Outreach Lebanon · By Arianna Economou

The Outreach Lebanon was part of the many activities the European Dancehouse Network (EDN). It started with strong presence at the BIPOD Beirut International Platform of DAnce with representatives of the network in April 14-17th, 2016 so as to attend the opening of Bipod and the Moultaqa Leymoun – Arab Dance Plaform.

The team of representatives of EDN were Walter Heun (Tanzquartier Wien and President of EDN), Carmen Mehnert (Hellerau Dresden and member of the EDN Board), Saskia Wieringa (Dansenshus Oslo), Alena Prozova (Tanec Praha), Maxime Fleuriot (Maison de la Danse Lyon) and myself from Dance Gate Lefkosia Cyprus (Dancehouse Lefkosia).

This year was the 12th edition of Bipod Festival (13 to 30 April) and the 5th edition of the Moultaqa Leymoun which started within Bipod in 2009.

The Bipod Festival was founded and is organized by Maqamat since 2004 and has gained international respect and also an excellent reputation within Beirut.

Mia Habis, artistic director of Bipod writes in her opening note for the festival that their “aim is to establish a platform for innovation, experimentation and the continuous development of a Contemporary Dance Culture in Lebanon and the Arab Region. By introducing new ideas and concepts to envision a new phase of artistic and social productivity creativity modernization and free expression”.

The Bipod Festival and Maqamat have been the pivoting point for many networks to be founded the Masahat Dance Network in the 3rd edition of Bipod and also the Moultaqa Leymoun in its 7th edition.  Masahat network consists of Maqamat Dance Theatre for BIPOD, Sarreyet Ramallah for RCDF – Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, Tanween for DCDP – Damascus Contemporary Dance Platform and the Performing Arts Centre for ACDF – Amman Contermporary Dance Festival.

Moultaqa Leymoun created in 2009 took place this year from the 14th to 17th of April 2016 in Beirut at Al Madina Theatre and Beryte theatre and Chouf Mountains of Lebanon at Maqamat Beit El-Raqs.

Moultaqa Leymoun at Chouf Mountains is created and organized by Maqama Beit El-Raqs and it is a project lead by the Beirut based association, a laboratory and dance space aiming to create the conditions for a continuous development and progress of contemporary dance in the region, in partnership with Saryyet Ramallah-First Ramallah Group, one of the first dance schools in Palestine that seeks to disseminate the culture of dance in the region.

European Dancehouse Network’s representatives at Bipod and Moultaqa Leymoun had the rare possibility to experience the dance and the culture of Lebanon/Beirut and its neighbouring countries to see what is happening in dance in the Arab world and specially in such times of great regional change.

On the 14th April, all international representatives and programmers were welcomed in the theatre of Al-Madina with the performance Beytna by Maqamat Dance Theatre and Omar Rajeh which in Lebanese means the invitation to someone’s house. Below I have selected a mention of the performance as announced in the Facebook of Tanzquartier Wien where the performance has its world premiere earlier on in Apirl 2016.

Beytna * I read in my notes a dance true celebration of the crossroads of East and West South and North where it all begins with the rhythmical chopping and preparing the Fattoush Salad with Omar Rajeh’s mother on the lead and as part of it the audience gets invited on stage to eat and drink, and ends as an immersive dance performance amongst the audience.

Moultaqa Leymoun / Studio presentations / Chouf Mountains

On the 15th of April a bus took us to the Chouf Mountains to the Maqamat Beit El-Raqs part of a cultural centre with a library, a studio and a theatre space which is in the process of being built and a future performance space of Maqamat Beit El-Raqs, a lovely place for the Maqamat residencies and research overlooking the coast of Beirut, the sea and the valley below.

The studio presentations which gave us the rare chance to see young upcoming artists from the Arab Dance Platform and the opportunity to open discussions with the artists involved presenting their work.

First presentation was by Natalie Salsa from Jordan, who showed a video of some of her work, where one could see the strenght of her beautifully classically trained body and technique, a ballerina looking into creative outlets through contemporary dance who in 2014 was dancing the role of Coppelia which premiered at the Jerash International Festival.

Hoor Mallas from Syria followed and our breath came to a halt with the opening of her dance, herself thrown with force against the wal behind her -in a freeze- with her strong eyes looking at us. Hoor Mallas studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in UK and she is now teaching at the School of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Syria. In her studio presentation she worked on various images and themes based on some of Freud’s ideas as she explained, the images of the “wild” in oneself, the animal, in situations of grief and loss. For me, seeing her strenght both physically and emotionally made me realize the power there is and the urgency in the dance of hers and the region’s, as a voice/scream/joy for survival. A tribute to life and a celebration of the power within us.

