11 Mayıs 2015 Pazartesi

The Choreographer in the Purgatorio: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui - Part I

This interview with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was made on the 2nd of May at the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall in Istanbul, Turkey.  
Redaction: Ayşe Draz
[Bu metnin Türkçe versiyonu TEB Oyun Dergisi'nin önümüzdeki sayısında yayınlanacaktır.]

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
(Photo: Koen Broos)

First of all congratulations; recently you became the artistic director of the Royal Ballet Flanders.
I’ll start in September. So in January I said yes to the request. I have been thinking about it for six months; because they have been looking for a new director, because it’s my home town and I felt I know some of the dancers also, and I felt that this was a good moment in my life to try in engage in this kind of a responsibility.

I think it is a rare example that a choreographer who has his own company, directs a national company at the same time.
There are other people; Benjamin Millipied and also Wayne McGregor from Random Dance; he works very often with the Royal Ballet. So, I think it is two different, let’s say, entities that can manifest different parts of what you want to create as a choreographer and but also as a performer.
I’m not going dance for Royal Ballett Flanders; I dance with my own structure with my own company. It is a very personal environment, very contemporary; also where dancers are musicians or may be actors and it doesn't matter as long as we create something that has a sense of purpose for ourselves and hopefully can mean something for other people. 
But it is very different the role of an artistic director for a ballet company; it’s very much like to find a direction that it can take, finding other choreographers that could be interesting for them to meet, thinking about repertory.
Ballet of Flanders comes actually from the lady who made the Ballet of Flanders, Jeanne Brabants in the sixties. She was actually a modern choreographer; she wasn’t classical, so the company has gone towards the classical but it actually came from very modern roots. And I’m very happy to come back now; from a modern perspective and try and approach the history differently and even we may go back in time (and we might show) how modern it actually was and not how classical. This is my take on the company and some people will agree and some will disagree, but this is also interesting; the whole conversation is very interesting because it is so easy to divide classical from contemporary, from this from that and I think that what I try to do in my life is kind of like to look at things from a perspective of what can we do together, how can we develop something positive together.

Actually, my next question was related to that; will you take radical decisions like the time when Pina Bausch became the head of Wuppertal Ballet in 1974; but now I understand that this is a different situation/case?
Yes for some people what I do will be radical, for others it will be not radical enough; it depends on who you are. Because what I try to do is to be homoepathic in my approach to change, because I know how sharp changes work but also there is lot that you work against. I try to be very very subtle. Also it’s not like I’m against point shoe; I worked with these and I’m very comfortable actually. So, I’m trying to think how to work with the dancers I have now there and what can we do together. And this is not so radical; but for some other people, because I didn’t do the ballet school because I didn't do the certain education that is theirs, it is very radical what I do.
Even the fact that I’m half Moroccan and I have an Arab name, for some people in Flanders, it is very radical. Even just because who I’m.  So all of these depends on who you talking to to see whether radical or not. I try to be very sensitive, but for some it is still very radical.

In the next season’s program of Royal Ballets Flanders there are the Nutcracker and the Sleeping Beauty and also two new pieces of you. I assume that your mark will be perceived more clearly in the following years?
I think so too, yes. We are trying to develop, already thinking ahead. Also, I’m sharing the artistic directorship with Tamas Moricz, who is a Hungarian dancer, very good dance teacher, who has worked with Forstyhe for a very long time, then did the dance material of Jiří Kylián and of Mats Ek, so someone very complementary to me. I have my way and he comes from his angle and I think that the two of us could do together.
He’s also ten years older than me, so it’s nice to have someone a bit ahead and at the same time he really follows my vision, because he’s like “you’re the choreographer and thinker in this” and he trusts me; so I think it’s a very good dialogue I have with him. He also helps me to translate to the dancers; so most of the things are at the end of the day is also a chemical reaction, everything is a chemical reaction.
So yes, a lot will be my responsibility and direction but it’s also how things will speak to me, and how this happens, this will also make me define the future. It’s always listening and talking and listening and talking...

