Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: “Breaking ourselves is the only way to grow”

Fractus V Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui photo: Filip Van Roe

Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui talks about Fractus V, a contemporary dance piece currently on European tour, that explores the complexities of communicating in a world divided by prejudice and swamped in misinformation. Inspired by the ways of thinking of Noam Chomsky, afflicted by the recent violence in Paris and Brussels, the 75-minute piece brings five dancers of radically different backgrounds and styles together, in an conflictive yet finally conciliatory encounter. Cherkaoui describes the dance piece as something more than a metaphor: it is an eloquently argued case for a more open form of politics that rests on the principles of freedom of speech and thought.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Fractus V started out as a trio in 2014 that celebrated the 40th anniversary of Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater. In my whole career I have only danced in eight pieces myself, so when I do it’s pretty special. We are five dancers in total: France’s Dimitri Jourde – circus, American Johnny Lloyd – Lindy Hop, Spain’s Fabian Thomé Duten – flamenco, and Patrick Williams Seebacher / Twoface – hip-hop and breakdance, plus four musicians from Japan, Korea, India and Congo.
The first image of the piece is of a dancer coming to a microphone and trying to say something, but he has to move, and the movement takes on a certain style, and then another style, and then another … suggesting that we are constantly trying to express ourselves, and how difficult that is.
Noam Chomsky is a real inspiration for me because he’s been so consistent in understanding or at least proposing how we should understand the problems of the world. One thing I can pick out of his ideas is his view that every system set up to protect ourselves: be it political, social or in dance, has its victims. We must constantly ask ourselves: who is suffering from my system? What we can do for them? How can I change it to help them? It is an on-going process.

And how can we change it..? Cherkaoui believes that first of all we need – as every individual dancer needs – to understand ourselves, and recognise our own prejudice, picking through the fictions for the facts:

I believe that it’s where we grow up that our matrix of thought develops, as language can travel but geography can’t. I’m from Antwerp in Belgium, which is surrounded by other countries. But while I look at the world from that specific harbour city, I’m also standing there half Moroccan. I’m also looking at it from the perspective of my ancestors from Tangiers, also a port city; I am ready to travel and to receive foreigners – because I was brought up from that perspective. (In the same way) Chomsky says that we must understand where our source of information comes from, and understand that a vision is never objective but always coloured: be it sourced in Israel, in Lebanon… This doesn’t have to be a problem if people are educated to recognise it.

To develop and perform Fractus V, which is, in a sense, the performance of an ongoing dialogue, each dancer is given the freedom to express himself, but must also to be open to the expression of others:

To approach the concept of freedom of speech from a dance perspective it was important that dancers, while embodying distinct styles, are not closed into one style. So while we speak in many different languages of dance and musical composition, we work on individual ideas together to create a common dance language.

This brought up the issue of how we cope with the other’s perspective; when should we respect and when should we argue?

Those things that we are allowed to say or not to say; when we are being disrespectful, or not… It is always a fine line. We must understand that it’s a sensitive world because we are sensitive people. But we must be aware, too, that there are systems that have geared us towards thinking in a certain way … that life in the west is better than the east, that there are certain things that we can’t do anything about … we should question these ‘truths’, and for this I went to another thinker: Alan Watts. While Chomsky goes into analysing social truths, Watts has a more holistic perspective: that of distancing oneself from one’s own preconceived ideas of what is going to happen… This freedom of thought is maybe even more important than freedom of speech. For if (I allow) my society to make me feel like my thinking is reduced, then my creativity is reduced … and I might as well be dead.

While the dance piece Fractus V appears to seek resolution, the title suggests breakage… but the image is a positive one, says Cherkaoui, and intrinsic to its choreography:

The title came from the idea of the fractured mind and the fractured society, but it also draws on the idea of fractals. And it’s a very beautiful thing to think that a breakage is the only way to grow. As human beings we are like lobsters: constantly breaking out of our skin; breaking with yesterday, with our parents, with preconceived ideas, from what we think is right, to find a new ‘right’.

Yet breakage can also imply conflict – and violence, or the threat of it – something so prevalent in society today. Cherkaoui tries to come to terms with this in his work:

We made this work in September, and with what happened … some images in our performance are more poignant now. A friend of ours was just two metres from a shooter in Paris; I didn’t live it through the media, his story became my truth. Violence is something very difficult to digest for all of us. I don’t think more military on top of police, on top of security is the answer; it creates more fear if anything, but this is only my personal opinion. I ask myself many questions that I can’t answer – but I am trying. The only thing I can say is that one should always see the violence as isolated – specific – cases. I myself am a Muslim, I don’t drink alcohol, but I have made different decisions from someone who blows himself up… It means that there is something else going on … economic factors, the inability to fulfil human dreams that leads someone to destroy the dreams of others… It is very easy to break things it is very difficult to build them. With Fractus V, I want to think about breaking ourselves, not breaking someone else’s culture down – we cannot force another to grow.

Now the new director of Royal Ballet Flanders, Sidi Larbi has had an extraordinarily successful career. Does it get easier with time?

Success is a dangerous word! It’s not something I aspire to. I aspire to truth, and I want to share. And everything is a struggle. If I dance alone there’s a struggle with myself, if with another there’s a struggle with the other. They are just different ways of confronting reality. It’s wonderful though! It’s life.

The above is a faithful write-up of a press conference given in English at Mercat de les Flors – Barcelona on January 13th, 2016.
Photo: © Filip van Roe