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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Photograph by Filip Van Roe

Jacob’s Pillow Honors Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

I drive the winding ascent to the bucolic grounds of Jacob’s Pillow on opening day of the longest-running dance festival in the United States. The historic farmstead in the foothills of the Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains was purchased in 1930 by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn. Today it is abuzz with activity gearing up for its 90th anniversary season and gala. The Pillow’s artistic and executive director Pamela Tatge gives me a rundown of what has been accomplished in the 90 years since Ted Shawn and his all-male company began holding “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” in 1933─the beginning of what was to evolve into the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The farm, initially purchased to serve as an artistic retreat, has remained true to that ideal while enlarging its mission to include supporting dance creation, presentation, education, and preservation.

Marveling at the Pillow’s incredible spaces for making and presenting dance, I pause at the one-of-a-kind, outdoor Henry J. Leir Stage with its breathtaking backdrop of the Berkshire hills. Next, I peak into the barn-like Perles Family Studio. This dancer’s dream is made from four kinds of wood─maple, fir, cedar, and pine─with surrounding glass windows that allow for gazing out into nature. The ample structure includes a 40-ft-by-60-ft dance floor with radiant heating, separate warm-up space, informal audience seating area, controlled daylighting, low-velocity displacement ventilation, and professional acoustics.

Perles Family Studio. Photograph by Robert Benson Photography

A major cause for celebration on this 90th anniversary year is the reopening of the renovated Ted Shawn Theatre─the first performance space in America designed specifically for dance. Originally opened in 1942, the rustic post-and-beam structure was built to harmonize with the existing farmhouse and barns. Tatge explained that the original supportive beams needed refurbishing, which led to a much-needed overhaul that thankfully included a cooling and ventilation system. Accessibility features will allow them to welcome patrons with disabilities as well as present disabled artists such as the unbounded Alice Sheppard, who features in one of six dance offerings for the gala program. And an orchestra pit will make it possible to stage works that stipulate live music─like works of Balanchine and Robbins that will make their first Pillow appearance this summer.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Photograph by Filip Van Roe

Each year at the opening gala, Jacob’s Pillow honors a dance luminary of exceptional vision with a $25,000 cash prize that may be used at his/her discretion. Created in 2007 by an anonymous donor, the award is matched with an equal cash gift to the Pillow in support of the Pillow Lab Residency. This program of 10- to 14-day residencies runs from October through May to incubate and nurture new work. These residencies are recorded and accessible in the Inside the Pillow Lab docuseries. Through the long year and a half of Covid-19 isolation and lockdown, they provided a lifeline for many dance companies.

The chosen recipient of the 2022 Jacob’s Pillow Award is the renowned Belgian-Moroccan choreographer, dancer, and director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. As Pamela Tatge wrote in her press announcement, “Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a visionary artist of exceptional creativity who has been pushing against boundaries and definitions his entire career.” Through his Antwerp-based company Eastman, founded in 2010, he brings together dancers and musicians of many cultural backgrounds and talents to create works that are at once both visions and practices of global collaboration. Cherkaoui himself is a skilled and expressive dancer at home with many different dance forms and vocabularies, known for creating duets for himself with other notable artists such as Akram Khan, Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, and Flamenco dancer María Pagés. In addition to choreographing for his own company, Cherkaoui served for seven years, from 2014-2021, as artistic director for Belgium’s Royal Ballet of Flanders. He is now moving to Switzerland to assume the helm as artistic director of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève.

The most laudable of Cherkaoui’s qualities was aptly expressed by Tatge in her press statement, “Cherkaoui has a humility and unbridled curiosity about his place in the world and challenges himself to authentically connect with the human experience through his dances.”

For the gala event, Cherkaoui is presenting the world premiere of a new work. I sat down before the final gala rehearsal to catch up with Larbi (as he is called) at this juncture in his remarkable life.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui receives the Pillow Award from Jacob’s Pillow director Pamela Tatge. Photograph by Cherylynn Tsushima

Congratulations on this wonderful honor and on being back here at Jacob’s Pillow. Pam Tatge explained that the Pillow Award is given to a creative visionary with singular vision. Do you have a guiding vision? If so, what is it?

