Interview with Performance Artist, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu is an exploration of apocryphal religious texts through the use of the human body. Collaborating with two other dancers, Yasuyuki Shuto, a classical dancer from the Ballet of Tokyo, and Dimitri Jourde, a contemporary dancer and circus artist, the piece examines major ideologies. Apocrifu will run at Southbank Centre, London, 24 – 25 January, we speak to the Belgian performance artist about his approach to the work and his intentions behind it.

A: In your piece Apocrifu, you use the language of the body to explore apocryphal religious texts – how do you do this?
SLC: There are three dancers in the piece, who have all had very different training. Dimitri Jourde is a circus artist – he’s very earth bound, with a strong body. Yasuyuki Shuto is a Japanese ballet dancer who has more of an air-based way of moving. I’m liquid and water-based, and I become the link, so that there is a synergy between us. It’s a trilogy: we are the three musketeers, and of course we represent the three major religions. Each of us ended up incarnating one of these three religions, and we each have a different avatar and a main theme in the piece. In terms of overall themes within the piece – I love the idea of rejection. All of those religious stories were equal at some point, but some got rejected along the way. As dancers, especially in contemporary dance, we can feel we are somehow a side-note to reality, so I can relate personally to this idea of rejection.

A: Another major element of Apocrifu, is the singing from all-male Corsican vocal ensemble A Filetta – how did you work together to produce this piece?
SLC: Even before I worked with them I knew A Filetta’s repertory by heart because, since I discovered them in 2002, I have been a die-hard fan. I like their music for a thousand reasons. They represent a kind of “every voice”. What they do with music is what I want to believe in for humanity – they work together to create a profound canvas. When I worked with them for the first time, in 2004, I could sing all their songs, I just knew every single line. When I first got in contact with them, they were very surprised to find some choreographer from Belgium and Morocco who knew everything about their music. They understood that I was really passionate about what they do, and that their music is very important for me. Once they felt my love and admiration, it was a really strong exchange and created a lot of trust. This strong understanding of each other’s work means we can stand as one unit and create work together. I don’t really make a distinction between the singers and the dancers; for me it is all of us together. A Filetta are like my brothers – we are very comfortable working with each other. And they have a great sense of humour which is something I value highly. I love dancing to their music – if there was any music I could dance to forever it would be theirs. They are very beautiful people and it really resonates with me when I see them on stage.

A: What do you want audiences to take from the performance?
SLC: I would love audiences to question their own resistance or resentment to whatever they reject. It can be so destructive when we reject people or things because they are different to what we are used to. So I would love them to feel how interconnected everything is. If you study where things come from beyond the sources you know, you will realise that there are always common sources and connections you weren’t aware of. Whether its religion or language or even nations – there’s always a base to the tree – some place where everything connects back together. Apocrifu also questions our political systems. I was inspired by Yukio Mishima, a very controversial Japanese artist. One of his key texts explores how in a democratic society we are so focused on the merits of the individual that we end up not having enough value for the collective. He posits that this leads people to suicide, because if you only live for yourself, maybe it’s not worth living. He’s put his finger on something that I feel is quite relevant and I felt spoken to when I read that text. Apocrifu addresses the idea of reconsidering our reality and looking at it from another perspective, and I’d love people to do that when they see the piece.

A: You are an internationally renowned choreographer, and this is a rare chance for audiences to see you dancing in your own work. Why have you chosen to dance in this piece?
SLC: Apocrifu was created in 2007, and it was made on me. Everything I do in the piece is specific to my identity – such as the books that I hold. I think it would be very hard to give this role to another dancer, purely because it wouldn’t make sense. I also dance in this piece because I still have the desire to perform it. I’m 37 now and I still really like to dance and to perform. I haven’t performed for a couple of months – since September or October, so I’m really excited to be back on stage, and to come back to Apocrifu is really refreshing. I’m also scared, but it’s a healthy scared.

A: In your career, who has inspired you?
Kate Bush is my biggest inspiration. I love how she has developed her connections to the outside world, and grown from every encounter she has made and every artist she has worked with, without losing her sense of self. I think she’s an amazing inspiration on all levels. She contains all these elements, from femme fatale, to comic, to witch. She is very complete but without any censorship, and she has a sense of humour – she’s witty and intelligent. She is someone with extreme sensitivity – she perceives and feels everything. And it’s a very hard to be like this. I can relate to this, as I’m a bit similar in this regard.

A: What do you have planned for the future?
SLC: I’m trying to continue to work with the people that inspire me and that I feel comfortable with. I developed a piece in China with a wonderful contemporary dancer called Wang Yabin. She’s a very, very talented person. The premiere was in November in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Right now I’m in Sweden working with the dancers of the Opera House in Gothenburg, and I’m really excited to be working with Antony Gormley again on a piece. The premiere will be on 8 March here in Sweden.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Apocrifu, 24 – 25 January, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX.

1. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Apocrifu, image courtesy of Southbank Centre.