Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui| Morocco’s Multicultural Choreographer

Photo of Oonagh Gannon
3 November 2016

Inspirational dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, has created his own language of movement, and developed a philosophy of dance entirely his own. We consider what drives him to dance.

‘Dance does not acknowledge borders in the same way as many other arts… Everything engages with everything, naturally, and dance settles only in the space it belongs to – that of the ever-changing present.’ The essence of this philosophy is omnipresent in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s life and work.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Zero Degrees | © Tristram Kenton

Geographical borders have always been open doors for Cherkaoui. Born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1976, to a Flemish mother and Moroccan father, Cherkaoui grew up in amulti-cultural, multi-lingual household with his father speaking Arabic, Spanish and French, and his mother French and Dutch. Living in Flanders, French-speaking Walloon culture was always on the doorstep, making it natural for Cherkaoui to appreciate multiculturalism from the start.

Dance, on the other hand, was not an immediately natural path. It was not until Cherkaoui was 17 that he established a burgeoning affinity with movement through the various dancing disciplines he began to explore, including classical ballet, hip-hop and flamenco. After a short time studying to become a translator and interpreter, acknowledging that this was not his vocation, he took up a full-time dance course, which led to several appearances on Belgian TV shows in which his talent sparkled with performances such as dancing to Prince or imitating Michael Jackson’s choreography. Years later, choreographing his own highly artistic and deeply meaningful shows, Cherkaoui sees this early experience as an advantage as it cultivated his sense of how to keep an audience’s attention – which from a spectator’s point of view could be read as an understatement.

Following training at the renowned Anne Teresa Keersmaker Brussels School of Dance, P.A.R.T.S., Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui became a full-fledged professional dancer in 1999 at the age of 23. From there he has traced an admirable career, sharing the floor with some of the greatest names in contemporary dance such as flamenco dancer Maria Pagès and British contemporary dancer Akram Khan. Cherkaoui himself has become one of the greatest names in contemporary dance with a wealth of award-winning performances. He has created his own language that he translates to the world through creative collaborations with a multitude of dancers, choreographers, sculptors and artists.

Collaboration and exploration go hand in hand with Cherkaoui’s philosophy and approach to dance. His innovative style evolved from finding suppleness; from using his legs to support the body to supporting the body through the contact with the floor. This, combined with acrobatics, has defined his style in choreography, pushing dancers’ bodies beyond visible borders. At the same time objects play a big part in many of his works, focusing on the movement of the surroundings whilst the dancers remain still and the environment evolves around them. As someone who feels most at ease when he is with someone else, it is not surprising that the duet is a recurring form throughout his work, exploring the complexity of relationships and achieving unity. He echoes this approach in a speech given at his 2012 International Dance Day message at UNESCO: ‘A performance is an extremely social experience. All of us assembled for this ritual, which is our bond with the performance, with the same present.’ That includes musicians and singers who, as part of the ritual, perform live on stage in the majority of Cherkaoui’s works.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui founded his own dance company, Eastman (the English translation of the Arabic Cherkaoui) in 2010. Resident at the de Singel International Art Campus in this native Antwerp, Belgium, this is where he experiments with his innovative ideas and projects before stunning his worldwide audiences. His works have travelled and continue to travel across the world performing in major theatres including La Monnaie in Brussels (Belgium), Sadler’s Wells in London (UK) where he is an Associate Artist, Théâtre de la Ville in Paris (France) or the Tokyu Theatre Orb in Tokyo (Japan). M¡longa, Babel, Play, Sutra and 4D are a small representation of Cherkaoui’s many creations to look out for on the contemporary dance scene:

m¡longa | ©Tristram Kenton


Having spent time in Buenos Aires and learned the language of tango, this Argentinean dance form is second nature to Cherkaoui. In M¡longa he explores the world of tango, where two bodies merge into one. He cleverly blends five established dancing couples from Argentina with a couple of contemporary dancers to produce an amazing confluence of tradition and innovation, throwing a whole new perspective on the tango by bringing it out of the late night bars of Buenos Aires and onto a vibrant stage. To achieve full authenticity, Cherkaoui worked under the guidance of tango expert Nelida Rodriguez de Aure.

Babel | ©Koen Broos

Babel (Words)

Babel (Words) is based on the biblical story of The Tower of Babel and especially echoes Cherkaoui’s personal background by exploring language and its relationship with nationhood, identity and religion. It is the fruit of a collaboration with fellow Belgian dancer and choreographer Damien Jalet. One of the outstanding features of the choreography are the five three dimensional frames designed by British sculptor and Turner Prize winner Antony Gormley. Babel won the UK’s 2011 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production.

Play | ©Koen Broos


In 2010, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui partnered with Indian born dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, whose work is based on the graceful style of Kuchipudi, a South Eastern Indian dance. The pair produced Play, a cross-cultural piece that juggles between theatre, chess and the games people play in life and in love. Play is dedicated to the late Pina Bausch who originally encouraged Cherkaoui and Shivalingappa to work together.

Sutra | ©Hugo Glendinning


Sutra is the outcome of another cultural exchange following Cherkaoui’s trip to China in 2007 to meet and spend time with monks from the Shaolin temple. The piece is based on the old and the new China, dealing with the themes of building, destruction and transformation. Tall wooden boxes, again designed by Antony Gormley, move around the stage taking the shape of a wall, a bridge, a temple or a graveyard and providing a mobile space for the Shaolin monks to move with and around.

4D | © Koen Broos


4D is a suite of four diverse duets, which Cherkaoui has taken from Babel, Tezuka, Origine and Faun and reworked to form a whole. Each duet explores the theme of relationships ranging from dominance to lust and eroticism.

There are more works to come. Cherkaoui has an everlasting thirst for creativity, cultural exchange and collaboration. In his universe, every day is an International Dance Day and the powerful closing words of his 2012 message will always hold true: ‘I wish everyone lots of dance… to tackle their problems creatively, to dance around them, to find a way to engage with each other and the world, to engage with life as part of if its never ending choreography.’

A tour calendar of Cherkaoui’s work is available on the Eastman website.

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