BEIRUT: The violence of war inflicts trauma on a society that can persist as long as the collective memory, sometimes decades.
Though such psychological scars usually fade over time, some wonder whether they can heal when the cause of the problem is not publicly resolved, or even acknowledged.
This complex question is the conceptual premise of “That Part of Heaven,” a contemporary dance piece performed by Maqamat Dance Theater – the institution behind Beirut’s yearly dance festival, BIPOD – and choreographed by Omar Rajeh.
“The performance highlights the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War and how unresolved matters have fed into a psychologically oppressed and unstable society,” claim the notes accompanying the show. “The sudden end of the Civil War without publicly resolving the conflicts and establishing a national reconciliation did not allow a closure of the issues that initiated the violence in 1975.”
Rajeh stresses, however, that the war is not the main focus:
“We’re not reflecting the war. It’s just a starting point ... to question the aftermath of the war, to question our everyday life and how much the war is still inside us – in our bodies, in our behavior, in our psychologies.”
Exploring such a loaded and potentially controversial topic through dance is no easy feat, and at times it is hard to ascertain where the ideas end in Maqamat’s latest show and aesthetic sensibilities take over.
This representation of how five female figures struggle to deal with their memories of the war in fact features three female performers – Mia Habis, Emilie Thomas and Zei Khauli – and two male dancers in drag – Ali Chahrour and Bassam Abou Diab.
Rajeh felt that mingling male and female characters would be artistically weaker than having all female characters, he says, who he feels better represent Lebanese society. The idea of having two men perform in women’s clothes and makeup appealed to him as a way to symbolize things hidden beneath the surface.
“Today in Lebanon you look at people in the streets [and] they look normal,” he says. “They’re smiling ... they go to nightclubs, they go ski ... but from inside they’re really tormented, like you see in the performance. They’re totally deconstructed and they have very intense feelings in relation to all the crises we’re passing through.”
The torment within the characters in “That Part of Heaven” does not take long to emerge. The five dancers begin standing still on the darkened stage, the theater lit only by the firefly-like glow of numerous mobile phones, still on and clutched mutinously in the audiences’ hands.
As the stage lights slowly rise, the dancers begin to whisper unintelligibly among themselves, and their bizarre appearance becomes clear – each figure is dressed to the nines, as though about to attend a wedding, faces plastered with exaggerated makeup.
Particularly incongruous are the men. While Habis is dazzlingly arrayed in what appears to be a delicate gold lamé dress and Thomas sports an enormous beehive hairdo, Abou Diab wears a tailored silver pantsuit, his long hair falling past his shoulders, and Chahrour’s tall, gangly form is snugly confined in a fitted green jersey dress.
When they begin to dance, their movements are jerky and seemingly uncoordinated. In one memorable sequence the five dancers traverse the stage from left to right in a series of painful-looking lurches, as though trying to walk on broken legs. Lit from behind, with arms held stiffly out in front of them and heads flopping awkwardly, they look strikingly like zombies from a no-budget horror movie.
The unconventional choreography is at odds with the ultra-forgettable music – a casual, jazzy piano tune of the sort piped into lifts, heard one minute and forgotten the next.
As the performance progresses the set design – a simple rectangle of sponge in the center of the stage – is revealed to be more complex than it appears. As the dancers build up speed, beginning to stamp and twirl, lying down on the foam-covered stage, roiling spasmodically as though in agonizing death-throes, water begins to spray through the air, glittering in the stage lights.
Soaked in water, the sponge plays a crucial role in the remainder of the production, the second half of which sees individual dancers move about in a prone position. Although Rajeh describes the wet sponge as a metaphor for instability, it also plays an important visual role.
As the dancers roll and thrash on the wet surface – drawing together to tangle in a heap of slippery limbs before floundering awkwardly away like beached fish, as though scared by their unrequested intimacy – their makeup runs grotesquely and their clothes and hair become soaked, with water dripping from them whenever they stand.
This transforms the dance from awkward to arresting, adding greatly to the aesthetic of the thing. Abou Diab and Habis give particularly fine performances, wheeling and convulsing with a frantic urgency that sends streams of water from their hair spiraling across the stage.
The more abstract ideas require more focused deciphering. The decision to have two of the performers pull down their clothing to reveal their behinds during a still moment, for example, is difficult to interpret. Read in conjunction with the performers’ raised middle fingers, which feature later in the performance, the audience might be forgiven for interpreting it as a gesture of disrespect.
Rajeh intends it to say rather more than that. “To show your arse is a bit humiliating, but at the same time there is this kind of freedom involved, and anger,” he says. “You do the most humiliating things when you feel you’ve lost hope and you feel nothing will matter anymore ... that is a kind of forbidden thing, as if you’re destroying the whole traditional thinking of society.”
“That Part of Heaven,” performed by the Maqamat Dance Theater and choreographed by Omar Rajeh, is on show at Hamra’s Masrah al-Madina until Jan. 26. Tickets are available from Antoine Ticketing. For more information please call Maqamat on 01-343-834.