I think that I try to embody and stand for many visions. I’m someone who is on the border and understands that a border is a place where things exist. People tend to say, “This is on this side and that is on that side and there is a border between them.” But the border is often the place where things converge and come together. The border is a place where I have always felt at ease, very comfortable because of my own upbringing─being Moroccan and Belgian. People were always telling me, “You must choose which culture you’re from. Do you feel more Belgian? More Moroccan?” Even at 6-years-old, I was trying to figure out my response. But actually, it’s a trap. It’s a trap to make people choose. People are making distinctions that are not distinctions.

And while I want to honor all the borders, I also want to show how they can move around. We set them there, but we can move them. We can move the borders between each other. My singular vision is to constantly show where things do connect. There is always some possibility of connection.

Another element that I think helps in understanding my vision is that I studied translation─French and English─before I went into dancing. I think inside I’m a bit of a translator. I tend to translate things from one language to the next. I’m also very aware that when you translate something, you transform it. It doesn’t stay exactly the same; you have to adapt it. Words define things, and what I love about dance is you don’t have to define them; you can sometimes let them be. And even though some gestures are typically Italian, or this is an Indian gesture, and there are a lot of [dance] languages that are distinguishing themselves, in my worldview, they are actually all connected. They are all influencing each other and changing each other. Whenever I study certain dance forms, I realize how much impact each form had on others and how much there was an interaction.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Antidote” performed at Jacob’s Pillow. Photograph by Cherylynn Tsushima

Can you tell me about the piece you are going to present tonight at the gala?

Yes, we are calling it “Antidote.” I kept the title of the song we are using because I felt it moved me more than the earlier [working title] con fuoco [a musical instruction meaning “fiery”]. I originally wanted “with fire”─like a kind of firing [motions gunfire] because the dancers are quite fiery. Then I decided that actually “Antidote” is better─the opposite of that. So that’s how I came to the title.

When I got the news of this award, and Pam said, “Could you propose something to come and present,” I wanted to do a merging of two types of dancers onstage. One dancer, Robbie Moore, a contemporary dancer from Houston. He used to dance with L.A. Dance Project and now works in Houston as a resident choreographer.  He was with my company Eastman in Europe for a while and at the Ballet of Flanders. So I have worked with him quite a lot. And then Andrea, or Drew, who is an “electro” dancer, comes from a very specific style of dancing. But he is also a contemporary dancer in the sense that he brings this style elsewhere. He has a very personal approach to this. I’ve been wanting to work with him for a long time and I felt there was a kinship between him and Robbie. They are like twins. So even though they come from very different physical backgrounds, they actually merge together and resemble each other through their physicality.

In the beginning they dance back-to-back and then they leave each other. They each have impulses at the same time, but they have different languages. And then slowly but surely, they start to push and pull each other and try to tell each other what they need of each other. It looks a bit like two soldiers in a war zone expressing the turmoil of “Do I want to be against you?” I was inspired by imagining how soldiers feel, especially the Russian soldiers and Ukrainian soldiers in the current war. Eventually you desensitize and become capable of being very cruel. So it’s interesting how these lines converge but also draw away from each other and also how this war has torn so many people apart─like in the ballet world that was so close to Russia. It has divided so many people.

I understand why, of course, but it’s curious for me as someone with roots in the Middle East, where similar things have happened with Syria and with Libya─but somehow, we were always seen as less than human or not part of this Western world. So suddenly, when it happens inside the Western world, there is such a fascinating human solidarity─an organic and logical one─that wasn’t shown when it was happening with Arabs. And being partly Arab, it really strikes me and provokes questions in me. It provokes questions in everyone. It’s essentially why I went to Ghalia Benali for the music─because I feel that Arabic music is so strong. And this language, which the Western world often connects with fear, is actually linked to a lot of poetry, to a lot of beauty. It’s the propaganda that makes you see only the fear.

Let’s go back to this idea of using Arabic music as an enlightening choice so that more people become aware of its beauty and . . .

And of its ancestry and its connection to a form of illumination. There are a lot of elements inside of this poetry that are so connected to the universe─receiving peace and love. All these things are present in that music. I feel that it’s important to have those voices heard.

Given your distinct inclusion of musicians in your company and in your practice─for example, singing polyphonic music together, can you talk a bit about your inclusion of music?

