Can a contemporary choreographer save the Royal Ballet of Flanders? That's what many questioned when the company announced that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui would take over in September as the new artistic director. The organization's future has seemed increasingly bleak since Kathryn Bennetts resigned in 2012 over the merger of Antwerp's ballet and opera companies. The tenure of her successor, Assis Carreiro, brought an eclectic mix of classical and contemporary works, but lasted only two seasons before she was let go last fall.
Royal Ballet of Flanders' board approached Cherkaoui, who directs his own contemporary troupe, Eastman. To help balance styles, he suggested that ballet master Tamas Moricz, who danced with Frankfurt Ballet under William Forsythe, join him as associate artistic director.
Cherkaoui, who was born in Antwerp, hopes that his local ties may help him handle the treacherous politics his predecessors faced. “I can raise my voice in Flemish, the language of the community," he says. Plus, his experience with Eastman's flexible structure may prove useful in running a company facing budget constraints. “I'm used to working on a shoestring," he says. “We have to find alternative solutions, collaborations and co-productions."
Still, the local dance community has speculated that Cherkaoui's appointment signals the death of classical ballet in Belgium. Though Cherkaoui won't speak specifically of the company's future repertoire, he says he is looking to bring ballet and contemporary dance together. “Either we go for reconciliation or separation. I'm trying to reconcile," he says. He also wants to explore the Royal Ballet of Flanders' history, including the little-known work of Jeanne Brabants, who founded the company in 1969. And he plans to reintroduce Belgian talent like Jeroen Verbruggen, who choreographs for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
Though Carreiro programmed the upcoming season, Cherkaoui has made small adjustments, including his creation of a new work in October. No layoffs have been planned. “We're starting homoeopathically, which is a good thing," he says. “I want to take my time to connect with the dancers, the staff."