Order, abandon and the space in between

Hammoud’s performance is a physical exploration of resignation and resistance.

BEIRUT: In Greek mythology the gods Apollo and Dionysus were brothers. Sons of Zeus, father of the gods, they embodied very different attributes.

Apollo was said to be the avatar of reason and order, truth and prophecy, while Dionysus was the god of wine, excess, ritual madness and chaos. Though often perceived as polar opposites, the ancient Greeks saw these two forces as complementary and both gods were strongly associated with creativity.

“Mahalli” (“From here” or “My place”), the latest solo performance of Lebanese choreographer and dancer Danya Hammoud, strikes a similar balance between the forces of order and abandon.

Her solo performance, up at Dawar al-SHAMS until Thursday, explores the restraint of externally imposed order on the body and its organic freedom of movement, with “the power of a female animal and the pride of a woman.”

A member of the Zoukak Theater Company, Hammoud prefers not to name this controlling force, leaving it open to audience interpretation.

“I always talk about a certain order that is oppressive from the outside, but I don’t name it,” she explains. “On the stage I’m not even making this visible. I’m just making the impact of it on the body visible, not talking about where it comes from and what it is, because this one can see differently.”

The result, Hammoud explains, is a physical exploration of two possible responses: resignation and resistance.

“It’s not one or the other in the piece,” she says. “It’s a state in between the two all the time, a kind of internal negotiation.”

Hammoud began working on the performance in early 2011, exploring notions of place.

“When I started improvising, the notion of territory became essential to this work,” she recalls. “Territory not only in the sense of geography ... I noticed that the first territory I inhabit is my own body, and from there came the idea of ‘mahalli,’ my place – where to place my body.

“I think in every work I do – or we do in the collective with Zoukak – we always question our place as a performer on stage,” she continues, while “at the same time questioning our place as citizens in society.”

The initial improvisation consisted of a series of physical experiments. Hammoud would begin by placing her body in a constrained position, then slowly try to move out of it through controlled breathing.

“Doing this was a way for me to figure out which part of my body is the most essential,” she explains, “for me to keep moving or to keep on standing up, [physically] as well as metaphorically.”

Hammoud says she approached each part of her body anew, including her face and facial expressions – a key facet of theatrical performances that is often absent in dance.

“For the last 20 years, or even more, all contemporary dance was with a very neutral face,” she says. “The face was not alive. It had no identity of its own, and this used to annoy me. My face is like my hand, like my leg – is part of me. Why should it be neutral while I’m moving? I wanted the face to be really engaged with the movement, and this is where the gaze entered.”

Hammoud worked on incorporating direct eye contact with the audience into her piece, breaking down the fourth wall in order to establish a link between performer and onlooker.

“I am being very clear that it’s not an illusion,” she explains. “I know that you are watching me and you know that I’m doing this for you.”

In addition to choreographing the 30-minute performance, Hammoud also composed the audio accompaniment, in collaboration with Christian Sotomayor. It cannot be described as music, the dancer says, but is rather “pure sound,” a bass-heavy track that aims to reflect and augment the physical and emotional tension she creates onstage.

“When I finish presenting it I always feel like I did it with one breath,” she says, “and when I finish I exhale. So I felt that the sound should have this same quality, that it is unique. It is one thing going on until the end.”

Hammoud has performed “Mahalli” at numerous dance festivals in France and Germany, but this week’s performance will be the show’s Lebanese debut.

“I cannot ignore the fact that whenever I present outside the country ... there’s always a flavor of ‘coming from Lebanon’,” she says. “So I want to know here – without this flavor – what the reception will be like. I think it will be very different.”

Danya Hammoud’s “Mahalli” runs Tuesday through Thursday at 8.30 p.m. at Dawar al-SHAMS. For more information and reservations call 01-381-290.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 19, 2013, on page 16.




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