A kinetic spree
Nehad Selaiha is caught in a 10-day modern dance whirl
For 10 days dancing seemed to dominate the performance scene in Cairo and Alexandria and provide the most exciting artistic expressions and explorations. The visit of the world-famous German Das Folkwang Tanzstudio from Essen on 11 and 12 of this month with an exhilarating work called Lakenhal ("The Cloth Factory" in Flemish), was a major highlight and sent everybody, young and old, into raptures. The title, which refers to the many cloth factories and exquisite linen fabrics for which the Flemish people are famed, as the printed programme said, was a bit mystifying at first, since nothing remotely connected with cloth-making could be seen on stage -- unless you viewed the stage itself, with the many linen sheets framing it and stretching across it, at different points, from the flies to the floor, as a kind of loom on which choreographer Henrietta Horn (also a gifted dancer and the current co-artistic director of this 75-year-old company with Pina Bausch) set about weaving and unravelling the bodies of her dancers. You soon discover, however, that the title refers more to Horn's source of inspiration than to any particular subject or message. The German-Belgian-French-Dutch history and heritage of Flanders, once an old, medieval principality, is metaphorically woven, through dance and music, into an intricate cultural-emotional vista where the conflict of wills -- of who dances to whose tune and who leads the band -- becomes the source of dramatic tension and the force that propels the show along.
Brilliantly choreographed, with plenty of imaginative flair and intelligent humour, Lakenhal unfolded against a richly varied musical background which included works by the Brussels-born Jacques Brel, the Banda de Tontontepec, the Fanfare Ciocarlia (an 11-man brass and woodwind band from the village of Zece Prajini near the Romanian-Moldavian border), as well as The Four Elements by the 16th century German music publisher and composer Tielman Susato who became the official town trumpeter in Antwerp in 1525. Indeed, music cut a high profile in this show and seemed, together with the lighting, more like a driving, dramatic force than a mere accompaniment. The interaction between body and sound went through many modulations and the musical impact was enhanced by calculated periods of silence, where only the breathing of the young, versatile, multinational dancers could be heard as they mimed violent confrontations, obstinately resisted being physically manipulated, or rushed around mechanically like an army obeying orders. At many points, as the dancers gracefully threaded their way through the many white screens lining the stage, tantalizingly appearing and disappearing, one was vividly reminded of such childish, popular games as hide- and-seek and now-you-see-it-now-you-don't. I suppose this is how the history of any nation might appear and Lakenhal was, ultimately, a metaphoric take on the history of Flanders. Conceived with subtlety and wit, Lakenhal was alternately funny, lyrical, aggressive, bewitchingly sensual, or pensively nostalgic; but whatever the mood, it was consistently effervescent, elegant and poetic.
Lakenhal occurred in the middle of a dance-busy week. Five days earlier, on 6 February, I had gone to Alexandria to attend the eight- day Roaming Inner Landscapes Forum on Self-Image and Artistic Expression organised by the Young Arab Theatre Fund and mounted at the Garage Theatre of the Jesuit Cultural Centre, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the English Department of the University of Alexandria. The forum, which brought together Arab and African dancers and musicians, many of them transnational, to ponder, in action, through movement and music, the question of self-representation across cultural, gender and ideological boundaries, featured nine pieces (though only eight were shown since Dalia El-Abd's Is It Real? was cancelled at the last minute due to the sudden illness of her dancer). But though the accent of the festival was on concrete representation, it did not ignore verbal expressions of the self. It featured a number of poetry recitals by expatriate poets writing in English (Khalid Mattawa, a Libyan living in the US, who massacred the Arabic language as he read his poems in translation and Hussein Shoukry, a 28-year old Egyptian AUC graduate living in Vienna who managed to put everybody's back up), a disquisition on the concept of Arab identity or, as he called it, Arab "Self", by Tunisian scholar Mohamed Jaballi (which irritated me on account of its basic assumption of a uniform Arab self-image which ignores gender issues and its blithe dodging of the crucial difference between the two meanings of the word "zat" in Arabic, which could mean either a metaphysical, essential given, from one ideological perspective, or "subjectivity", in the sense of a cultural construct, from another). Other literary guests of the forum were novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who read some of her articles on Ramallah, published in the London Guardian, Sama Aweida, a Palestinian academic and women's rights activist, who read excerpts from her book Palestine, My Beloved, depicting the daily suffering of women and children in her country, writer Buthayna Al- Nassiri from Iraq and Sahar El-Mougy, the well- known Egyptian fiction writer and founding member of The Women and Memory Forum, who read some of her short stories.
My interest, however, was primarily focussed on theatre and the audio-visual expressions of the creative self. Moving between minimalism and excess, a kind of mystical restraint fraught with sensuous tension, and turbulent tropes spilling over with passion, the eight shows hosted, from Egypt (Karima Mansour's Temporament and Reem Hegab's Quiet Red), Tunisia (Iman Smaoui's Point, Malak Sebai's B. Ticino, and Lotfi Abdelli's I am a Dancer), Lebanon (Joumana Murad's Commas and Full Stops and Omar Rajeh's Beryouth Jaune), Burkina Faso (Salia ni Seydou's Century of Fools), and the Ivory Coast (Beatrice Kombi's Dimi by the Cie Tche Tche troupe), provided plenty of variety and food for thought. To enjoy them, however, you had to forget about what the creators had to say about their creations and rely on your eyes and inner resources.