When I studied contemporary dance, we also had singing classes, and I remember loving it even though I was not so good at it. But when I started working, I noticed a lot of the dancers, personalities, and performers I was working with had this skillset. I met singer Christine Leboutte [featured vocalist in many Eastman productions] through Damien Jalet, a choreographer and my partner of seven years. He is also a singer, and he was one of the first to sing with me onstage. We developed this desire to bring medieval music back to life─to perform it inside of contemporary dance pieces. I felt this form was so beautiful and yet people did not explore movement to this music.

So in Belgium, where I must compete with a lot of other choreographers who are all taking certain stances, I felt that this was something I deeply wanted to do─to go towards traditional music. And because of my upbringing, I used to listen to a lot of Andalusian music and music from Morocco, it rings true to me, and I wanted to share that.

And I wanted the dancers to feel that because I feel singing is a very physical act. You must relax everything. You have to find your shoulders, you have to relax your diaphragm, you have to drop down, you have to breathe in certain places, you have to send the voice to a certain place. All of that is like a choreography, it’s almost like a dance. I noticed that dancers, who are so precise with their body, are very often stuck in their throat because of all the stress and tension of wanting to do well or maybe feeling more comfortable in their physical expression rather than their vocal expression. But most people talk more than they dance. So I always encourage dancers to use their voices and to see how much access they have to it if they connect it to how they live their daily life. You have to find that access to you─the true you.

Singing is a revelation. Good singers reveal themselves and connect to something deeper. That’s my aim in dancing too─that people would connect to something deeper.

Haley Bennett and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on the set of Joe Wright’s Cyrano, A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photograph by Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

So, how did you navigate through the pandemic?

I tried to listen to what was possible rather than lament over what was impossible. I was allowed to return to the studio after 6 weeks with one person at a time. So I realized, as a choreographer, that I was going to make solos. I would never have chosen to make solos because I am more of a relationship kind of person. I love dancing together with someone else. I love people dancing with each other because I want people to reconciliate─to find connection. So suddenly, to be with one person─alone─was amazing. I started to learn so much about myself and this other person─as it was about them finding connection with themselves. That was something I had not really been focusing on so much.

So for me, the Covid period, as tragic as it was with so many terrible losses, was a new beginning linked to looking at how much I love dance. I realized how painful it was to lose access to it. That was quite revealing, especially because I had experienced a period just before that where so much was happening that sometimes I got numb from all the work. Then suddenly, when there was nothing to do, I thought, “Well, I do wish I had something to do.” So that was an interesting flip.

And when I was stuck at home alone, I realized how much I couldn’t blame anything on other people. I thought, “Well I’m alone, so this is on me.” I started to realize how much power I had over my state─my emotional state. I started to do more yoga again. I started to reconnect. I thought, “Okay, this is a new beginning for me to make peace with certain things.”

Then when everything started opening, but slowly, then closing up, then opening again; I just found a way to keep navigating professionally by doing the things I was allowed to do─solos, video work, and working outside. The Covid crisis came just before summer, so there were a lot of things I could do outside. I was filming outside.

And there was the movie Cyrano. The director Joe Wright called me and said, “Would you be willing to come and join me in Italy to do the choreography for my movie?” We had been talking about this for a while, and suddenly I had more free time because all our tours were canceled. So I became a movie choreographer again, which I had been ten years ago in 2012. And with that time away from it, I could go back to this craft feeling very confident and prepared. It was a wonderful experience doing Cyrano in Italy. We were tested [for Covid] every day. And the poor people who got Covid had to isolate for ten days. People were so afraid and had so little experience of what it does to a body or person, but we got through it. I brought some dancers from Eastman, from the Ballet of Flanders, whoever was able to join me, and a lot of dancers from Italy.

Afterwards, I went to Syria to work on a movie called Rebel, which premiered recently at the festival in Cannes. It’s a movie by two directors Adil and Bilall, who are also Moroccan-Belgian. Rebel is a film about the relationship between Belgium and Syria. Certain people in Belgium went to fight in Syria. They first went to help the nation and then got completely caught in the indoctrination of different radical factions supported by money, power, and fear-driven ideologies. It’s a very heavy movie with a lot of moments where the violence is so extreme that we went towards a choreographed state. It was incredibly interesting to do this movie and I’m quite proud of the results. So that’s how I survived─by working.  

Royal Ballet of Flanders in “Fractus V” by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Photograph by Filip Van Roe

And did you have responsibilities toward the Royal Ballet of Flanders?