We know that Belgian government cut off the cultural funds…
Some of it, yes…

Even the most distinguished opera company in Belgium, La Monnaie was effected by this policy. They canceled this season some of the dance productions, yours 'Babel' too. Actually La Monnaie has the tradition of supporting dance since Béjart.
Very much, yes…

And now, you become the head of a national company. What do you think of this policy?
La Monnaie is going through a very very very difficult time. And it needs to reorganize its own priorities. And it’s been trying to do on a level very very high, and so, they were not counting on the cut.
The problem with the budget cuts, I think but it’s my personal opinion, is that it never is the cut that’s the problem, it is the timing. If you already planned to do this and then they cut you, you are in a middle of a situation. If you are prepared that you will have to go down, then you can organize yourself better.
I think the sad story with La Monnaie, it was not prepared for the cut it was getting and it did not think ahead and %20 is huge; I mean every percentage is big for an organization who is already trying to do work at the limit. And all this money; it goes to carpenters, it goes to the people cleaning the spaces, it goes to everybody except the artists sometimes. So, it’s the money they take away form people and La Monnaie has been very faithful to its orchestra, very faithful to its choir, very faithful to its house, and so for them, presenting dance was the extra, and was the only thing that they can take off; and also because they thought we will survive, because we are strong enough. And of course we are strong but not so strong. So it’s also very very hard. Now we’re talking again with La Monnaie to see what we can do together, it’s an ongoing process, but it was a very unfortunate way of what happened and then how La Monnaie had to react, all this was very tragic.

(Photo: Koen Broos)

For this season they announced “Babel” and canceled it...
But we are performing “Babel” in Brussels. We are losing a lot of money but are faithful anyway. We are performing it in Les Halles de Schaerbeek. So bring all your friends because we have to sell out completely to come out of our cost because even then we lose money but I said to my company: “we can not not perform in Brussels after five years, this is a nice anniversary” and “I understand what La Monnaie’s problem is and then we still need to do it”.
Les Halles de Schaerbeek were so kind us to give us their space but then we had to finance a lot of it by ourselves. La Monnaie is still helping us a bit; it’s not that they have completely took away responsibility, it’s just not taking what they were supposed to do but that is life.

In the next season you will use the music of Arvo Pärt. How do you start to work, why did you choose his music?
Like so many people I’m a big fan of his music. It has been some may be 25 years since someone did something meaningful about his music. So it was also for me a nice way of; I felt like that this is a good moment in my life to finally touch upon music that I already adored when I was 17 years old; we are talking of something 22 years ago and I already wanted to do something with his music but so many choreographers did things that I didn’t touch it. Now I feel that it’s a good moment to bring it back because it’s no so many people touch his music anymore.
Why do I like it, because it’s very mystical, there is something extremely, almost sense of spirituality in his music, very minimalistic. So, I’m coming from the Flemish culture, there is this relationship to Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Steve Reich, but even Steve Reich was influenced by Arvo Pärt, even he is a big fan of Arvo Pärt. So, I like sometimes to go to the sources of my sources; if there is Steve Reich then I go like what was he listening to, that was actually Arvo Pärt. I felt it is a nice way for me to go to his music and I’m hoping that the audience will also enjoy it.
I can perform it because I’m connected to the opera house (Opera of Flanders); Aviel Chan has been so kind us to lend us a part of his orchestra to do this. The house has limits but also a lot of potential. If we find an interesting way to collaborate with the orchestra and choir of the opera house, we can do fantastic projects. With my own company developing something around Arvo Pärt will cost a lot of money, bringing the musicians, so on; but in the Ballet of Flanders I can work together with the opera house and the orchestra is right there. It’s much more natural to do this.

Actually in may Robert Wilson will make a piece with the music of Arvo Pärt, “Adam’s Passion”.
Yes, I heard, I saw, where are they performing?

In Tallinn, Estonia. I’m planning to watch it in Tallinn, I hope.
You have to tell me how it will go. Yes, I want to see it actually. I think I’m very curious. And I think Arvo is also one of the composers who is still alive and still doing things; it’s very fascinating…

Five years ago, Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture gave him Lifetime Achievement Award and during the music festival there was the world premiere of his new piece commissioned by the IKSV.

