Analysing Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s influences within the works of Sutra (2008), Zero Degrees (2005) and Babel 7.16 (2016)

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a fascinating practitioner to study. His influences include some of the most precious people in the development of dance and tanztheatre in Europe and are what make him so different to some of the other practitioners in the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain. The key influences I will discuss and provide evidence for in this article will be:

  • Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker of P.A.R.T.S
  • Pina Bausch
  • Martial arts

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker of P.A.R.T.S

There was another person connected with the school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and they suggested that I should go there. Suddenly the world of contemporary dance opened up.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (11th June 1960) is a Belgian contemporary dance choreographer, and director of P.A.R.T.S – the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios. The training studios were founded in September 1995 it is described as a “forward thinking” school for contemporary dance, which provides thorough technical training to dancers and choreographers. The training is based on release techniques, teaching dancers how to use their breath and to move mindfully and anatomically. Therefore, there is a huge focus on health awareness.

Cherkaoui’s enrolment at the school was his first formal experience of contemporary dance training, and everything he learned there became the foundation of his personal style. Cherkaoui himself said “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.” Release technique is evident in section 5 of Zero Degrees. Cherkaoui performs a stunning solo which expresses his sadness and confusion about his identity and dual nationality. Laying on his back, he uses his core to smoothly lift his legs, tracing his toes in a full circle around his head three times, each time keeping his torso on the ground as he shifts to face a different direction. This is done smoothly and with great control. As he transitions into the splits, he keeps his torso low by forward folding his head toward his front knee. He effortlessly transfers his weight to one side as he melts his body into the floor to perform a fluid back roll, swiftly placing his weight to his head as he slides himself across the stage.

P.A.R.T.S helps students to develop into independent and creative artists, or “thinking performers” through exploring multiple art forms, such as dance, theatre and music. Cherkaoui shares a similar multidisciplinary approach, explaining that he likes to choose the method which communicates his idea the quickest to the audience. The opening scenes in both Zero Degrees and Babel 7.16 use speech and gesture to introduce the key ideas of the piece to the audience, before exploring these ideas further with dance. In Babel 7.16, a female soloist starts the piece stood centre stage, announcing “the first language humans had was gestures.” She performs a large piece of text explaining how people used to communicate before language was invented, introducing the themes of the piece that stems from the story of the tower of Babel. Alongside her speech she gestures. She states: “It’s not that we’ve forgotten the language of gestures entirely, the habit of using our hands while we speak, is still left over. Clapping, pointing, giving a thumbs up are all artefacts of ancient gestures.” Her hands move naturally in front of her torso, gliding into literal gestures such as a thumbs up, thumbs down movements. The use of theatre allows the audience to focus directly on the subject matter being introduced, so when the line of dancers use their fingers to trace borders of territory around them in the next scene, it is clear that Cherkaoui is making a statement about how language has isolated people.

Lastly, as a choreographer herself, De Keersmaeker combines the beauty of mathematics and abstract thought with the very raw intensity of the body, often working with film, music and theatre. Much of her movement vocabulary looks deceptively simple, using pedestrian movement and repetition. Cherkaoui also likes to play with choreographic devices to elevate a scene, evident in section 17 of Sutra. The monks build a temple through layered archways, revealing 7 doorways in which 7 monks utilise to perform traditional kung fu actions. All together, they step into a deep second plie then lunge out of hiding into the doorways and punch the air before quickly hiding behind the boxes again. This is repeated with slight variation of movement, and on the third plie only 6 appear. The monks continue to hide and pop out in different variations, with different monks and unpredictable empty doorways. The development of movement, formations and numbers transforms deceptively simple lunges, kicks and attacking actions into an unpredictable and exciting section.

Pina Bausch

“I met the work of Pina Bausch – which I thought was incredible because it was so emotional, so aesthetic and the movements were so lyrical. At the same time there were social issues being addressed and the male/female relationship was so polarised.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Pina Bausch (27 July 1940 – 30 June 2009) was a German performer of modern dance, choreographer, dance teacher and ballet director. With her unique style, a blend of movement, sound, and prominent stage sets, and with her elaborate collaboration with performers during the development of a piece (a style now known as Tanztheater), she became a leading influence in the field of modern dance from the 1970s onwards. 

