The language of movement: 3 practitioners examine the state of contemporary dance in the Middle East
LONDON: A little over a year ago, Mira Majzoub was approached by videographer Mansour Rachid. He had an idea. He wanted to produce a film of her dancing to a particular piece of music in a certain location. This location would be the old silk factory in Damour, Lebanon. The music would be “Overture II – Alf Leila Wa Leila” by Ibrahim Maalouf.
“We were discussing whether it would be choreographed or improvised and I decided to do it as an improvisation because it was an evolving process, so I wanted it to be very authentic when we were there,” says Majzoub. “We actually didn’t take more than two or three shots from the set, just to be authentic and to describe where I was at that moment. To make it sincere.
The end result was a fascinating translation of the complex cultural identity of music. Majzoub, who recently enrolled at ACTS/Ecole de danse contemporaine de Paris and is a relatively new member of Beirut Contemporary Ballet, has an intense yet joyful fluidity in her movement. It is perhaps for this reason that the show contributed to opening a rare public window on the world of contemporary dance, a world as little known as it is underestimated.
For Majzoub, contemporary dance, based on improvisation and versatility, allowed her to dig deeper into herself, discover meaning and face extreme circumstances. “Sometimes I spend more than an hour repeating the same movement or repeating the same concept over and over again because I discover more feelings, I discover how my body moves in a certain way, and this process is not it’s not just happiness, it’s not just joy; it takes me from one place to another,” she says. “It’s like taking another step, digging inside how my body and how my brain connects to each other to create.”
Dancing also helped her adapt to the turmoil that engulfed Lebanon. The day after the explosion at the port of Beirut last year, she went to her room, closed the door and started moving her arms up and down in a certain way. There was no music, just this articulate movement and irregular breathing.
“I realized something,” she says. “That even in good times or bad, even after a blowout or at a wedding, I would move. That’s the first thing I would go for. The first thing my body would go to. For the first time, I had peace of mind when I did this little thing in my bedroom. Dance is a tool for me to adapt, dance is a tool for me to be mentally stable, and I’m glad I learned to navigate it. How to use this thing I have.
The same is almost certainly true of movement artist, performer and choreographer Sarah Brahim, whose work spans themes such as loss, identity, race and migration. Identity matters, in large part because of its own complex background – a combination of American and Saudi cultures.
“From an early age, I was always faced with questions of incomprehension — ‘Where are you from?’ being the most standard, and then questions from there,” she says. “It comes from the two cultures I belong to. So many people have cross-cultural experiences and stories. So to work on this, I feel like I can create a space where those of us who feel like we don’t belong or have a place that is ‘home’ can exist and are welcome. »
For Brahim, bringing a project to life begins with a personal sense of urgency – a feeling or idea that “overwhelms my mind and body”.
“It starts with a core, always something that I think is important, invisible and should be amplified,” she explains. Some projects, such as “Roofless”, have been developed from continuous research into the relationship between the human body and architecture. Others, like “Body Land/Back to Dust,” involved nine months of moving, researching, and writing about how her body coped with pain and grief. The latter, produced during a residency at Performance Works NorthWest, dealt specifically with the hands and became the seed of her current work.
“I constantly use structured improvisation as a tool because it allows me to develop solid material, but also to surprise myself and experiment at the same time,” says Brahim, who studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School. in 2016. “I use this approach with the many mediums I work with because I care about capturing a specific feeling or experience and resonating with others. Being open to the medium that works to communicate and being open enough to listen deeply to where things are coming from keeps me grounded in what I do, regardless of the topic or presentation.
Brahim, who is currently working on several projects, including a performance commission and a few exhibitions, wishes to combine his textile practice with performance. It means creating sculptures and installations that exist on their own but are also integral to experimentation and performance.
The reasons why she dances, however, have been redefined since the start of the pandemic. Like many others, she found it important to look at everything in her life and reassess what was really important. “Art and movement saved me and so many others through this difficult time and it wasn’t just the practices or the media,” she says. “I looked around me at the communities in my life and the beautiful ways they came together and provided time, conversations, free classes, space, and realized how people in my lives were amazing, all of whom had flourished pursuing creative careers.
“For me it’s about the people, but also what we do is question and push our experiences further with each project and I find that fascinating. There’s nothing else I would rather do When I watch a great performance, hear or see something that resonates with me, that feeling of light and interconnectedness is irreplaceable.
This is also true for Hamza Damra, who grew up in Balata, on the outskirts of Nablus. Originally a breakdancer, dancing was for him, and still is, a way of reacting to the feelings generated by the environment in which he grew up. “Dancing taught me the meaning of these feelings,” he says simply.
Last year, he received funding from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) for “Moi et moi”, a project centered on his experience of living between Palestine and France. Still in the works, he chose angry and sharp movements to represent his time in France (unlike the peace and freedom he saw there), and more fluid movements for Palestine, “despite the difficult situation, the unstable emotions, uncertainties.”
“I created a language of movement that was taken from my own situation,” he explains. “Circumstances that I have been through and are still going through.”
Despite its vitality and relevance — and the myriad of benefits that its practitioners derive from it — contemporary dance remains unknown in the region, sometimes deeply. The AFAC and the Sharjah Art Foundation can support the performance, but it is often seen as inaccessible, even elitist. And that perception is unlikely to change unless more emphasis is placed on its cultural value.
“I think contemporary performance as a whole can be undervalued all over the world,” says Brahim. “Therefore also less engaged, documented and publicized. Performance is quite difficult to commodify or (monetize) compared to other creative fields, which is exactly what makes it special, vivid, temporal, but also probably why it gets less interest. My work has specifically found its place in sectors such as music, design, film and contemporary art. In the future, I hope there is room for all forms of expression to be less rigid in their definition and more integrated in their form.