A composite body in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Babel. Photo © Maarten Van Den Abeele

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Polyphony, playing and politics: the many voices of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

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A composite body in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Babel. Photo © Maarten Van Den Abeele
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Sanjoy Roy
On voices, parts, and playing parts in the many-limbed choreography of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

This is an adapted text of the speech given by Springback editor Sanjoy Roy on the presentation of the New Theatrical Realities Award for the Europe Theatre Prize to Sidi Larbid Cherkaoui, St Petersburg, November 2018.

Polyphony as a compositional mode

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has a long-standing interest in and love of polyphonic vocal music. In his early piece D’Avant (2002), it was a shared love of this music that brought the four performers together. Since then, he has frequently worked with the Corsican vocal group A Filetta, for whom this style is a hallmark.

Here, I’d like to use the idea of musical polyphony to illuminate Cherkaoui’s choreographic work.

The word polyphony literally means ‘many voices’, though it can be applied to instrumental as well as vocal music. It combines voices of different registers and tones to create a composition where the whole is greater than the parts, yet each part is both distinct and essential. It implies many different voices. You can contrast it with a more familiar compositional style called monody, where there is a principal voice to which other voices serve as accompaniment or support. Different again is homophony, where all the voices are essentially singing the same tune or harmonies, for example in a choral chant.

I like the analogy of ‘voice’ in dance because it invokes a live, human presence that can be communicative in a non-verbal way. Extending that analogy, we could ask: what kinds of choreographic composition might correspond to these vocal ones? For monody, we might think of a characteristic classical ballet composition: principal dancers with accompanying corps. Examples of homophonic choreography might include the 1930s film musicals of Busby Berkeley, where the dancers form mass ornaments; or the synchronised displays you see in Olympic ceremonies; or a chorus line of show dancers.

Here, I would like to look at Cherkaoui’s work as a kind of polyphonic choreography: dancing with many voices. I mean this in a number of different ways.


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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui arises from below stage at the European Theatre Prize 2018, St Petersburg
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui arises at the European Theatre Prize 2018, St Petersburg. Photo © Natalia Korenovskaya

Is Cherkaoui a single person?

First, there is the simple sense that Cherkaoui has produced such a large range of work, in so many genres, that he seems to have too many voices to be a single person. Here are some examples.

There is of course the large body of contemporary dance choreography, through which I know his work best. But he has also worked many times with ballet companies, including Memento Mori and Mea Culpa for the Monte Carlo Ballet, the Boléro for the Paris Opera Ballet (with Damien Jalet), The Firebird for the Stuttgart Ballet – and more. He has also worked on Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson tribute show One. On several operas, including Les Indes Galantes (Bayerische Staatsoper), Pelléas et Mélisande (Opera of Flanders, with Damien Jalet). He has worked on several plays, including Bunkamura Theatre’s manga-inspired Pluto, Joe Wright’s production of Aimée Césaire’s A Season in the Congo, the Barbican Theatre production of Hamlet; on Joe Wright’s feature film Anna Karenina. And his music videos have included Sigur Rós’s Valtari, and Beyoncé & Jay-Z’s Apes**t (as an aside, may I add that it’s nice to see Beyoncé commissioning rather than plagiarising a Belgian choreographer!).

That is an indicative not an exhaustive list, but you get the point: it seems like the work of many people, but actually it’s one person, many voices.


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Damien Jalet and Luc Dunberry in Cherkaoui’s D’Avant.
Body doubles? Damien Jalet and Luc Dunberry in Cherkaoui’s D’Avant. Photo © Sebastiean Bolesch

Different voices, different idioms

Of course, unless you just choreograph solos for yourself, in silence and without an audience, choreography is never a singular art: it involves at the very least one other dancer – or if you like, another ‘voice’.