Her strong presence and technical ability and commitment to many images going through from one to the other took us on her journey towards empowerment.

A day later we happened to sit together for another performance in the Al Madina theatre in Beirut and I touched her to feel her physical presence. I suppose in awe as a way to say thank you, that inspite the harsh war in her country she was there with us to share her work and presence, a relief for me to see the strenght and power where she comes from: Syria, a country for decades now being targeted by devastating wars.

The Home of my Body was the next performance by Charlie Prince (from Lebanon), and the diaspora – a dancer/choreographer living and working now in Montreal dancing with the Umbrella Dance Company and the Ballet BC Canada. This work, he explained, was inspired by the poetry of Khalil Gigran. Prince also holds a Music Degree. He had a strong compositional element in his work expressed in his deeply trained body in the creation of images of his body as a tree, bazzard, rain, wind. Strong image of the use of his shoes as point shoes at one point in the piece.

Mounir Saeed from Egypt followed. A young dance/maker of the new generation of contemporary dance in Egypt – an ex-footballer-, with already many participations in many different countries with his own works such as France, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Tunisia, Germany, Syria and Lebanon.

Saeed’s performance is strong and memorable for his authentic style and the way he pursues to the end of what he begins, focused and honest to his material. He starts in the front diagonal left upstage crouched and using his own voice in a call/tune from a song or a prayer echoing the landscape and the vastness of a space somewhere in his own country. A lament? Or a wordshiping call? He develops very slowly a dance of voice and gestures from the diagonal downstage left to go into the centre where he begins to spin reminding us of Sufi Dance building into this turning material from the gestures of the beginning diagonal.

The sound score he uses switches back and forth from religious music references from choirs East the hodjas praying calls and Western choirs playing with the idea of the cross overs. His presence is humble and gives to his work strenght by bordering on ritual and a deep religious feeling of service within the performance. Touching and creating spaces in the hearts of the audience to feel.

Sina Saberi from Iran was next. An English teacher by profession, he is leading the group MaHa for ways to explore movement and define their own vocabulary of dance in Tehran, working on the themes of identity in today’s Iran. Before he started dancing he stood in front of us dressed in a traditional Persian costume to say: The act of Dance in Iran is a Crime. This is why Saberi explained they call what they do Body-Movement and not Dance. Saberi explained he is researching and looking for sources of the art of dance in his country. But that they have not found any in existence. With his group MaHa they looked into the Persian Mysteries and the Book of Avesta and that in the process where they are developing their own work away from the public spaces and eyes, their work with Omar Rajeh and Maqamat is important and an open dialogue.

Saberi’s dance was performed to traditional Iranian Music. Sina’s vocabulary seemed to me to be based on the whirling dance of Sufis with the choreographic tasks of falling and rising in and out of the floor. Saberi has developed a very smooth and continuous way of moving deeply inward looking and yet inclusive to his audience. At one point I saw a deeper connection of his work into somatics as known to us in the west as his dance manages to go to a deeper and cellular level. I could feel the connection of his work going back into the memory of the body working with the umbilical cord as defined in Boonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s in developmental movement. Afterwards during the discussion I asked him if he was aware of the work of BMC and his reply was “no” said with a tone of curiosity as asking to know more about that. I thought to myself it makes absolute sense if we listen to the body deeply all the experience of our developing from floor to standing it all there archived in the memory of our present body.

Hamdi Dridi (Tunisia) followed with Hamdi going straight into his dance with no spoken introduction. A professional dancer choreographer coming from hip hop now performs within the fusion of the two with Contemporary Dance. Hamdi Dridi presented a piece he calls a Homage to my Father.

Dridis’ concentration is solid and deep like the sense of his whole presence. Not one person moved spoke or coughed during his dance. A skilful performer working in a well worked out choreographic structure  he took us on a journey of skilful unification and harmony between gesture and movement, a part of his research as he explains in the programme note. A superb experience and a unique dancer with a background enhanced by studying with Maguey Mairn,  Harve Robbe, Hafiz Dhaou and Pedro Pauweis.

