Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui returns to the zon-mai’s genesis, to the different stages of its creation. He also tells us what it represents for him

"If the Zon-Mai had to be defined, I’d say...

A house, but turned inside out in every way, as the name implies. A house whose inner life is visible from outside, one where we watch people within their own homes but without stepping inside ourselves, we remain on the outside.

The idea of an installation...

Was born when the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration showed me the Palais de la Porte Dorée, and invited me to conceive an artistic project related to its premises. I found the frescos in the Salle des fêtes particularly riveting; huge and powerful paintings that say so much about the worldview that defined the construction of this building in 1931: France’s relation, or rather, France’s perception of its relation with the rest of the world. So the Zon-Mai, actually, is a contemporary response to these frescos, a reversal of this vaunted relation: because the centre today is teeming with the periphery. So the Palais directly inspired the idea, it was this encounter with the building that trigge- red my desire to reply to it. And with Gilles Delmas, a video artiste and friend – who in turn visited the building, and was similarly affected by it – we started bouncing ideas. I was very sure about that the project involved videos, and Gilles was equally convinced of an installation in the shape of a house. Gradually, the Zon-Mai took form, and the concept became clear.

For me, the frescos required a two-dimensional response – even if the installation makes it formally three-dimensio- nal. But these paintings depicting France’s contribution to other countries – a kind of paean to its generosity – promp- ted me to reply through video. Since I am not a video artiste, I invited Gilles Delmas. He envisioned a small house within this immense building; he was immediately struck by the idea of the installation. As for me, I wanted videos that would provide a contemporary rejoinder to the frescos. Our two inspirations spliced to give the Zon-Mai.

The dance sequences, the shooting, the editing...

Are all fuelled by the mutual trust in our sessions with the dancers. We wanted to film them in their homes, depending on where “home” was at a given point: there are dancers whom we filmed in their “real” homes, like Erna Omarsdottir, in Iceland, in her childhood home, although she is hardly ever there; or Shantala Shivalingappa, who was filmed in someone else’s home, although she does have a home in Paris. But they didn’t know how this material would really be used, how exactly their sequence would be woven into the rest of the narrative. Still, I know them all personally, and they placed their trust in me, and threw themselves into this venture with great generosity.

With each dancer, the choreography was conceived in a particular way. There was something different each time: sometimes there were improvisations on a theme, at other times, there was core choreography from a previous piece – or even material from works in progress. Perhaps the greatest significance of the Zon-Mai – for me on a personal level – is that it provided the opportunity to bring together all these dancers under the same “roof”! Dancers I could never work with together for one live performance because they have individual careers, often in different countries. For instance, there are dancers from the Monte-Carlo Ballets and the Cullberg Ballets; the dancers I work with regu- larly, and others, like Shantala, who have careers as solo artistes and are globe-trotting all the time. So the Zon-Mai was actually like a reunion: mobilizing all these dancers around one project, in one place and getting them all to dance together and at the same time. I believe that this is also a miracle the Zon-Mai wrought; it’s catalysed this converging of the different worlds that make up my life

So, getting back to the choreography, each sequence was shaped by different input. Often, I suggested a theme. For example, with Shantala, I asked her to imagine that she had all the needed space and yet, would be hungering to move elsewhere, to cross boundaries. There was also the equation with the windowpane: she was in a large, dark apartment, and there was light entering through the window. So she would keep trying to move towards the light, and each time, her hands would smash into the windowpane like moths hurtling against an obstacle, oblivious of the thing that stood between her and her desire to dance under the sun.

In my duo with Nicolas Vladyslav, filmed in Sweden, I am in his house like a cumbersome object. He enters, finds me right in his path, and tries to find a spot where I can be kept: under the table, on a chair, next to the door, in a drawer ... but he can’t put me away and I bother him. Finally, the only place where he can hide me is under the bed. I am really fond of this segment which speaks volumes on human nature: on our bond with the past, our tendency to refuse reality, the impasse people find themselves in duo to mental blocks or even ignorance – because in Shantala’s case, she only had to open the window to find her place in the sun outside. But she didn’t realise that and so she felt trapped behind the win- dowpane.

