In this londondance.com interview, choreagrapher Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui talks about working with monks at the Shaolin Temple, talking Buddhism with Antony Gormley, and the influence Janet Jackson, Pina Bausch and others had on his dance career.
Above photo credit: Koen Broos
For several years dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was part of the Les Ballets C de La B collective. In 2005 he collaborated with Akram Khan to make zero degrees, along with artist Antony Gormley and composer Nitin Sawhney, which has toured the world until recently.
Born of Flemish/Moroccan, Catholic/Muslim parents in Belgium, he is open to many cultural influences and has a creative base at Toneelhuis in Antwerp. His latest project took him to the Shaolin Temple in China and now he has brought some of the warrior monks to Europe, where the world premiere of Sutra takes place at Sadler's Wells on 27 May 2008. Between rehearsals he told us more about this unique new work.
How did working with the monks at the Shaolin Temple come about?
My desire is always to go somewhere else. I'm one of those people who has a hard time repeating themselves so having worked in Europe for a while, I felt like I really needed to move on. My work has always been a bit of a search for a moral code - trying to find what is the right behaviour to have. In a sense I'm very 'zen' - but at the same time I'm very 'not'. A Japanese producer friend Hisashi Itoh asked me 'what are the things you love' - and I was talking about yoga, singing and about martial arts. He had a contact with the monks of the Shaolin Temple and offered to introduce me.
My first intention was just to go there to meet them, not to work with them. I went in May last year and I had an incredible experience. It was only for five days but I really felt suddenly home: I felt home. It has to do with very simple things. I've been vegetarian for 17 years, I never drink, I never smoke - I don't do any of those things that are very common in my culture. In Belgian culture we drink beer all the time and in Arab culture they smoke and eat meat. So in my daily life I always felt a little bit like an alien - and there I am in the temple where suddenly vegetarian food is the norm - and they drink tea and they respect life. And also they're very disciplined with their bodies. The way they train I could relate to and the search for peace within the mind through meditation were things I'd been touching upon and there I found some brothers in that kind of thinking.
So I started talking with one of the warrior monks (there are monks who pray and there are the monks who are warriors and do kung fu). Master Shi Yan Da is their leader. He's 29, we're the same generation, so its been a bit like working with Akram [Khan]. Even though he didn't speak English, we had a translator and we could see in each other's eyes that we understood each other. The interesting thing for me was that he was a monk, but he was an ambitious monk. He had the desires of an artist - he loves to do calligraphy, to play music. He's really very keen on formations in martial arts. For me animals have the perfect movement - they are totally in sync with their muscles, their skin tissues and their bones - it's just one thing, whereas humans are a bit fragmented - animals know how to link everything. So when I started to talk about emulating animal movement in my work, he understood all that because they also look at the animal. They have the technique of the eagle, the tiger.. So slowly we got along more and more and thought maybe it would be interesting to do something together - maybe to make something with the warrior monks who are used to performing kung fu - but always in a certain context - a show off, show piece sort of way. I really don't judge that - I did that sort of thing when I was 17. It has its function - its popularity is not for nothing, life needs that, but I think life needs more than just that.
And how did the other partners in the project become involved?
I started to talk about it with Antony Gormley. I knew that he had studied Buddhism for three years and we had been talking about working together again after zero degrees. Usually how I work, I have people who I'm fond of and who I'd like to find a context for and suddenly this project seemed the perfect context for Antony.
I'd met the Polish composer Szymon Brzóska after he came to see Myth four times. What linked us was melancholy. He really felt the melancholy of Myth. He gave me some of his music and I loved it - it's so beautiful and profound, it was really moving so I started to talk with him. Then I thought this would be the ideal combination. Antony's work is very stark, all about the essence of things, of space and time, something quite absolute and very abstract and Szymon's music is very melancholic and very emotional. I thought that could fill the body of Antony's work. And that fits with the monks who have the serenity and sheer power, with muscles and bones, this energy. So it all came together - this is all the things I love.
Usually you collaborate and workshop productions with your performers - but how did you do that with no languages in common with the monks?
I couldn't work with the monks in the same way - but at the same time, with some of them I did actually do that - especially the youngest one Dong Dong - a child monk who is eleven. We have small replicas of the adult size boxes that we are using in the production - and sometimes I was playing with Dong Dong to see what are the formations we can make. It became like a chess game between him and me. We had a dialogue going on, even though I didn't speak Chinese, nor he English and I had that with many monks, some sort of personal relationship. I didn't just tell them what to do, we decided together what would happen.
When did you first get interested in dance?