Bassam Abou Diab (Lebanon) is a theatre graduate from the Lebanese University and a folklore and contemporary art artist performing for several years with Maqamat Dance Theatre. He presented a piece of work where he involved casual talking to the audience as part of it and moving in and out of  talking a solo performance with a musician with him on stage playing  a traditional drum. Diab started by sitting down and asking us how did we know he was not carrying explosives. And BUMMM went the drum scaring the shit out of us touching on our deepest fears as the audience that made such a long journey to the middle east at such troubled times! Bassam very eloquently showed us how he developed his skills for survival through the succession of  all the terrible incidents one after the other in the troubled history of Beirut from 1975s civil war and the many bombings and attacks and wars within and without Lebanon from all surrounding countries. Each time Bassam would repeat and increase on his act of fall and roll to survive.  The dance ends as a dance of celebration the blood the rhythm and joy pouring out carrying us away into the ecstatic dances of the region. With wit, sarcasm and humour, Bassam truly represents the generations of survivors in the region where his performance is a political statement and the Dance of Resistance.

From the real into abstraction (Iran), dance performance on women’s right. The last performance was by a beautiful woman performer from the MaHa group who also presented Zaafaran on the 16th April at Beryte Theatre in collaboration with Maqamat. MaHa started in 2013 in Tehran and is led by Sina Saberi.

Dance in Iran, as I mentioned before, is forbidden and frowned upon. This group without the presence of a single dance academy started out of a need to find the expression of the body, survival and creation. In this performance this young woman (whose name I could not find in the programme notes either) performed her own dance on the theme of  Women’s Rights the Kajurera. The work, very moving,  presented in a very particular movement style reminding one of an ethnographical dance, though it was not. It reminded me of Indian Kathak style in its staccato use of the head a lot in the second position, but not on flat feet but on half point. Is wearing a moustache. Also from charcoal above her upper lip. After talking with her where we all met outside, the young woman performer told me that she is working on a computer for a job as  a secretary in an office and that the movements of this dance came from her study on how to present a woman who is just obeying man’s orders, where the style I saw is the vocabulary she created  from working on robot and doll like movements to express the obedience to a man.  I was reminded that to go into abstract ion one must start from the real. And felt a kin of honour to be witnessing the beginnings of a dance culture in Iran.

The panel discussions on Dance and Activism that followed on Saturday the 16th of April at the Metropolis Cinema in Beirut, moderated by the gifted Simon Dove (United Kingdom/New York) were important to contextualize  the whole Moultaqa Leymoun Arab platform.

Here I would like to include some of the introduction written by Mia Habis artistic director of the Bipod who writes:

“We gather around the artists… to say that they are our freedom of speech, they are our determination and creativity, they are our civil rights. They are our inspiration and imagination, our dreams and ideas. We will never accept for less that what they grant us. These creative people that we look for, will always continue to fulfil and astonish us, will continues to question us, to make us curious. They will continue to grow and mature and to surprise young men and women sitting in the audience. We gather around the artists and gather around Bipod for the reason that we look for the light in this dark region, we look for brilliance and for a better future that is full of humanity. That is why Bipod exists and that is why each one of us is part of this magic. We want this country to move, we want to shake it and rock it so that all the corrupted ideas disappear. Give us our country back, our dear and progressive Lebanon!”

Ending  this report I would like to add the below note on Beytna by Maqamat Dance Theatre and also to congratulate the makers amd performers of  Sacre du printemps, the Tunisian Group Chatha by Aïcha M’ Barek and Hafiz Dhaou who performed on Saturday 16th of April.

BEYTNA *
(from a note on Facebook of  Tanzquartier Wien)
Choreographers from Lebanon, Japan, Belgium, and Togo meet onstage over a banquet. They come from different continents, cultures, and countries. They have different artistic experiences, with different backgrounds and ideas. What connects them is their profession. They talk, drink, laugh, dance, and eat together.” (Omar Rajeh)
In Lebanese, beytna is an invitation to someone’s home. Plunging into the other person’s world, the host’s. Food plays an essential role here. So too in the work by the Lebanese choreographer and dancer Omar Rajeh, who brings toget  international colleagues around his table. Among others, the dancer and choreographer Koen Augustijnen from Les Balletts C de la B, Anani Dodji Sanouvi from Togo, and Hiroaki Umeda from Japan congregate. The shared meal becomes the hub of an analysis of tradition and its fragility. Rajeh’s invitation is directed at everything that does not connect the choreographers. The non-connecting, the differences in their life – artistic, social and cultural – are pushed to the fore. While cultural pluralism is falling into discredit in world-wide discourse and problems of our time are being blamed on it, Rajeh addresses and celebrates the polyphony of the many as many and creates a kaleidoscope of participation.

Arianna Economou
Director Dance Gate Lefkosia Cyprus (founding organisation and member of Dancehouse Lefkosia)
2 May 2016