Preloader Operavision
Wilfried Hösl

The stranger in us

Sidi Larb Cherkaoui’s staging of Les Indes galantes tells a story of colliding cultures.

In Les Indes galantes, a French baroque opera-ballet composed in 1735, Jean-Philippe Rameau tells stories about love, jealousy and redemption in four different episodes and as many different cultural contexts. Where the composer was seduced by the exoticism of foreign lands, peopling his opera with Turks, Peruvians, Persians and Native Americans, the Belgian director and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui highlights the familiar in the unknown.

The relationship to foreign cultures in the work has a sense of naivety. I love to keep that naivety because there’s something beautiful about it, but then reverse it and compare those cultures much more with what we know.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Together with a large ensemble of singers and the dancers from his Compagnie Eastman from Antwerp, Cherkaoui sets the action in a more or less contemporary world, approaching it with a typically baroque profusion.

He connects the four distinct episodes set in far-away places into one overarching story. The soloists sing different roles which nonetheless melt into a single character. ‘There are less characters, but they live more complex love stories’, Cherkaoui explains. ‘Actually, because these love stories are more complex, they are more real and they connect more with what love is today.’

The soprano Lisette Oropesa, for instance, embodies both Hébé and Zima. In the prologue, the goddess of youth Hébé is shown as a schoolteacher. ‘She is always trying to bring forth the ideas of nature, peace, love and harmony, because in the world that we’ve established in this opera, there’s a lot of tension. People are always looking for love among cultural tension,’ says Oropesa. 

As movement plays a central role in this opera-ballet, Cherkaoui is particularly attentive to questions of rhythm. Set changes occur with the help of dance as dances move the stage equipment towards the end of each act. The following act’s scenery is set up in smooth transitions before the end of the previous one. Not only does this disrupt the idea of a single space, it also underlines the continuity of the subject matter between different acts. Even as we are taken from one continent to another, we stay true to our subject matter: love.

In Act II, for instance, Cherkaoui cheekily transforms the Inca priest Huascar into a Catholic one. As the priest marries a ballet of couples, we see him refuse his blessing to a gay couple. Here the sharp religious criticism characteristic of Cherkaoui's work shines through.

When you compare yourself to other cultures, you realise that you are exactly the same. You have the same framework. Whatever will happen to them could happen to you.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

With its loaded title ‘The Savages’, Act IV presents migrants engaged in menial jobs like cleaning. Here Cherkaoui choreographs the extraordinary solo act of a cleaner-dancer around his broom, there a human chain moving as if in a cascade of dominos.

When Lisette Oropesa returns in the role of Zima, she still appears as a teacher. ‘By this time a lot of things have happened to our group of refugees,’ Oropesa explains. ‘Several different races of people are clashing and the world has basically been destroyed. Zima is still trying to teach these small children how to continue on in this world full of violence.’

The overall message conveyed is not a reductive or pessimistic worldview as much as it presents a canvas of humanity. The dances are additional characters in this vision. ‘All of these singers,’ says Cherkaoui, ‘are facettes of our own humanity. And I think the dancers are as well. So even if they don’t say anything, they are very important, because sometimes in your life it’s the people who say the least, who do the most.’

Through the language of music and the language of dance, Cherkaoui’s staging of Les Indes galantes tells a story of colliding cultures and ultimately a story of us.