Beyond an Ordinary Vision

MAY 11, 2018

By Mario Alberto Zambrano

We’d been invited to a party in the West Village. The hostess, a mutual friend, paired us together in the corner of the room—he was the token choreographer, and I was the token dancer. “You’ll both have plenty to talk about,” she said. “I’m sure.” Slightly bashful, he stood near the wall nursing a warm cup of tea, which I thought peculiar since everyone had wine. Before I could introduce myself, he extended his hand and said, “I’m Sidi Larbi, but you can call me Larbi. Sidi is just a form of saying mister in Arabic—my father is from Morocco.” If I had known then— ten years ago—what would lie before him, I might not have believed it.

The party was a bit stuffy, filled with curators and artists from upscale galleries in Manhattan. I felt more comfortable staying in the corner with Larbi because I, too, was feeling bashful, and he didn’t seem to mind. He was gentle, kind, and very interesting. He’d just finished working with eighteen monks from the Shaolin Temple and was about to fly to Spain to work with a flamenco dancer on a new project. “You aren’t the typical choreographer, are you?”

I said. Sutra, which means “thread” in Sanskrit and refers to sacred texts in Buddhism, is the name of the piece he spoke of, a collaborative work with Shaolin monks and set designer Antony Gormley. It premiered in London ten years ago at Sadler’s Wells and continues to be performed around the world. Twenty-one wooden boxes are arranged onstage. Together the monks and Larbi construct walls, bridges, a temple, and, in one scene, a formation implies a graveyard—some critics have called these arrangements constellations. Over the course of the evening, Sutra unravels as an architectural and embodied discourse about the negotiation between form and space, its transformation, deconstruction, and imagination. With its poetic vision, the piece won the hearts of many.

Celia Gooding (Frankie) and members of the Ensemble in rehearsal for Jagged Little Pill.


María Pagés, the flamenco dancer he spoke of that night, co-created a piece with him called Dunas. Larbi’s works are frequently collaborative, signaling his sustained interested as an artist in intercultural and interdisciplinary exchange. Coming from a hip-hop and vogueing background from his teenage years in Belgium, he has gone on to work in different media all over the world. For instance, the dance sequences in the film Anna Karenina directed by Joe Wright exhibit his cinematic sensibility, and last year he worked with Beyoncé on her performance at the Grammy Awards. In 2013, he premiered a full-evening work at The Paris Opera Ballet with Damien Jalet and Marina Abramovic titled Bolero. At Bunkamura in Tokyo, he directed a production called Pluto based on the beloved manga character Astro Boy. And since 2015, he has been the artistic director of one of the most renowned ballet companies in the world, The Royal Ballet of Flanders. Yet these accomplishments are only a dime’s worth of what his career has covered. Since I last saw him, he has created over 50 choreographic works and won two Olivier Awards, three Ballet Tanz awards for Best Choreographer, and, in 2009, the Kairos Prize.

At the time of our meeting, Larbi had such a gentle demeanor that it didn’t seem to match what I assume engenders such a bustling lifestyle. But perhaps the aura of centeredness I remember keeps him grounded enough to move in and around his projects with grace. If you speak to anyone who knows him and works with him, they’ll mention how thoughtful he is, and intuitive, from studio to stage.

This season, we have the opportunity to indulge in Sidi Larbi’s work here in Cambridge: he is the choreographer of Jagged Little Pill, the world-premiere production directed by Diane Paulus, inspired by the 1995 album of the same name by Alanis Morissette.

After that night at the party, we met again the following afternoon; we had hummus and mint tea on the Upper East Side. He had read an op-ed I’d written about a personal frustration I was having as a professional dancer, how I felt like an instrument conforming to a choreographer’s singular artistic vision. Larbi leaned across the table and wanted to speak to me about it. He looked very concerned. In his soft tone, he insisted that that was exactly what he wanted to avoid. “You shouldn’t feel used,” he said. “You should feel invited—invited to be part of the creation so that both you and the choreographer are taking agency over your collaboration.”

Considering his rapport with so many artists across so many disciplines, it’s likely that he has been able to sustain the mantra, and in a culture where power is a virus and authority is bolstered by its own hubris—in politics as well as in art—it’s humbling to see such a renowned artist demonstrating such diplomatic composure.

Mario Alberto Zambrano is a Lecturer in Theater, Dance & Media at Harvard University. A Presidential Scholar in the Arts, a Princess Grace Fellow, and an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has been a soloist and principal dancer for Nederlands Dans Theater, Batsheva Dance Company, Ballet Frankfurt, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Celia Gooding and members of the ensemble in rehearsal for Jagged Little Pill: Jimmy Ryan

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