Yes. Whenever we could perform for 200 people, we did that. We always brought back pieces whenever we were able to. What was incredible for me with the ballet company was that we could protect the dancers─in a financial sense also. We had subsidy from the state with an understanding of how we were allowed to train. We had to divide the 45 dancers into four fractions because we could only be with that many in a room for class. Then they had to have masks, then we didn’t have to have masks, then we did again. It was a yo-yo of information. And we were always trying to be up to date on the latest of whatever the science said. People were very disciplined.

And when the vaccines became available, there was a discussion about do we want all the people to get vaccinated. Almost 80 percent chose to get vaccinated. And for those that didn’t, we wanted to respect that because it was important to let everyone decide what they felt was right for their own body.

I needed to get vaccinated because I needed to travel. So I wasn’t even considering not doing it. I didn’t question it. It was obvious to me that was the price I needed to pay to be able to go to Australia and do all the things I had to do. And last year when I was nominated for the Tony Awards with Jagged Little Pill [for best choreography], I attended. I didn’t win, but I was happy for Sonya Tayeh [who won for Moulin Rouge!].

I know you are typically generating multiple creative projects at any given time. What are you excited to be working on now?

I just finished an opening night in Flanders with a work called “Vlaemsch,” which is “Flanders” in old Flemish. It is an ode to that part of my identity. It just premiered and we had good reviews and I don’t always get good reviews there. They [dancers of Eastman] are performing now as we speak; it’s called “Vlaemsch (chez moi),” which means “Flemish at my home, or my place.” It’s with old Flemish music and speaks about how Flemish people see themselves and how we protect our identity─in good and bad ways.

So I did a bit of work around this concept of identity and the risks of fanatic thinking like, “We are Americans, we have nothing to do with the rest of the world. We are Flemish, we have nothing to do with the rest of Europe.” I’m kind of allergic to that type of nationalistic zealousness. I wanted to address it head on and see if I could propose another way of looking at identity─as something where there are a lot of doors, a lot of frames, and a lot of windows that you can open so that the outside and the inside can meet.

And the next project, “ukiyo-e,” is for November with the Ballet de Genève, where I’m starting now after 7 years at the Ballet of Flanders. I love the Ballet de Genève; I worked with that company back in 2005. I made “Loin” for them, which came to the Pillow in 2007. The Ballet de Genève is classically based, but they are also very contemporary in their approach. Women and men are very equal. And I’m happy to have a more intimate group of 22 people rather than 45 [Ballet of Flanders] to share the studio with. The Ballet de Genève was one of the first companies I ever worked for as a choreographer. It was the second company to invite me. Before that, I had always worked with my own people. So I was very uncomfortable without my own dancers. Their director at the time and for 19 years, Philippe Cohen, encouraged me to work with the company. It was such a wonderful experience that since then, I have dared to go to other companies and enter the studio without knowing the dancers and just see what comes up and what we can share─ something I was wary of back then. So it’s nice that after all these years and thanks to him, I have gotten to where I am. So going back to Geneva is like going back to my sources─going back to the place that built me at the beginning of my career.

So this piece “ukiyo-e” will be inspired by the Japanese paintings like Hokusai’s Great Wave and the idea in Japan of how art is transmitted visually. I am very much attracted to that aspect. In 2011, I was in Japan during the big earthquake and the disaster around Fukushima and I’ve always wanted to find a way to address the feelings I had then. It was very stressful, and I was there for a month. Everybody fled Japan, but I stayed because my partner back then was Japanese, and I felt this was where I belonged. So I made a very strong connection with Japan. 

I feel like there is something about how they relate to art, relate to society, relate to each other. There are a lot of elements that are either very beautiful or very disturbing, but I feel I understand something there and I want to bring that feeling to Geneva. So we are working with a Japanese percussionist, a Vietnamese composer/percussionist as well, and the Polish composer who did the music for “Sutra.” The music is going to be somewhat tension-filled and quite contemporary. It will deal with these things we are in a knot with; I want to unknot it onstage. I said to the dancers, “I want to use our nervous system and to unknot the nervous system.” Some choreographers speak about muscles, organs, and bone. But I’m interested in the nervous system─it connects everything to everything. If I think of moving my nervous system, I become like water; I become like a jellyfish [he motions]. When the body feels more like a jellyfish, your dancing becomes lighter.

Namaste! Thank you for this generous conversation.