, as eroticism is often associated with perversity or danger. I wanted to show that sexuality can be innocent and that these two creatures can sensually discover each other while enjoying how they revolve around one another.

Boléro is more of a galactic piece, like a constellation. Damien Jalet and I aimed to establish a democracy in the choreography and show that the center can be everywhere. The eleven dancers we worked with at the Opéra de Paris in 2013 were all principal dancers. We wanted them to coexist, forming a sort of constellation orbiting one another like a galaxy. Marina Abramovic, who was involved in the stage design and significantly influenced the concept, led us to develop the performance with mirrors, enabling the choreography to be viewed from two different angles. The eleven dancers become twenty-two, completely changing the perception and experience. We also collaborated with Riccardo Tisci for costumes that are entirely transparent in the color of each dancer's skin, creating the impression of seeing their skeletons underneath. The beautiful embroideries are somewhat reminiscent of Mexican Day of the Dead skulls, delicate and almost like flowers. It combines a strong aesthetic with a slightly morbid touch, like a danse macabre.

This is also why it's called Elements One part is focused on the earth and the forest, the next is more galactic, and finally, Noetic is much more abstract.

This third part addresses gravity and its impact on an object moving from point A to point B, highlighting how it never moves in a straight line but always follows curves due to the way things impose on each other, constantly diverting energy. With Noetic, I also felt the desire to engage with the audience. The costumes are very binary, with skirts for women and three-piece suits for men. At one point, certain parameters change, and we see a boy in a skirt or a woman with a man's silhouette. It's so organic that people often don't even notice the transformations. Antony Gormley, who worked on the set design, provided me with slats that can connect at both ends to create a circle. This allowed us to create a flat world, like a kind of floor marking, which, at a certain point in the performance, creates curves and circles resembling molecules on stage. All the dancers together create the world through all these lines connecting from start to finish.

These three pieces all delve into the world of humanity, addressing significant questions about the past, present, and future. They encompass a relationship with tradition while pushing for progress, aiming to be a part of that journey.
D: How did it feel when the Paris Opera called you to recreate Boléro?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: I said yes, along with Damien Jalet, because it was the final year of Brigitte Lefevre as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, a position she held for 27 years. I knew how much she had invested in the company, striving to present classical and traditional dance while also giving contemporary creators the opportunity to work with a high-quality company like her dancers.

When she offered me the opportunity, I felt a certain responsibility because it was her last year. In my earlier years, I was used to working with my own dancers, and I didn't accept invitations from other companies. It was only in 2004 with the Ballet de Monte-Carlo and in 2005 with le Grand Théâtre de Genève that I was asked to create for a repertoire company for the first time, becoming a choreographer for dancers I didn't know. I realized that it was fantastic to do so and a great opportunity.

So, about ten years later, in 2013, when the Paris Opera approached me, it was more like "The Paris Opera is finally waking up!" , but I only agreed when Brigitte made it clear that it was her last year. I was deeply touched because it held symbolic value for me. I like to do things when they have meaning in my life at that particular moment. Life is too short to make choices that don't seem right for oneself.

This is also one of the reasons I wanted to work with Damien Jalet. I didn't want to work alone; I wanted to be surrounded by people I admire and love. Damien and Marina [Abramovic] were artistic kindred spirits who could take the lead and drive things forward when I was more in a phase of reflection or contemplation.
D: What impact do you aim to have on your audience through your work?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: It depends on the piece, but for some of them, I hope the audience questions themselves, learns something, opens their eyes, and realizes that there's more to see and understand from someone else's perspective. As artists, we often bring our own viewpoint, which is as wide as we can perceive life, but will always be somewhat limited. It's just one perspective, and it takes millions to describe the real world. However, a personal viewpoint can be interesting to share. When I was young, I learned a lot from other artists. Through their perspective, I could see the world with more love. I try to create things that allow the audience to fall back in love with humanity and believe that it's worth waking up the next morning. There is a lot of empathy in my work.

Sometimes people view a performance as something to consume, and I want to say, "Let's stop doing that." Instead, let's be curious about the world that an artist presents to us. When I was younger, I was very critical, noticing everything that "wasn't right," and that's why I started my own projects.

But then, I saw incredible performances by Christoph Marthaler, Pina Bausch, and Alain Platel, and I thought that was the exact right vision for this specific piece of art.
As an audience, we are here to enter someone's universe, not to tell the artist how they should have composed their work. And an artistic vision can be drastically different depending on the person and the place.

I worked with Chinese Shaolin monks who practiced kung fu, martial arts, and Buddhism. Our performance Sutra toured Europe between 2009 and 2011, and we had a show in Antwerp, Belgium, my home town. Antwerp has a beautiful cathedral decorated with Rubens' paintings, that I found magnificent. However, the Shaolin monks found them abhorrent and horrible. They saw them as literal death and suffering. It struck me because I realized that in their representations in China and their temple, bodies are never portrayed in the same way. What I found beautiful, they found terribly ugly because they saw death, suffering, and torture. It was contrary to their philosophy.

I always want to tell the audience, "Be generous, be gentle, be tender, and the world and the work you see will be gentle, tender, and generous with you." In the world, we all have opinions, and sometimes it's very violent, and you need a gentle ethos to overcome all of that. You have to transform that violence into something that has a more just value, and turn violence into something gentle and tender. Right now, that's what I'm seeking in my work; tenderness.

D: If you could go back and give advice to the young Sidi Larbi who’s just starting to get interested in dance, what would you tell him?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: In fact, I wouldn't have many pieces of advice because I am who I am thanks to what has happened to me. I might say, "Don't take things too personally." I used to think that criticisms were directed at me when sometimes they’re just a reflection of the person saying them. Most people aren't very good at seeing others.

That's why when I perform in front of 600, 1000 people, I wait to see what the audience will notice. I know what's happening on stage, I've set everything up. But I love when people tell me they noticed a particular detail, when they find the little pearls I've hidden in plain sight. Sometimes, I concealed parts in French Sign Language for those few people who understood it. When we were in France, there were things in Japanese for the few people who spoke Japanese in the audience. I wanted to strike conversation between people, have them be curious and ask others.

The only advice I’d really give would be to find soulmates who can open up the world for you. Get out of your comfort zone; the world is vast and complex. There are intersections where identities meet on unique levels. Unfortunately, today we live in a world where the search for truth is completely lost. Everyone has their own idea, their own thing, and is content with it.

The good thing for me is that as an artist, I can create my own world. I can create on stage whatever I want, however I want, with as many people as I want. It's not for nothing that I found my freedom in this profession.

Do not miss your chance to see one of the representation! Get your tickets here!

Image courtesy of the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Boléro Rehearsal Pictures by Magali Dougados
Faun Pictures by Gregory Batardon
Noetic Pictures by Gregory Batardon


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