 Shell Shock
(Photo: Filip van Roe)

Relating to your answer of collaboration with the Opera of Flanders; You worked with theatre directors, especially with Guy Cassiers; and created choreographies for theatre pieces like “Intermezzo”, “Adam’s Apple”, “House of Sleeping Beauties” and also for three Wagner opera’s: “Götterdammerung”, “Siegfried” and “Rheingold”. At the beginning of this season you directed and choreographed an opera for the first time: Shell Shock. How was this experience?
La Monnaie asked me to direct an opera for a long time. I felt I was ready to commit to music that was chosen from beginning to end. 
Normally the way I work is a bit like Pina; I still have discussions with the musicians if this is the better music and I would change music very last minute sometimes when I felt it was more correct for the flow of emotions. This is something in opera you cannot do. You really work with this piece of music and you have to keep the music and you have to respond as a director on the music that is already directing everything. 
It was a very interesting exercise because it was Nicolas Lens and he knew my work. He was thinking in a very diverse way; the music he was making even though very contemporary has a lot of flavours from all over the world. So I could see parts influenced by one culture, parts influenced by another and the theme of the opera really interested me; something like a mythtological image of it.
Then doing research; kind of like looking up onto what happened in that, how this First World War came about was so interesting and what happened to the people. 
Nicolas and also Nick Cave who did libretto; what they wanted to do is really write about the victims of war, what they think, what goes through their heads and it’s very crazy how Nick Cave went about it. It was almost like lyrics of a CD that he would never publish because it was all given to the pieces of music of Nicolas Lens.
Then when I read the stories I was trying to see who is singing this, who is singing that, how this characters may come together. It was a lot of topics which are very interesting like “the colonial soldier”. We very often speak of European soldier but very rarely about all the soldiers coming from other countries to fight at war of Europe. I thought that is fascinating that Nick Cave began with this and he addressed topics that were much more controversial in terms of what we usually hear.
I wanted to do something: the lyrics was so dark, the music was so dark, everything was very dark and when I was talking with the creators they all think that everything has to be dark. So I said I think I need white and very colorful. Because then there is more tragic, more dark when we have more color; when we go dark, everything becomes for an hour and a half, you just don’t hold but if it’s very colorful then it feels like you go somewhere; then you can go to a place of black and white, of darkness, of shadows, later during the journey. 
I related to the soldiers a lot; I mean before the First World War there was a big leap of technology, so before, soldiers were very colorful; they were so proud. If you see in Turkey or in Greece, like you see the costumes, its really really beautiful, and they are so proud to combat. Also the weapons were; may be if you did a shot you had in one minute, you can may be do two shoots, so it’s not so dangerous, I mean you have a shoot, you miss, you have to wait and then you shoot may be one; the risk of you getting shoot is much more smaller than when you have. And then in the First World War suddenly weapons could twenty bullets in a minute, so suddenly like I could shoot one two three four five, I’m sure that it’ll hit you. All this people who were very colorful, they were like became easy targets. The whole color had to change, so suddenly their costumes, instead of being blue and red and white, it all became khaki, green and brown. And the whole atmosphere of soldier had to go in the ground, so they had to disappear, had to become invisible. That’s where the whole structure of going into the ground is contemporary dance for me, because classical dancer is always up, but contemporary dancer is always floor, and so is this evolution of the soldier who is so proud who suddenly becomes so crawling.
I thought that it was correct to do this with ten contemporary dancers and the opera singers next to them it was a very interesting contrast, so I was very happy that La Monnaie trusted me and that also Nick Cave and Nicolas Lens said ok, they let me do. Of course every time I wish I would have more time. Because then I think I can change this and this and this.
Having worked with Guy Cassiers, having worked with other people like Alain Platel before, has taught me a lot; it gave me a lot of tools to be able to juggle the different roles because between directing the choir and directing the dancers and directing the singers, it’s a lot of work, and it was always like finding. I had very good assistants, so I could tell him you do this, I do that, you do that and it all comes together.
Actually about this dark and melancholic atmosphere of your pieces; I only watched 17 pieces of you, not all of them…
It is more than most people..