Bausch liked to collaborate with her dancers as a devising tool –“she asked them questions”. Cherkaoui also values collaborating with the dancers in his works, which results in unique and genuine dance works. This is especially true for Sutra, which would not have existed if it was not for the curiosity of the Shaolin monks. The monks informed most of the movement material and offered their own ideas on how to manipulate the boxes, based on their levels of strength and agility. Here, Cherkaoui played the role of director over choreographer, welcoming the monks ideas and ensuring the work remained true to them. This informed the culture specific themes. Furthermore, the friendship that blossomed between Cherkaoui and Dong Dong, the child monk, is evident in section 5, where he directs Cherkaoui in the scene. Dong Dong copies Cherkaoui in a standing split position, then looks up at him and reaches up towards his foot, guiding him to lower his leg into the next position. Later, he points up to the top of the box, and Cherkaoui responds by lifting him so he can reach. This replicates the improvisational collaboration that occurred between them.

Cherkaoui was also influenced by Bausch’s tanztheatre approach, evident through the prominent set designs seen in his works. In both Sutra and Babel 7.16, Cherkaoui uses seemingly simple but movable set designs, that allow him to create multiple immersive scenes. In Sutra, the 32kg wooden boxes create a graveyard, a maze, a blooming lotus flower, a boat, a city and a temple, to name just a few worlds they explore. The 5 metal frames in various rectangular and square shapes are rolled and lifted to intertwine to build the tower of Babel, laid out to create an airport walkway and slammed down to trap a dancer in the centre. These modern designs allow for multiple scenes to be created with ease, engaging the audience and offering multiple choreographic possibilities.

Martial Arts

“Bruce Lee spoke my language. Meditation is to quiet the mind, kung fu is to quieten the body, and it’s all about interconnectedness with animals… I related to that, because when I choreograph I feel inclined to think more like an animal and less like a human being.”

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

In order to survive in an exceptionally hostile environment, the primitive Chinese ancestors developed primary means of defence and attack that included leaping, tumbling and kicking. Although they knew how to fight with weapons, fighting with bare hands and fists became essential skills for survival. It utilises kicks, blocks, and both open and closed hand strikes. Kung Fu has a long retained philosophical and spiritual importance, tied with the concept of yin and yang. The philosophy caught fire with the world through Bruce Lee who sought meaning and consciousness in his movies. 

As a child, Cherkaoui was awed by the strength and tricks of martial artists, such as high-flying kicks, shadowboxing and somersaults. It makes sense then, why Cherkaoui was so interested in collaborating with the Shaolin monks in Sutra. His scorpion duet in section 13 also demonstrates his reference to ‘thinking like an animal’. However, examples of martial arts are also evident in his other works, evidencing it as a key influence. In section 7 of Zero Degrees, Barhant Attack and Block, Cherkaoui and Khan perform a duet to showcase themes of frustration and confrontation with ones self. They sharply push their forearms against each other. Cherkaoui extends his arm to slice it across but Khan ducks, turning whilst kicking his leg out causing Cherkaoui to jump to avoid it. The section involves multiple variations of slicing, ducking, punching and kicking actions, and is said to have been inspired by their shared love for the film, The Matrix. In Babel 7.16, the dancers begin the territory section by tracing borders around them with their hands and feet, gradually developing this material through an increase in levels and travel. The section builds into duets, each slicing, jabbing and ducking towards each other, using their previous tracing actions.

However, as an adult, his interest shifted more towards the philosophy of channelling a universal force of energy. This led him to the Shaolin temple where he combined his love for martial arts and yoga to create Sutra, which combines the the exhilarating beauty of kung fu and resonance of its spiritual culture.

Overall, Cherkaoui has a very distinct and unique personal style which is evident across multiple sections of Sutra, Zero Degrees and Babel 7.16. However, it is clear to see that his dance training, personal interests and industry inspirations have all played a large part in creating this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s