Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has choreographed Orbo Novo for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, to be performed at the Joyce Theater from Oct 20-25.
Susan Yung (Rail): What kind of dance did you study when you were young?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: When I started dancing, the first things I studied were actually video clips. I learned dancing from watching TV when I was 15, 16. Then I did some contests with friends, in school, then suddenly one of the people who’d seen me invited me to become a dancer on TV. From 17 to 20, I took any kind of dance class I could—tap, African, hip hop, jazz, all the traditional typical forms we had in Europe. When I was 19, my ballet teacher encouraged me to do a dance contest, which was called the “Best Belgian Dance Solo.” Anybody could enter. I did something to the music of Prince, so I was quite funky at that time, and I won! It opened a lot of doors.
Rail: You still use a lot of those elements that you started with.
Cherkaoui: I never push anything away from my experience; I let it keep on inspiring me. As I said, before everything was very funky, very rhythmical. The last six years, I was much more fluid in my movement as compensation for that time. But now I’m interested in maybe working more staccato—it just depends on how I feel.
Rail: How do you manage to create such fluidity with your skeleton? It looks like you have no bones sometimes.
Cherkaoui: My training now is very much yoga—everything I do, I do with the insight of yoga. It’s really about how to draw energy from down in your feet all the way to the top of your head. So you see your muscles as one long thing, almost like an amoeba. Sometimes when dancers move they isolate, which is fantastic, but they isolate energy, and that’s sad when your energy doesn’t flow everywhere.
Rail: When you’re coming up with ideas for movement, are there ideas in your head, or is it just experimentation with your body, or both?
Cherkaoui: It’s a bit of both. There are moments when I know I would like to do something. There’s part of Orbo Novo that’s about contamination—something that’s outside of you, as if you’d be eaten by it and you need to get away from it. And then sometimes it’s more something that I feel, like a movement that I want to do. I write the full choreography and I just teach it. Especially hand movements. Something I learned from traditional dance is that every hand gesture has a meaning. But the meaning can change; it’s not like one gesture is one meaning. It depends on what you put into it. It can be a flower, it can also be the sun, or something else, with the same gesture.
Rail: Is working with the Cedar Lake dancers very different from other commissions you’ve worked on?
Cherkaoui: It is, but every time it’s different. Especially compared to last year working with the Shaolin monks, who were monks and not performers, but who had this incredible vocabulary of martial arts. It’s day and night. But there’s the same sense of community and commitment; it’s kind of like being in a temple here too! In many ways it doesn’t feel different on that level. But then the physical knowledge—what I really like about the Cedar Lake dancers is that they have very different sources of technique. They don’t just do ballet, or only contemporary, or funk. They have all these elements in them, because New York almost asks that from dancers. Benoit [Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Cedar Lake’s artistic director], the way he selects dancers, is based on that kind of diversity and open-mindedness.
Rail: Did the technical skill of the Cedar Lake dancers push you to experiment differently?
Cherkaoui: Definitely. There are moments where I feel they are so able that it’s wonderful to see how far you can stretch continuity, for instance. There’s movement that just goes from one difficult position to another, and they manage to keep the flow going. They know how to work so intelligently so that at the end, they actually do the full thing non-stop, as if it’s so easy. Suddenly it looks really easy, but actually it’s really difficult.
Rail: Is Orbo Novo about two worlds coming together?
Cherkaoui: It’s about left and right, how human beings are made out of left and right brain hemispheres. One is linked to the present moment; it’s what you’re feeling now, when you’re smelling and seeing people, colors, everything, it’s kind of like a perfect unison with reality.
Rail: Has working in New York given you energy, or is it just exhausting?
Cherkaoui: It’s given me energy. But in a way, I’m a sponge, so energy will give me energy. It’s that simple.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.