The Need To Dance: When cultures converge in choreography

Soha Elsirgany , Wednesday 2 Mar 2016

Dutch film on Belgian-Moroccan Sidi Larbi Charkaoui presents an intimate story of acculturation through dance

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Still from The Need to Dance (Photo: Courtesy of Cairo Int'l Women's Festival)

Dutch film A Need to Dance was screened at Falaki Theatre on 1 March, in the presence of the filmmakers. The film was screened as part of the Cairo International Women's Film Festival’s Dance and Cinema section.

Directed by award winning filmmakers Petra Lataster-Czisch, and Peter Lataster, who is also the work's cinematographer, the 60-minute documentary will be screened again on 3 February at the Artistic Creativity Centre at 5 pm.

The 2014 film is a portrait of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a celebrated contemporary choreographer and dancer born to a Moroccan-Muslim father and a Roman-Catholic Flemish mother.

The decades of his award-studded career span between his winning, as a teenager, first place for his eclectic solo performance at a national dance competition, to receiving the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production in 2014.

The Latasters capture him creating and performing a widely diverse range of dance styles.

The Need to Dance follows him across Europe over the course of a year, between rehearsals and performances, to peer into his personal history, his busy life that is saturated in physical expression, and the process behind his moving dance pieces.

From Morocco to Brussels

Previous works in the Latasters’ filmography have tackled socially pressing topics, including one on breast cancer, and another about the mortality rates of newborns in Belgium. In some other films, the filmmakers deal with more contemplative subjects, tackling themes of love, happiness, age, and exploring a person’s relationship with a place.

Though they have previously created another portrait-documentary about an artist in 2008 (I Like to Touch Everything, about Dutch sculptor Auke de Vries), as well as another film involving dance (Birth-Day, 2005), their choice to make a documentary about Cherkaoui emerged for several reasons.

“We have known him as a dancer since he was very young and have followed and admired his work. But also because now there is a very broad movement in Brussels against immigrants,” Lataster-Czisch tells Ahram Online.

Cherkaoui’s father had emigrated from Morocco to Brussels, and his story is as central to the dancer as his own work, as the film reveals how much it affected and continues to affect his life.

“Through his art, Cherkaoui gives back so much to the community,” Lataster-Czisch says, adding that this was something they wished to present to a wider audience.

She proceeded to explain how it was important for them to tell the story from Cherkaoui’s perspective.

“To show his viewpoint and to show how immigrants can feel, and how they try to react to the outside world.”

the need to dance
the need to dance
(Photo: Still from The Need to Dance)

Cultures Converge to fuel dance

Cherkaoui himself narrates the documentary, describing that his father felt lost between two worlds, as he searched for a place in a foreign land.

This dual identity that emerged from growing up in between Moroccan and Flemish cultures is something that fueled the dancer’s life and has richly nourished his work, as he fuses both worlds to create his unique dance form.

“My Flemish surrealist side is linked to my Arabic calligraphic side,” Cherkaoui says in the film.

While this was one of the main focal points in Cherkaoui's portrait, another aspect the filmmakers were intent on highlighting was Cherkaoui’s development both as an artist and a person.

Charkaoui recounts how his father frowned upon dance as a career, and how despite it affecting him deeply and often negatively, he followed his irrepressible urge to dance.

“He has his own ways of expressing himself. Even though dancing brought him into conflict with his father and he wanted to break free from him, he remained conscious of what his father has given to him as a culture, something that has contributed strongly to his articism,” Lataster says.

The narration was only recorded after all the footage was filmed throughout their year with Charkaoui.

“We felt it was important to get an intimate narration. So it came after we had spent a lot of time with him, during which we got to understand him better, and he also learnt about us and how we work, and learnt, I hope, that he could trust us,” says Lataster- Czisch.

If it was easy to get the dancer to open up to them, it was more difficult getting the theatre halls to do the same.

“Although Cherkaoui allowed us to film everything, theatres didn’t always allow us to film in their space,” Lataster said, outlining the biggest hindrance they faced when making the documentary.

Yet there is nothing holding back the flood of expression in Cherkaoui’s pieces, and his palpable passion for dance that bypasses the limits of the screen.

The artist’s way

“I never stuck to the rules. I’ve always been inclined, if there was a framework, to smash that framework,” Charkaoui says.

Many of his pieces are personal, some of which are featured in The Need To Dance. One piece touches on homosexuality, while another titled Shell Shock (also a term for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), is about the war, and perhaps also about his father’s death. As we watch scenes from the piece's rehearsal, Cherkaoui's voiceover narrates how his father's death took him by surprise.

In addition to drawing inspiration from inner desires, he often draws ideas from everyday life, literature, history, mythology, with common themes including spirituality, personal and cultural differences.

the need to dance
the need to dance
(Photo: Still from The Need to Dance)

Described by the director as quite a workaholic, Cherkaoui at 39 remains tirelessly and absolutely dedicated to his dance.

“He is always working on different projects at the same time, one piece inspiring the other,” the director says.

“When something stops being the way it is and becomes something else, it is always interesting for me to work on that intersection,” Charkaoui said.

As such, by showing multiple works developing in parallel, the film offers a faithful picture of the dancer’s busy interwoven life, between thoughts, and across cities and stages.

Yet his dynamism and energy is complemented with a serene, thoughtful composure, like a friendly fire.

“I’ve always been inclined to listen before speaking,” the artist says.

Contemporary dance is about communicating emotion physically, and Cherkaoui calls it “translating the flow of thoughts by means of the body.”

To his dancers, he describes the movements with descriptive poetic terms such as ‘liquid hands’ and ‘like magic.’

Charkaoui is also very interested in the different ways people connect with each other.

The slightest changes in a dancer’s thoughts can be reflected to the viewer. As is the case with actors, it is also important for dancers to differentiate between emotions, and be specific with what they portray.

“It is about connection, not manipulation,” Cherkaoui says to a group of dancers rehearsing, explaining how the movement should be connecting the one’s nervous system with that of his partner’s.

“It’s about what happens with this connection, that which would not have happened if there wasn’t this connection,” he says.

Check the full programme of the Cairo International Women's Film Festival, and Ahram Online's interview with the festival's founder, filmmaker Amal Ramsis.

For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture


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