Cherkaoui seems to have a fondness, for compound bodies – where two or more people form a hybrid being, sometimes to humorous effect. I think of the split personality in D’Avant with one person as the upper body, another as the lower; or the three-headed, six-armed creature forming a kind of ‘unholy trinity’ in Apocrifu; or the many-headed, multi-limbed transformer in Babel, like a comic-strip cyborg. JS Bach, the most well-known musical polyphonist, wrote pieces that he called two-part and three-part inventions, and I like to think of these Cherkaoui’s composite creatures as two, three or multi-part ‘inventions’ too.

It’s also striking how often Cherkaoui’s other ‘voices’ also have different idioms. I think of the tango dancers in m¡longa, the kung fu monks of Sutra, and the African dancers who thread through A Season in the Congo, as well as the duets with flamenco dancer María Pagés (Dunas) of with kathak dancer Akram Khan (Zero Degrees). Sometimes, of course, he works with performers with no codified style, whether they are actors, singers or performers without formal training. Cherkaoui’s choreography is not only a polyphony of voices but the voices themselves often have different idioms. Babel, the title of one of his works – named after the story about the origin of the multiplicity of languages – might be an apt label for his body of work as a whole.

The many media of performance

Let’s not stop, though, with dancers. You can think of the media of performances itself as a set of ‘voices’ that register and communicate with the audience: light, sound, set, costume, perhaps video, text and so on. Cherkaoui often uses these different media not as support, accompaniment or scenic element, but as active voices within the theatrical whole: you notice how they play their part. I think of several pieces where boxes become not just props but players: in Sutra, Babel, Puz/zle; of the digital video interacting with the dancers in TeZuka or m¡longa, the many pieces were singers dance, dancers sing, and sets move around the stage.


Musicians and dancers intermingle in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’
Musicians and dancers intermingle in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Play. Photo © Koen Broos

The players in Play

By way of illustration, I’ll use Play. It’s a work from 2010 and I use it only because it is the piece I saw most recently. It is a weave of stories, languages, voices and media – polyphonic in many dimensions.

At first sight, you might think that Play is a duet for two dancers with very different voices and idioms: Cherkaoui himself, and kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, who mimic, exchange and extend each other’s styles. But it is so much more than a dance duet. The musicians are central to the piece – literally so: they are in the middle of the stage. They too use different idioms, including medieval European and Japanese kodo, in both instrumental and vocal forms. The set moves around, and the musicians move through the dance and vice versa. And there are several scenes – for example when rhythms are created by clapping choreography, or everyone plays a part on the piano – where musicians and dancers are clearly no longer performer or accompaniment, but distinct and active voices within the performance itself. In Play, all the parts are players and everyone plays a part.

Artistic and political polyphonies

Different compositional styles have their own beauties, ambiguities and evasions, and I think it would be a grave mistake to reduce them to social or political realities. Yet we can put forward an analogy: if we consider those realities as the organisation of human material, we can think of them as kinds of composition or choreography.

So, returning to our point of departure: what kind of social patterns might correspond to those vocal compositional modes? An example of one kind of monody might be dictatorship: the domination of many voices by one voice. Fascism, to continue the analogy, might be thought of as a kind of homophony: the unification of many voices into a single harmonic chord, which can be called ‘the voice of the people’.

Today, Cherkaoui is receiving the ‘New Theatrical Realities’ Award of the Europe Theatre Prize. Yet the very phrase ‘new realities’ feels ominous right now. For when I think of new realities – not just in Europe, but across the world – I cannot help but think of the rise of dictatorial figureheads and identitarian nationalisms. That is, of monodic and homophonic forms of human organisation.

If we are to move to a more pluralist human world then it will be to a more polyphonic mode – one that gives space to dissonance as well as harmony, and where different registers, themes, idioms and ways of being are incorporated rather than excluded or suppressed. So I would like to end, then, with a suggestion and a plea: that we think of this prize to Cherkaoui not as an award for a new reality, but towards one. 


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St Peterburg, Russia. 16 November 2018
Theme: Dance+
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