SAD AL-BOUSHRIEH Lebanon: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Eastman contemporary dance troupe put an end to the Baalbeck International Festival on Friday evening. “Puz/zle,” a two-hour performance, analyzed the turmoil and questions that haunt mankind. This year’s Baalbeck International Festival had to be relocated due to the unrest in the Bekaa Valley. A 19th-century silk factory was found to provide an alternative welcome to performers and audience alike in Sad al-Boushrieh. While festival habitués agreed it was a shame to lose the stunning backdrop of Baalbek’s magnificent Roman ruins for this edition, organizers were adamant that the festival must continue despite the tense security situation. The festival – which was due to open at the end of June – was postponed due to three cancelations (by Renee Fleming, Assi al-Helani and Marianne Faithfull). It finally opened Aug. 23 with a performance by Brazilian jazz singer Eliane Elias who was followed the next night by Lebanese oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife.
Born in Belgium, Cherkaoui is a renowned contemporary dancer and choreographer. One of his most prestigious works, “Zon-Mai,” was inaugurated at Paris’ Museum of History of Immigration in 2007. The piece in question consisted of a multimedia installation, in which 21 dancers were confronted with questions on the alter-ego, home and identity. The position of mankind in society – and in the world in general – is a common preoccupation of Cherkaoui’s productions.
“Puz/zle” was not only a contemporary dance show, but also a collaboration between the troupe, Lebanese vocalist Fadia Tomb el Hage and A Filetta, an all-male ensemble singing traditional Corsican music.
“There aren’t that many contemporary dance [shows] in Lebanon,” Hage told The Daily Star. “It was a new experience for me.”
Any challenges the performers may have faced were evidently overcome. Hage, along with the male ensemble, accompanied the dance troupe with much grace and subtlety. Their voices echoed in the venue as sacred figures, singing “Byzantine songs in Arabic, Syriac chants and a song in German by Saint Hildegard Von Bingen,” as Hage explained.
The Lebanese vocalist opened the show with a small speech dedicated to the victims of recent regional violence, a speech which was welcomed with great applause.
Then, the two-hour experience began. Video screenings of a furnished room were projected onto the stage decor, simple cardboard facsimiles of walls forming a sort of on-stage cocoon. Enter the dancers, dressed in black. They try to go into the on-stage room but arrive face-to-face with the cardboard wall. Then, step by step, each part of the decor falls to the ground, forming a staircase on which the dancers climb. They each have their own way of moving and climbing – creating a visual spectacle that can be quite difficult to follow for the viewer.
Body language plays a major role in the production. The position of mankind in the universe is expressed by each dancer through a kaleidoscope of emotions – anger, frustration, fury, violence – which come together to give the spectator a panorama of Cherkaoui’s art.
At several points during the show, the singers were hidden by the decor, which only increased the anguish and importance of the accompanying voices.
Initially, some viewers may have had some doubts about the objective of this type of dance. Uncontrolled moves and lack of synchronization, however, are a key feature of contemporary dance techniques.
Seemingly unrefined leg and arm movements, improvisation and a precise but initially unremarked upon control of the body pave the way for a unique performance.
At one point during Friday’s show the dancers were bouncing their heads from left to right in unison. What started as a perfectly synchronized chorus of movement ended in chaos, enacted so gradually and with such talent that viewers may not have noticed the dancers’ initial departure from the overriding rhythm.
There was harmony in this disordered instant. What Cherkaoui may have wanted to express was the natural human attraction toward conformism, which often ends for some people in rebellion with regards to the dictates of society.
The decor played a role of its own as the dancers continually moved, manipulated and dislocated it, as though controlling a giant game of Tetris. From staircases to walls, prisons, towers and pits, the setting helped viewers to understand each scene, each puzzle that needed to be put together.
At one point during the show, the set pieces were formed into a huge tower, on which each performer elevated themselves and danced. This scene resembled a corporeal representation of the Tower of Babel. Adorned in black-and-silver clothes, the dancers stopped for a few minutes, conveying the impression of a living tableau.
Violence was a recurrent theme in Cherkaoui’s piece. Forming columns and a roof, the set was reassembled as a prison cell, in which all the dancers gathered. The performers put their hands in the air, enacting a cry for help, before the roof was slowly lowered on top of them, emphasizing enclosure and oppression. In another instance, one dancer was trapped in a pit as the others dancers pelted him with fake rocks. Such powerful scenes conveyed the way in which violence and corruption are part of our everyday lives.
These same rocks were then given another meaning – one of hope. The dancers – holding the rocks – moved in harmony, hypnotizing the audience as they formed a human corolla on stage.
What was surprising was the silence at the end of each scene. Very few spectators dared to applaud, as though afraid of ruining these puzzling scenes. The impact of contemporary dance on the largely Lebanese audience was expressed through silence.
Artistic production was also featured in the performance.
One scene depicted an attempt to sculpt mankind as they should be. Armed with a drill, a hammer and carving mallets, dancers moved among one another, changing each others’ postures, as though playing with a doll or manufactured product.
Cherkaoui’s production was strong, emotional and captivating. A representation of mankind’s battle to escape fate, a particularly powerful scene came close to the end of the show. One of the dancers produced a can of spray paint and tagged the set with three words: “Lebanon,” “Peace” and “Life.”