Especially in your earlier pieces like “Foi”, “Myth”, “Apocrifu”, “D'Avant”, “Origine”; even there are funny and hilarious scenes in them, in general they have compelling, melancholic, dark atmospheres, and also sometimes even disturbing scenes.  For example; in “Myth” when the drag queen insults the girl with mental illness, the audience was shocked and reacted so severely. Or in “Origine” there is this grey mannequin in black costume, watching all the performance from the side of the stage. And we saw this black puppet also last night in “Play”.
It was the same one. He comes from there.

This time he is also part of the game.
Yes this time he is inside. Because he was witnessing “Origine” and we never got him to play inside and then when we make “Play”, the first thing I said is “I’m finally pulling him in”, because I wanted him in “Origine” but I couldn’t find a place and he ended up on the side but now I got him in.

After “Sutra” your works became lighter; not in a sense of quality, but in a sense of easing off, relaxing may be..

(Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

And one more thing: in “Foi” and “Myth” for example; these are very dense and sophisticated pieces; lots of things happening on the stage at the same time simultaneously. It’s really hard to watch everything. I used to watch your pieces and Pina Bausch’s pieces two times. As for “Myth”, I’m very happy to watch it two times because first night I watched the overall picture and on the second night I focused on details. Comparing with these, “Sutra”, “Milonga” or “Puzzle” have a very simple structure. These are like Mies van der Rohe’s famous axiom: “Less is more”.
Yes, it’s true. I think there was a big shift in my way of thinking after “Sutra”. I went to the Shaolin temple almost to move away from choreography. I really needed a break. I felt not always understood, you know, like the typical artist they always complain but I felt like, I didn’t feel like that I was trying to put so much in and then people never saw everything, and I thought but it is there and there, so then the people say “too much”, so I was like ok, I need a break.
With the Shaolin monks it was great because working with them they would literally ask me when we rehearse and at some point they didn’t show up the next day and I said “why are you not coming to rehearsal?” and they said “yes, but we rehearsed yesterday”, and I said “yes, but we have to rehearse every day, because it has to be very good, for the audience and…” and they asked “why?” and I said “because it’s important”, but “why?” Well, and I suddenly had to explain why to make art, what is art, how to make art, why we do this, why we do that. It was very very healthy for me to have people who want to do something with me but also ask why, all the time, like the children, why this why that. I had to explain why this is low and quiet, but they said “we want to move”, I said “yes I know but you move after five minutes, stay quiet then come out it is more strong.” The world became very minimalistic because it had to have this kind of logic, I couldn’t do much together then it would be chaos. So I had to do one thing at the time. It was very interesting, the result was very positive.
So I felt may be I have to quiet down, do a little less, doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make work like “Myth” anymore; I still have this part of me who wants to put it all together, but there is another part I need to take it easier and give the space to people to follow me and then may be later can I put it back together or something. It’s more like sketches; you can draw only pencil or you can draw with all the colors and you can do. It doesn’t mean that one drawing is better than the other, it just a different philosophy.
Also my life after 2007, I was less dark inside. I mean the Shaolin temple really made me smile. It broke away from the art world. But then it made me love the art world more. Because then I saw, I don’t have to try and fit in the art world, I can be just be myself, sometimes I’m part of it, sometimes not, but if I’m not part of it, it’s not breaking my identity; it’s just, sometimes I’m in, sometimes I’m out, and the Shaolin monks, because they didn’t care about the art world. I mean they really don’t. They don’t care. They care about Budism, they care about kung-fu, they care about good food and then stay strong and the temple and this is it, you know, very simple. And so, it was fascinating for me to go back to basics and essential.
It’s true for a lot of artists, sometimes we change. And also Pina, in the beginning her work was much much more tormented. She became a happier person towards the end; “Bamboo Blues” and all these pieces are much more joyful. It’s strange for us because we ask where is her pain; it’s still there, but it’s more in a different way and may be she feels this time she needs also to convey that she is happy.
Happiness is difficult; real happiness is very very difficult; pain you can always pretend because you know so well; it’s so easy to go back to: this is not good, life is horrible; because pain is everywhere, all the time; you look around and you see pain, so to have happiness is very very complicated and I think at some point when you grow older you start to think either to go more bitter or you try to go and find lightness; but lightness with roots, this is something I think I’m still looking for.