Martial Artist

Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkouai performs ninja style with Chinese monks to music by Polish composer Szymon Brzoska

Martial Artists 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Martial Artists 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
‘The idea of religion is joining together,” explains Sidi Larbi Cherkouai in an interview with Guy Cloos for “If I have to label myself, I would rather go in the direction of religion. I increasingly want to say, ‘I create religious dance.’ I want to think of a performance in terms of a ritual where people come together to stage something that may be a reflection of reality, perhaps a reflection of the future or the past.”
Although the half Belgian, half Moroccan choreographer is not referring specifically to Sutra, a dance piece he created in 2007, this sentiment is clear in the work. During the creative process for Sutra, Larbi traveled to China, where he spent many months studying the ways of the Shaolin monks. This particular sect of monks practices a unique form of Buddhism, which includes daily practice in kung fu and tai chi.
After touring extensively throughout Europe, Larbi and his cast of 17 Shaolin monks will perform four shows of Sutra at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center as part of Tel Aviv Dance 2010.
Larbi is a social commentator, deft at his craft and beautifully articulate in his explanations of his work. His pieces are often based on questions of sexual identity, religion and culture. The distinctive style he has come to be known for weaves provocative text, unusual situations and strong, limber steps. His movements can easily be mistaken for those of a ninja. He is smooth, fierce and incredibly flexible as a dancer and entrancing on stage.
Sutra is an exploration that examines the links between two very different cultures. Larbi compared his upbringing in Western Europe with the values he observed in the Far East.
“Sometimes we view the art of the East in the wrong way,” he says. “We find it attractive but do not really understand it.
If you do not know the codes, you cannot really understand it. If we have the pretense of being scholars of art, we have to study these codes to learn what they mean, what each movement expresses. It is a vocabulary we do not comprehend. Therefore, we cannot form any judgment about it. We have to regain this awareness collectively, the awareness that we cannot really appreciate it because we do not understand it. That is the whole cultural question. It is about immigration; but as far as I am concerned, it is about everything. Because it is about trying to understand things.”
Larbi is a master of set design and atmosphere. His work is as physically thrilling as it is psychologically intriguing. For Sutra, Larbi teamed up with British artist Antony Gormley, who designed a set that is stark and sculptural. All told, 21 wooden boxes stand on stage. The monks manipulate the large forms, tipping them on their sides, squeezing inside of them and standing on top of them.
Polish composer Szymon Brzoska’s eerily ambient score adds great depth to the movements on the stage. Live musicians accompany Larbi and his monks.
For many years, Larbi has been creating dances without a formal base of operations. Although he enjoys engagements all over the world, it was only in 2010 that he established a proper home in Antwerp. Forming Eastman, Larbi officially put down roots in Belgium. Later this month, Eastman will travel to Israel to perform a new piece entitled VZW. It is very rare that one choreographer is invited to Israel twice during the same festival. Larbi’s talents are evidently worthy of this break with tradition.
Sutra will be performed at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on October 4,5,6 and 8. For tickets, visit