Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui tells Lyndsey Winship why his new work pays tribute to manga legend Osamu Tezuka – Japan’s answer to Walt Disney.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has been obsessed with manga since he was a kid. The Belgian choreographer grew up watching Japanese anime on TV, collecting comics and idolising artist Osamu Tezuka, the man who created nuclear-powered superhero Astro Boy.
Tezuka, who died in 1989, was the Walt Disney of Japan. However he was far more daring in his art. He tackled topics more complex and taboo than those explored in Disney fairytales: technology, the environment, sexuality, prejudice, war, spirituality (there’s an eight-volume series on the life of Buddha, for example). There’s none of the black-and-white sense of good and evil that Disney kids grow up with. “I thought, he really knew the grey zones,” says Cherkaoui. “How complicated it is to have a straightforward moral code.”
This is why, perhaps, Cherkaoui’s love of Tezuka has continued well into adulthood and has become the basis for his latest work. “So many years later, I still feel very attracted to the aesthetics,” he says. “The logic, the simplicity – when I say simplicity, it’s also extremely complex. Like a typical European, I’ve tried to dissect or deconstruct what [Tezuka’s] about, to understand his philosophy. In his work he’s a humanist – he’s a very good soul, and he tries to make you understand other people.”
TeZukA, as Cherkaoui’s piece is called, is far from a straight translation of page to stage. The choreographer’s process begins with a lengthy period of research – in this case immersing himself and the company in Tezuka’s world. They were all in Japan when the earthquake struck in March, last year. “It was a very tense time,” says Cherkaoui. “[There was] a strange fear. An end-of-the-world fear. To keep on working was very strange. There were aftershocks, so there was a physical fear that came back every two or three hours. At the beginning you’re like: I’m on the 10th floor, I’m going to go down, be safe. But if that happens every two hours, at night, when you need to sleep… and then there’s the radiation fear…”
The experience made everyone reassess their priorities – ‘is it to make work? Is it to survive?’ – and they took a break for a while, but Cherkaoui stayed in Japan where he was working with Master Suzuki, a calligrapher, who will also appear on stage in the show (along with live musicians and animation). Cherkaoui likens the calligrapher’s art to a dancer’s performance. “He has one stroke and it’s up to that one moment to get it right.”
Cherkaoui, however, will keep chopping, changing and developing his work beyond opening night as different sections and ideas come together. In rehearsal, a month before the London premiere last September, I watched nine powerful male dancers experiment with movement in a way that definitely had a superhero-ish quality about it, a touch of The Matrix, in dreamily fluid phrases punctuated with corkscrewing turns and kicks. The twang of the Japanese koto resonated in the background while Cherkaoui sat cross-legged at the front of the stage, sage-like, watching it unfold.
This is clearly a project that has real personal meaning for Cherkaoui – and he wants to do Tezuka justice. “He really brought me up with a sense of human dignity and human relationships – and knowing about how to manage them. I want to continue that,” he says.
“One of my aims with this work is that people will read Tezuka or at least be intrigued by him,” he continues. “He’s so famous in Japan. But in Europe, to know Walt Disney and not know Tezuka? I think it’s really sad.”
TeZukA is at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre Feb 17-19. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.