The notes provided by the choreographers were at best limiting, if not misleading. People who speak with their bodies tend unwittingly to churn out a lot of esoteric, highfalutin verbiage which, more often than not, sounds or reads like a parody of some metaphysical treatise or the ravings of a mad visionary poet. Listen to this caption, intended as a clue to Imen Smaoui's enchanting Point: "To be a unit and part of the unit. To seek its space, its place, its position, its force. Its Point. The point moving. Starting point. Departure without point of arrival. Not moment of the present in the present moving. To seek balance in imbalance... The movement never stops. The point moves continuously in space. The point is movement... To limit its real space, to find its thought, its present, its world Not of arrival died of the evolution. To forget the point, it is the accident in space, the accident with oneself, the accident with the other."
And do not simply think that this printed English text is a bad translation; in Arabic, it is even more abstruse. On stage, however, Smaoui was thoroughly eloquent and spoke to each and every one of us of distant childhood memories, of the persistent craving to possess the space around and even above you, make it your own and feel at home in it, and of the feeling of anxiety, of being lost in this temporal vast space or being engulfed by it, of the pull of the past, the fact that we constantly look backwards as we move on in time, of the points of light that mediate the dark gaps of memory and of a lot of other things that one cannot express in words.
Tall, slim, completely bald and waif-like, dressed in a transparent deep orange slip with wide trousers underneath, and moving on tiptoe, in a straight line along the back of the stage (draped in black with light strings intersecting it), now pausing to look behind her, now turning to face the black mass, while a soft nursery rhyme is recited in a voice-over, followed by an old song by Asmahan which evoked a rush of admiring murmurs from the audience as if everyone was connected with it in some mysterious way, Smaoui seemed like a fleeting shadow, a weightless body about to take off and float away -- an ethereal, elusive, genderless presence, half-monk, half-fairy, suspended in time and on the point of dissolving into pure transparency. Her 30 minute performance felt like a momentary glimpse of a strange, stirring inner landscape, at once personal and disturbingly alien.
Equally minimalist, and even shorter (only 17 minutes long), conducted in total silence within a chalked rectangle on the floor of the completely bare small stage at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, with music figuring as brackets, a brief prelude and finale, framing the performance, Lotfi Abdelli's I am a Dancer dwelt, by contrast, not on the position of the body in space and the temporal flow, but on rediscovering the latent and quite miraculous kinetic potential of the physical self, of every part and limb of the finite, perishable body, and celebrating it. Lotfi, who, as he told me, discovered his love for dancing on the streets of his city, Tunis, at the age of 17, was picked up by some talent scout to train as a classical ballet dancer, had distinguished himself enough in his craft to get offers from Europe and South Africa to join prestigious troupes, had rejected them all since he was an only child and the sole caretaker of his aged, illiterate parents, had eventually bowed down to family and community pressures, both staunchly inimical to dancing and deserted his beloved art for a more lucrative and less taxing career as an actor in film and television. This happened seven years ago. But, one day, Lotfi woke up with a realisation that he had betrayed himself and I am a Dancer was the fruit of that crucial moment of self- revision and investigation. The piece could have been more accurately titled in the interrogative form. Am I a Dancer? Can I Go Back to Dancing? That, at least, is what it is all about.
The third Tunisian show, also a solo, was equally frugal and intensely focussed. Malak Sebai took her inspiration and borrowed her title from the trademark name of a particular brand of tight, long-sleeved, knee- length Italian coats. Closely buttoned at the top, it slightly flared from the waist down, allowing a short, tight micro skirt of soft, white material, to show whenever the dancer moved. The contrast between the rigidly encased upper part of the dancer's body and her bare, free legs generated waves of energy and dramatic tension. It created an intense expectation of the moment when the body will break free and rid itself of the constricting coat and flow freely around the bare stage in its full glory. But to give us this anticipated moment, would have plunged the work into facile optimism. The freedom of the female body in Arab societies is a hope that still lies far ahead. Malak kept her coat on until the final blackout and left her audience deeply frustrated, wanting to tear angrily at the hateful coat.
The performances from Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast were on the side of excess choreography-wise. Both seemed intent on displaying in terms of movement and music the dancer's libidinal energy and ethnic orientation to the maximum and focussed on the quest for light and liberation in feminine and masculine, personal and public terms. No wonder both came across as heavily coded political messages. Magnificent dancers, yes; but both works stuck me and others as in heavy need of editing. The Lebanese Beyrouth Jaune was even more pronouncedly political. Triggered by the investigation of a writer of a young woman's suicide, it develops into a thorough, stylised, satirical exposition of the frustration and many problems -- educational, political, and sectarian -- facing young people in Lebanon since the civil war. I unfortunately missed Reem Hegab's Quiet Red in order to catch the German Lakenhal, but hope to see it soon when it transfers to Cairo.
Steering a middle course between extreme asceticism and overflowing abundance were Joumana Murad's Commas and Full Stops -- an under-developed work despite the initial acrobatics, with the fascinating silhouettes of the dancer projected on a back screen in the initial sequence providing the only interesting and memorable part -- and Karima Mansour's Temporament (coined out of two words: tempo and temperament) in which drummer and percussion performer, Ahmed Kombouri, a Tunisian living in Paris, played a vital part, providing the vocal creation and live music of the show. The conflict between body and sound, dance and music, present in various degrees of potency in all the shows I have mentioned, and particularly in Joumana's creation, was, in Mansour's case, the matrix of the show and was visually and metaphorically developed into a confrontation between the self and the other, and the male and female elements. It was Karima's best show so far and I think that she should invest in more collaborative works with artists of the calibre of Kombouri.