When I was 14 or 15. Because of my social background the only dance I'd see was in variety shows on TV. At school I was good at languages and mathematics, but then I felt that I need to move. I was very shy and didn't know how to express myself. When I saw artists like Janet Jackson and other '80s pop artists doing routines where they all moved together, that really attracted me. I want to move as well, so I just started imitating it. One day I was doing a dance contest with friends after school and there was someone from TV there who invited me to audition. So I prepared something I learned from TV, auditioned, got in and then I met the professional dancers in this company. They told me 'you're a good dancer, but you need to take dance classes' - I said 'Aah, OK'. I was so far away from that world. So suddenly I started to do jazz, ballet, hip hop, flamenco, tap, a bit of everything. That's when I really started to 'learn' dance. I got into a higher school for dance in Antwerp. Suddenly I found modern dance like [Martha] Graham, [Jose] Limon, this was new information that I really liked. Also the teachers were very much like 'you need to study three years here and you'll be a dancer' and I was 'Nooo, I'm already a dancer, I've been working on TV and I'm earning money, dancing. I'm a dancer!'
Who/what were your earliest dance influences?
There was a dance contest in '95 which was for the Best Belgian dancer. It was organised by Alain Platel. Anyone could enter and my ballet teacher said you should do it - she really believed in me. I made something. I had started to make choreography - I'd mix this, with this, with this and make my own work and then & people said 'this is contemporary dance you're doing' and I said 'contemporary what'? I only knew the traditional forms, I didn't know contemporary.
Wim van de Keybus was on the jury for the contest and he came to talk to me afterwards and I didn't know who he was. He introduced himself and said he was a choreographer -and I said 'ah yeah, me too - I also make stuff' and he said 'yes I can see that'. There was another person connected with the school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and they said suggested that I should go there. Suddenly the world of contemporary dance opened up.
I met the work of Pina Bausch -which I thought was incredible because it was so emotional, so aesthetic and the movements were so lyrical. At the same time there were social issues being addressed & the male/female relationship was so polarised. I really liked that, because it reminded me of my father & mother. I could relate to it, you knew it wasn't fake. Sometimes when I saw say the ballet Romeo & Juliet, I felt it never is like that, whereas with Pina Bausch it's real male/female interaction.
And then I saw some of Alain's work - which was very harsh for me, very uncomfortable. It reminded me of a kid, being a low social class - I want to get away from that. I told him that - 'your work hurts me'. I saw Wim van de Keybus' work which was very animal like -so when they were moving, I suddenly saw my cat - and that really inspired me.
And Trisha Brown, which was all Release Technique, so I saw the skeleton and all the anatomy classes I'd taken in her movements.
And last but not least, William Forsythe, whose mathematical way of structuring, you know, drawing circles with the elbow and the head - was really work I could relate to as a mover.
Music is an integral part of your work as well...
Singing in particular - polyphonic singing and the oral tradition of music. Patrizia Bovi is the leader of Ensemble Micrologus [who perform in Myth] She saw two of my pieces in 2003/4 in which I was using ars nova 14th century music and she proposed that we should work together. I was her biggest fan, had listened to her work a lot.
When I was around 17 I was only in to pop music and then when I was doing ballet I was listening to baroque and then slowly I was looking for the roots of beauty in music, so more and more I went to older music, back through the centuries. In my latest piece Origine, I use Hildegarde of Bingen music from the 10th century.
I've always been looking for the roots of music and how it has influenced future music. One of the reasons I do it, is that I think we are so overloaded with pop music, even though I really love it. I really like Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliot - and many producers also are extremely intelligent and really know what they are doing. But I do think that there's much more - and there's a history and a tradition that we shouldn't forget. So anything that's almost forgotten I like to grab it and put it on stage. I think if medieval music was more popular then maybe I'd do more on pop music but because it's not I feel almost it's my duty. It should also be performed correctly - sometimes it becomes very flattened out -there's a function to this music and it shouldn't sound like anything else, it needs the right technical and historical knowledge. That's why I like to work with people who really know - because I don't feel like a specialist.
You've recently given the last performances of zero degrees with Akram Khan. Why did you decide to bring it to an end?
We could have gone on for ever - we may still do it again sometime. It was more like the empty tea cup - you know, you need to empty it in order to fill it again! Akram and are friends, so we keep on working together anyway. I saw bahok twice in New York - and he had seen Myth also. I always feel like we have a very nice friendship which is very specific because we are very alike in our situations, We started choreography somehow young & that makes us forever young, even if we sometimes feel very old, and still people relate to you as being a young person. Working as a choreographer sometimes one year feels like ten. Akram has that too, because he's been dancing since a child, he's been touring forever . I feel like there's a part of him that's like an old soul and then there's also the child within him. Also when we struggle with our images and we have our work, and sometimes the image gets in the way of the work. We can relate to that. Also when we have problems with working we can help each other. We learn from each others experiences - to grow more quickly.
And what's next?
Sutra opens at Sadler's Wells next week - and there's always something new I'm working on. There will be this new piece called Babel - based around the idea of the Tower of Babel, which will be a continuation of other works Foi (2003) and Myth (2007)...