The fortunate fall: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui translates the Babel story

Sidi Larbi is in Buenos Aires researching a new piece based on the tango. A co-production with Sadlers Wells, it will premiere in 2013 at the opera house, La Monnaie, in Brussels.

I spoke to him earlier this month by phone. He hopes to be in Sydney near the end of the season of Babel at the Sydney Theatre, in January. His collaborator, Damien Jalet, and his life partner, Kazutomi Kozuki, are both dancing in the production during its Sydney Festival season.

This article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 24 November 2011.

He speaks three languages and understands three more, but the language Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui speaks most fluently is that of the body.

Right now he’s in Buenos Aires, working on the subtleties of tango’s close embrace, but he has also taken lessons with a Japanese kabuki master in Paris, collaborated with virtuoso performers from Spanish, Indian and Bangladeshi backgrounds and orchestrated a mini-army of Shaolin monks in the award-winning Sutra, a hit in Australia last year.

Each extends his grasp. “I’ve been around a lot in different cultures so I read a lot of body language, how people behave with their arms, where their eyes go, and their head tilts…this is my biggest interest, searching for the body language of others.”

That cross-cultural fluency is not so surprising given that his mother was Flemish and his father Moroccan and that his partner is Japanese. None though were the original inspiration for his remarkably successful career as a dancer and choreographer. At 13, Sidi Larbi fell in love with Kate Bush.

“I found her beautiful. I felt completely connected to her. It was the magic of her singing and dancing at the same time. As a child, I didn’t know where she began and where she ended. She put a spell on me, like a magician in a way. She is still someone I respect a lot”.

That was 22 years ago, in Antwerp, where he learned to dance watching music video clips. Now 35, Cherkaoui (pronounced Cher-kow-ee) is an international star, bendy as a pipe cleaner, with arms that move like undulating underwater creatures, he has been described as part-contortionist, part-visionary and part-poet.

At the Sydney Festival in January his latest work, Babel, will be performed by his own company, Eastman – the literal translation of Cherkaoui, which in Arabic, means “the east” or “there, where the sun comes up”.

Raised a Muslim, he has turned for inspiration to Genesis and – almost inevitably somehow – the story of the famous tower for the work. But with a typical twist. Why, he wondered, did God punish those who built the tower by sending them to different lands where they each spoke a different language? “It’s strange because there’s something beautiful about all humanity working to create a tower together,” he says.

Instead, Cherkaoui and his his French collaborator Damien Jalet recast the story of Babel as a blessing, rather than a curse. “Each language and dialect has its power and its beauty”, says Cherkaoui.

“Language is nothing more than a tool to understand another human being. Any way of speaking is, in a way, correct as long as you can be understood by someone else. All the boundaries [put up by different nationalities] are temporary. The human soul is common everywhere”.

Diversity and unity are represented by Babel’s set, designed by the British sculptor, Antony Gormley, whose tower-like metal frames “give an impression of protecting you, or of holding you hostage… but they’re something you can go through. It’s just space; it’s the mind that creates the walls”.

Diversity of language is also reflected in the composition of Babel’s performers, who include British, Canadian, French, Australian and Japanese dancers, including Cherkaoui’s partner, Kazutomi Kozuki.

Babel is one expression of Cherkaoui’s upbringing. His Moroccan father travelled to Belgium looking for a new life. “Tthere are two ways to go,” in such circumstances, says Cherkaoui, “keep on adapting and morphing, or get bitter and frustrated. My father sadly became quite bitter eventually. I knew that I never wanted to become bitter”.

Four years after his parents had separated, his father died. Cherkaoui was 19 but by then his future was set. The music videos he watched led to a smorgasbord of dance classes, from hip hop to ballet. He entered a dance contest, the “Best Belgian Dance Solo”. Dancing to a track by Prince, he won.

Yet, like all dancers, he was super-critical of his own body and despite his flexibility, he wanted an even more supple body. Again, a female dancer became his muse. “When I was 17 I was watching Sylvie Guillem videos non-stop to get more flexible. I was watching her, and stretching at the same time.

As a young man, Cherkaoui turned his back on sport, reluctant to compete. As an artist, however, he found himself under constant scrutiny, always competing. “It’s why I have all these collaborations, because when I’m dancing with Akram Khan, there is no competition. It’s really sharing a moment. When I’m dancing next to [flamenco dancer] Maria Pages … there’s no competition.

“What’s wonderful with dance is that it’s something so universal…even though there are very specific dances, folkloric or traditional dance forms, it’s still two arms, two legs, a head”.

Babel is at Sydney Theatre from January 9-11 and 13-14.

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Babel, photo © Koen-Broos

Babel, photo © Koen-Broos

Babel, photo © Koen-Broos

Babel, photo © Maarten Vanden Abeele