Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui photographed in Japan this week
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Not for the first time in his life, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is delving into unfamiliar territory. The works of the Moroccan-Flemish choreographer have become among the most popular fixtures of the Sadler’s Wells stage, through collaborations with dancers and artists who have seemingly been chosen for their ability to stretch and challenge him.

In his remarkable 2008 work Sutra, he mashed up the martial artistry of 17 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin temple in China with an austere set of 21 wooden boxes by the sculptor Antony Gormley. The result was spectacular, wryly humorous and entirely original.

This time, Cherkaoui has turned up the heat. His new work Milonga, opening next month at Sadler’s Wells, explores that most demonstrative and uncompromising of dances, the tango. He says he has used elements of its steps in previous work but was finally persuaded to make a more serious commitment. “I like how the energy between two people tells us more than just an individual expressing himself,” he says as he explains the unique power of the Argentine dance.

He travelled to the late night bars of Buenos Aires to witness the city’s famed milongas, social dances that brought strangers together in a startling and intimate way. “In daily life we have no opportunity to hold each other,” he says. “If I suddenly held you now, people would think, ‘What the hell?’ In general, a man and woman who are strangers holding each other is not something we do,” he continues. “In milongas it is normal. You are sitting somewhere, and a person invites you to dance, to be held by you. I thought that was phenomenal.”

I ask him how he was planning to avoid some of the dance’s more obvious clichés, and turn it into something with his own stamp. “I went back to its essence. For me its essence is the embrace, how someone holds someone else. It is about erotic passion, of course, but it is also about comforting. When somebody dies, the reflex to comfort those left behind is to hold them, to tell them it is going to be OK.

“In the tango, there is this sense of mourning for something that you can’t pinpoint. Is it about missing someone? Or not being in the country you want to be in? A lot of it is about emigration of course. I loved this sense of an identity that is born out of going away, there is something very spiritual about it.”

While studying in Argentina, he found a dance world that was more nuanced and multi-faceted than he had imagined. “There are so many views of the tango’s authenticity. Nelida [Rodriguez de Aure, a consultant for the production] presented to me many different professional couples, who all had their specific style, some more comical, some tragic, some acrobatic.

“They were teaching me what was possible. With Nelida, during our encounter, slowly she would trust me and begin to see what I could see, so we could completely understand each other. And once we found this complicity, after a few months, then I became fearless, because we were doing this together.”

Cherkaoui, 37, speaks quickly and intensely, his words tumbling over one another with a palpable physical energy. His eclecticism and interest in the “in-between areas”, as he calls them, comes from a background in which he never felt fully at home with any one ethnic or religious group. When I ask him if he always intended to take dance in new and different directions, he says: “It is not that I wanted to – I had to.”

“I was a grazer from early youth, half-Moroccan, considered an Arab, but then regarded as a white boy in Koran school, the odd one out. When I held my dad, who was Moroccan, in the street, people would look at me weirdly, as if he had kidnapped me. And then there was my very Catholic, Flemish mother. My later school was completely secular, and I had this awareness of ‘God is dead’ – but then at home there would be my parents, who were very believing in their own entities but who accepted each other. I grew up in that belief system, and also with all its paradoxes.”

All that was needed was a dash of Buddhism, which Cherkaoui says he imbibed via the Japanese cartoons of his 1980s childhood, and the blend was complete.

“You end up taking the best from all of these things but also feeling unconnected to any one of them. In the beginning I had very low self-esteem, I was half this, half that, and not wholly anything. But then I started to analyse: who is really complete? I started to deconstruct everything around me, and I realised that nothing was pure, there was no culture that was free of other influences.”

The “impurities” became choreographic magic – already as a teenager, he mixed styles voraciously: “Typical pop art, vogueing, classical influences, jazz, more traditional flamenco, and very stylised things.” By the age of 21, he had encountered the work of the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. “I had been a very muscular dancer, using a lot of force but suddenly I learnt about release technique, and these much more holistic and healthy ways of using your body.”

He continued to absorb new influences: seeing Pina Bausch’s work for the first time, “I saw relationships between men and women that were close to how I saw relationships, characters I could believe in, not formed out of 100 years of clichés”.

He suddenly catches himself, not wanting to disrespect the entire history of classical ballet: “Not that I want to be judgmental about that. I love something like The [Afternoon of a] Faun by Nijinsky. I find it incredible, a form of pantomime, but also so radical and daring. Of course you can dismiss it now but it was so much back then, so powerful.”

But Cherkaoui’s melting pot of ingredients took him into very different territory. In 2005, he made Zero Degrees with Gormley and the British-Asian dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, winning a clutch of awards in the process. The work explicitly addressed the issue of boundaries and identity, and cemented his love of collaboration. “It is so much more interesting to go somewhere else than to repeat what I know – because I know what I know.

“I think I had an influence on Akram, and also the other way around. It is so important to acknowledge our sources. Our generation, we come from everywhere. We have lived with such an overflow of information, we have been submerged by different influences. For the last couple of years, I have been challenging myself constantly, and people say I go too far, and that I would lose myself. But I don’t think you ever lose yourself. I would love to lose myself!”

He returns to the subject of his youthful impatience with dogma. “You know, a lot of people from the contemporary dance world would look down on me for dancing at discos, and I would say, why? That is the toughest audience! Just you and the music. Much harder than being on stage at Sadler’s Wells, where people pay money to see you do a small hand movement!

“It made me want to question people’s values. Now I question value systems all day long.”

‘Milonga’ opens at Sadler’s Wells on November 6,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.