BEIRUT: “We and the moon are neighbors,” begins the famous Fairuz song “Nehna wel Amar Jiran.”
“His house is behind our hills. He rises in front of us listening to the tunes. We and the moon are neighbors.”
A nod to the Fairuz song, “Nehne wel Amar wel Jiran” (We and the moon and the neighbors), is three-day-long open-air performance festival launched last year by Collectif Kahraba.
Held in Mar Mikhael, on the steps running up from the hole where Cinema Vendôme used to be, the event is a collaboration between the performing arts troupe and their neighbors, and it tends to focus on the local community.
The festival grew out of Kahraba’s conversations with local residents that started in 2010.
“The neighbors kept asking us, ‘What are you doing? What is your work?’” explains festival co-founder and artistic director Aurelien Zouki, who lives adjacent the Vendôme Steps. “We said, ‘It’s theater,’ but they couldn’t get what theater is. They said, ‘On TV? Which channel?’”
In the end, Zouki and two Collectif Kahraba colleagues in the neighborhood decided to show rather than tell. In 2010 they gave a single performance on the steps, and invited the neighbors to attend. The show was such a success that the collective followed up with a three-day festival.
“It’s something that changed our relations with the neighbors,” recalls Zouki. It “made people happy. People asked us, ‘Will you do it again this year?’ ... They are really helping [with] everything – the organization ... cleaning the stairs ... preparing food, opening their doors, their balconies, their rooftops, [allowing us] to plug electric devices in their homes. It’s a community project.”
This year’s festival begins on Aug. 30 and closes with a “Grand Ball” on Sept. 1. Though the main program on each of the three nights will be different, all begin with a 7 p.m. “artistic promenade through the neighborhood.”
The audience will be divided into small groups for the promenade, each led by a guide who will take them on a neighborhood tour of hidden squares, neighboring houses and onto private rooftops.
“This is something very different,” Zouki explains. “For the artistic promenade we created small puppet scenes that will be played on many rooftops, in front of the houses and on the stairs. For that work we interviewed the neighbors ... mainly the oldest ones – the first ones to come here.
“From that we edited a small audio scene,” he continues. “So these puppet scenes are inspired by daily lives ... You will meet them through these audio portraits. They are mainly [about] what the area was like, what their [lives were] like, what they went through on these stairs. Sometimes it’s something very personal, depending on the character.”
Interspersed among these locally inspired puppet shows will be other brief interludes. There will be performances by traditional hikawatieh (storytellers), live music and brief theater performances on a specially designed, seven-layered public bench, installed on the stairs.
“It will be installed at a place where we used to see the neighbors having a break while going up the stairs,” says Zouki. “It’s the place where you discover how many stairs there are left.”
The first item on each night’s main program is the mysterious “Surprise Interludes” from 8:30 to 9 p.m., after which three performances will take place each night.
Thursday’s program will begin with a performance of storytelling and shadow puppetry in Arabic, followed by a short French-language play entitled “Apple Crumble,” which tells the story of a woman who has two passions: quantum physics and baking.
She makes an apple crumble as she contemplates the contents of a mysterious envelope given to her by a stranger, and the endless possible consequences they could have on her life. The final performance will feature a combination of poetry and music.
Friday’s program features a projection of animated shorts, a play and a puppet show, followed at 10 p.m. by a projection of “Gwen at le Livre des Sables,” a longer animated film by Jean-François Laguionie. The projections will take place on an outdoor screen in homage to the destroyed Cinema Vendôme.
Saturday’s program promises a contemporary dance performance, “Every Last Breath,” at 9 p.m., starring four dancers including Zouki, who also works as an actor and puppeteer.
This show has toured widely around Lebanon and has also been performed in Warsaw and New York and will be performed later in the year in Denmark, Sweden and Singapore.
The “Grand Ball” that closes the festival promises two hours of music and dancing on the stairs.
Last year’s event attracted crowds of over 1000 people over the course of its three days, Zouki says. With the expanded program, this year’s festival could be even bigger, but Collectif Kahraba are keen to retain the community feeling.
“We are trying to pay attention to how we host the audience,” Zouki says. “To what kind of experience we offer them – convivial moments to be shared with all generations.”
“Nehne wel Amar wel Jiran” runs from Aug. 30 until Sept. 1 at the Vendôme Steps in Mar Mikhael. For more information please visit www.collectifkahraba.org/spectacles