Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is nutty about anime and manga. Speaking to him at a cafe in his native Antwerp, Cherkaoui drops all the right names into his conversation and gets as giddy as an otaku (obsessive) discussing Japanese pop culture.
However, this 35-year-old isn’t your usual otaku: he’s a lion in the jungle of today’s contemporary dance scene, and he’s bringing his manga-themed work “TeZukA” to Tokyo next week. Watching him an hour earlier at a dance rehearsal, gracefully moving across a stage, it’s delightfully surprising to see his face light up as he starts talking about Osamu Tezuka (1928-89), the “God of Manga” who created one of the world’s most beloved characters, Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy).
“One of the reasons why I love Japanese manga is that it is not just about right or wrong,” Cherkaoui says. “It always shows a complex range of values. That especially applies to Tezuka’s work, and also to Naoki Urasawa’s ‘Monster’ and ’20th Century Boy.’ Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Princess Mononoke’ has that element, too.”
Cherkaoui thinks his openness to Japanese pop culture may have been nurtured by the fact he grew up in suburban Antwerp, the son of a Flemish mother and a Moroccan father.
“I like Antwerp, because it’s a port town where lots of people come and go every day, so you can always feel huge foreign influences here,” he says. “But it’s not an aggressive big city like New York or London.”
His dual-cultural heritage meant that Cherkaoui often traveled to Morocco when he was young and was exposed to that country’s North African traditions.
As a boy, Cherkaoui first saw anime on television. He says that those shows conveyed a different perception of the world, and it was one that was infused with Buddhist philosophy and Shintoism’s devotion to nature.
Cherkaoui praises the “strong relationship to nature and Japan’s understanding and respect for its power.” Many manga and anime, he says, attempt to find a balance between nature and human civilization.
“That makes a lot of sense to me,” he says. “I’ve been educated by Japanese manga since I was small and my world view has largely been influenced by it — it’s basically about reconciliation.”
This begs the question: How does a young anime fan wind up with a flourishing career in dance? Cherkaoui explains that he used to spend a lot of time by himself at home drawing cartoons, becoming lonely and reclusive as a result. After seeing a dance performance, he decided that he wanted to be a part of creating something that involved direct physical connections with other people.
“Dancing was — and is — the best way for me to relate to other people,” he says. “I became enamoured with dancing because I saw it in the same way as I saw drawing. Instead of creating with a pen and ink, when I was 13 or 14, I just switched to using my body and made movements. Now when I create my dances, it’s like I’m drawing pictures.”
The pen and ink are essential to “TeZukA,” where most of the action springs from actual drawings. Enlarged pages from Tezuka’s manga are displayed as part of the set’s backdrop and they spring to life. A boy (perhaps representing the young Cherkaoui), wanders the stage throughout the show and it is his imagination that fuels the story. The stage quickly gets crowded with a variety of colorful characters, including Astro Boy himself. An “insect woman,” a cross-dresser and dancing Shaolin kung-fu monks also interact with the drawings on stage. Kanji are elaborately projected onto scrolls that drop from the ceiling, and calligrapher Tosui Suzuki paints live while dancers glide around him like brushstrokes — and they paint each other, too. With so much happening, it is a bit of a challenge to figure out where to look.
On top of the visual spectacle, the score was composed by award-winning British-Indian musician Nitin Sawhney, and it is played live on stage by three musicians.
“I’ve been working on ‘TeZukA’ for three years,” Cherkaoui says. “I have got a little bit of power now, and many people in my position would be interested in engaging with opera or doing something on Wagner, for example. But I’m more interested in supporting my belief in Tezuka. And I would like to introduce him to people who have never heard his name before — even though they may know Walt Disney’s stuff well. I am just a small person to interpret Tezuka’s majestic world, but I would like to open the door to as many people as I can.”
Last year, as “TeZukA” was falling into place, Cherkaoui brought his Belgian troupe to Tokyo for final rehearsals just before the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred.
“I arrived in Tokyo at the beginning of March and had my birthday on the 10th,” he recalls. “Then the following day, the earthquake happened. I was so emotional and I wondered why such a disaster struck the Japanese, whom I love.
“Many foreigners immediately left, including my dancers and staff. They were advised by the (Belgian) Embassy to go back home — and I think it was the natural choice. But I could not leave my partner, who is Japanese, here in Japan and go back to Europe on my own. So I worked with some Japanese dancers and with video artist Taiki Ueda during that time. It was a very traumatic experience — there was (a shortage of) food, there were aftershocks and tsunami fears, and then came the fear of radioactivity. I read lots about radiation in those days. Inevitably, after that, ‘TeZukA’ was not only about Tezuka and his world, but it also became about this disaster.”
Cherkaoui thinks he could make 25 different performances using Tezuka and his works as the theme, but with this one he decided to focus on the animator’s life. That includes how he escaped a major air raid in Osaka, and studied to become a doctor.
“It’s interesting that there are many doctors in important roles in his works,” Cherkaoui says. “I suppose Tezuka asked whether they should save any lives they could, including villains’ lives; he always got to the point that the right to live is the first priority, no matter how dark and unpleasant the person.”
Following the work’s world premiere at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in September, Cherkaoui is now tweaking the program for audiences in Japan. For this season, leading stage actor Mirai Moriyama has joined the cast.
As Cherkaoui sees it, the role of dance in today’s world is to provide the same humanizing connection that he himself embraced to overcome his isolation when he was younger.
“On the Internet,” he says, “it seems like we are connected, but it’s not physical and it’s only a one-way, very selective connection. However, dance has a tremendous power to feel and connect entirely to other people and their cultures and values.”
“TeZukA” runs Feb. 23-27 at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (3 p.m., 7 p.m.; ¥3,000-8,000). For more details, call (03) 3477-999 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp. For more information about Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, visit www.east-man.be.