So the approach we followed with each dancer was quite distinct. We have tried to capture different emotions, diffe- rent sides to the issue of immigration, and also to one’s rapport with the notion of home. The order of sequences during editing was also quite intuitive: we relied a great deal on instinct, and after several attempts we found the order that seemed just right to us. And a lot of it was pure serendipity, which I believe is never accidental. I realised retrospectively that there are twenty-one sequences to the Zon-Mai, like twenty-one tarot cards. And that each sequence could actually be linked to a card, that every archetype could be identified: the twins or Gemini in the sixth position, the mother in the third, the priestess – Erna – in the second. Every time, there could be another world behind, if we choose to delve into it.

Reactions to the Zon-Mai...

When the dancers came to see the Zon-Mai in Roubaix (it was the first time they got to see the installation), many of them had the distinct impression of being before a temple, of a religious experience. So did I. Because I am also a part of the audience. Often, I am asked what the audience thinks. But, even while one is the creative artist, one is above all, a spectator. As a creative artist, we gradually piece things together, whereas as the audience we see other things, and form our own impression of the work. So as a spectator, I was also struck by this sense of spirituality, the feeling that the house had become a temple. And it made sense to me, especially in that particular spot.

The musical ambience...

Whose main element is Fadia El Hage’s voice happened very naturally. It was another piece of serendipity, which plays an important role in the creative process and which I am deeply attached to in my work. I was working with Fadia on a project for 2008, and consequently, listening to her music a great deal, all the while that I was also mulling over the Zon- Mai. And for the Zon-Mai’s soundtrack, we didn’t have any fixed or predetermined ideas. But while working parallelly on both projects, at home surrounded by her voice, the same disembodied voice started inhabiting the Zon-Mai, and progressively, the musical ambience fell into place; her voice seemed so very relevant and right to me.

When I tried some songs on particular sequences, they blended perfectly. And her voice linked all the different sequen- ces like the arms of an earth goddess holding together the planet, or like a call for prayer. Her feminine voice ringing across the hall as a call for prayer, in this context of a temple or a religious place, was quite enticing as ideas go: this underlying contradiction or unconventionality that a female voice should represent the call of the muezzin. This reversal of the masculine and feminine seemed perfectly congruent with the general credo of the Zon-Mai, which sug- gests quite a few inversions.

The Zon-Mai as a map of my inner landscape...

The Zon-Mai came into my life just after a production I’d done with the Monte-Carlo Ballets, together with Gilles Delmas: Mea Culpa, which dealt with issues like colonialism and also the equations between Europe and Africa. So, when the Cité contacted me and asked me to consider a project, it seemed very logical and meant, as far as my own jour- ney as a choreographer went. All of a sudden, these questions about borders, about North-South and East-West displa- cements, came to the forefront because we were looking at migration.

I am not quite sure yet as to where this particular ride will take me, but I get the feeling that the Zon-Mai has tried to tell me I am seeking a home of my own. Perhaps that place, home, for me, is to be found where those dear to me are. And the people dearest to me are the dancers with whom I work. So, in a way, the Zon-Mai was home for me, because the dancers who inhabit it are my friends, those with whom I speak, grow and learn the most. By bringing all these dancers to this place, I have also had the opportunity to try and find a home for myself

Because as a choreographer, I am travelling incessantly, I work with companies all over. And, through this project, I brought them all to a single spot, thus coming face to face also with the desire to be settled for a bit. On the one hand, the project underscored that nomadism was the most natural and most perennial thing on earth; and on the other, it brought to the fore a longing for a place where I could stay a little longer.

For me, home is a moment of suspension, not somewhere where you put down roots forever, because I believe life entails travelling, migrating. And the Zon-Mai is a place where people can come and spend an hour or two, a place for contemplation: I can stay here a bit, I can gaze, think – not only about what I see before my eyes, but also my own expe- rience – and then I can return to life, to movement and to migrating. Because we migrate every day: for some of us, it can be just taking the subway, and resurfacing in another part of town; others catch a flight halfway across the world. But the journey, the displacement is an inevitable part of life. I believe the Zon-Mai has made me confront this wish to set- tle in a place for a while; perhaps it will only be a pit stop before gathering all my energy and leaving on a new bout of total nomadism.

The ideal spot for the Zon-Mai

Would be outside, and at night, under a starlit sky, maybe in a city square. Well, I know that technically none of this is possible, but if it were, this is exactly how I envisage it!

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui 


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avril 2007 //Anvers
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui et Nicolas Vladyslav

La zon-mai, capture vidéo de Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui et Gilles Delmas©Gilles Delmas