Sidi LARBI CHERKAOUI grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, with a Muslim father, a Catholic mother and an inexhaustible need to express himself. Since childhood, he has "been trying to understand how it all connects."
"I was a very brainy child and it was schizophrenic stuff, going to Koran classes in the afternoons after secular Belgian school," the choreographer said recently. "I was learning all kinds of information at once, so I had all these ideas coexisting in my mind."
Today Cherkaoui, 32, is considered one of the bright young stars of contemporary European dance. He has created 15 works since 1999 that have consistently blurred the boundaries between dance, theater and music; juxtaposed movement styles; and tackled political, spiritual and existential themes with an eye toward multicultural understanding. Although the focus of his choreographic ambitions has been more global than autobiographical, a lifelong quest to come to terms with his identity as a gay, vegetarian man of Moroccan and Flemish descent lies beneath his entire output and remains vital to his creative process.
"In my work, I try to take everything I know and put in bits and pieces that make sense to me," he said. "This is not just patchwork. I'm really trying to interconnect these different things, the way I have with my identity."
Though internationally known for dances such as his 2005 "Zero Degrees," a collaboration with the British choreographer Akram Khan, and this year's "Sutra," which featured Shaolin monks from China, Cherkaoui hasn't attracted much attention in the U.S. But in early 2009, he will take up temporary residence in New York to choreograph a work for the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, scheduled to premiere in June. And this month L.A. audiences have the opportunity to see the first U.S. performances of his 2007 "Myth," which UCLA Live will present next weekend at Royce Hall as part of its Seventh International Theatre Festival.
Produced in collaboration with the Antwerp theater collective Toneelhuis, "Myth" features 21 performers, medieval Italian and Spanish music performed live by the Italian ensemble Micrologus and more than two hours of rigorous choreography infused with a dizzying multiplicity of influences. They include: acrobatics, ballet, hip-hop, martial arts, the animalistic movement style associated with fellow Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, the theatricality of German choreographer Pina Bausch, tarot cards and the visual aesthetic of Japanese manga comics.
Designed to evoke a kinesthetic storybook, the production revolves around archetypal characters trapped with their problems in a purgatory that resembles a library. Dressed in white, they wrestle with black-clad dancers who function as their shadows and behave according to the Jungian principle of opposites -- that every human thought or feeling has a contradictory one.
A dance of psychology and an examination of cause and effect as opposed to right and wrong, "Myth" is essentially the choreographer's response to growing up "with too much morality and not enough mythology. I had also gotten to a point in my life where I wanted to heal from certain childhood things," he said, speaking by cellphone from an Antwerp restaurant where he had repaired for a late dinner after a long rehearsal. "I began to see that myths can be the best healers. They help you see you are not alone."
A complex 'Myth'-ology
Since ITS premiere at the Toneelhuis theater, "Myth" has received mostly positive reviews. Some European critics, however, have found it too long and/or repetitive and guilty of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to choreography. Still, a critic from London's Telegraph newspaper wrote, "If 'Myth's' fault is excess ambition, well, that's a noble fault indeed."
Nienke Reehorst -- "Myth's" assistant choreographer and a former dancer in Vandekeybus' company, Ultima Vez -- recommends that audiences not "try to follow everything that's going on. This piece has many layers, stories and details that appear at the same time. Anyone who sees this piece more than once will discover new things about it."
Cherkaoui's zest for, in Reehorst's words, "contrasting worlds, styles, beliefs, music, stories and personalities" is precisely why she says she has collaborated with him since 2001. "He has a special and persevering eye for details and connections, and it is also very inspiring to experience his love for dance, which can be exceptionally beautiful and poetic while never losing its sense of humbleness."
In conversation, Cherkaoui proved to be the type of choreographer who enjoys talking about his work and can do so with notable articulateness. Most of his dances, he observed, have "related to death and how things get remembered." He called "Myth" a "wannabe encyclopedia, heavy with ideas and maybe too much -- but that's why I like it."