Dancing away the veneer of civilization

BEIRUT: What does it mean to be modern? Apparently it means writhing around, blind and half-naked, with your head in a coil of rope. Friday night marked the first of two performances of choreographer Stephanie Thiersch’s “Corps Etrangers” (Strange Bodies) at Masrah al-Madina. The show was part of the celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of BIPOD, the Beirut International Platform of Dance. Starring dancers Fabien Almakiewicz and Valenti Rocamora i Tora, along with three acrobats, Mathieu Antajan, Tim Behren and Florian Patschovsky, the performance opened with a pertinent question projected on the stage’s white backdrop: “What does it mean to be modern?”

A lone dancer – his face obscured by the whorls of a rope that descended from the ceiling to encase his head in a tangle of fiber – levered himself from the ground and began a graceful, doomed struggle for freedom.

Vision obscured, bare chest glistening in the stage lights, he jerked, twirled and floundered on the end of the rope like a fish on the line. Crossing the stage in a flurry of panicked twirls, he gave up the fight, hanging limply on the end of the hawser, before beginning his quivering trajectory again.

This Beckett-esque scenario – the trapped dancer whirling away the minutes at the end of his rope like an insect in a jar – was deadly serious. At the same time it parodied some more-clichéd contemporary dance conventions, and the respect afforded to the “modern.”

The second movement, “Small errors on the disenchantment of the world,” saw all five performers come together on stage. Dressed in jeans and button-down shirts (or smart trousers and T-shirts), they began by subjecting the audience to a lengthy scrutiny.

Roles reversed, they launched into a visually stunning blend of circus acrobatics and dance, twirling gracefully from the three ropes hanging from the auditorium ceiling.

Accompanied by Emmanuelle Gibello’s wonderfully immersive, dissonant soundscape – combining percussive noises reminiscent of dishes clanking in a sink, buzzing insects, helicopter blades and creaking doors with melodic interventions on the cello, plucked bass lines and tribal drumbeats – they gradually underwent a process of devolution, transforming from graceful humans to wild animals, skirmishing, slinking and squirming around the stage.

At times two performers would collide and cling, bodies intersecting in unlikely places, contorting one another into strange shapes to create a single beast, a shambling four-legged creature hopping ponderously across the stage. Infused with monkey-like exuberance, the three acrobats swung wildly from the hanging ropes, tangling with and dodging one another, arcing out from the stage to barely clear the heads of the front row of viewers.

By the third act, “We have never been modern,” Thiersch’s vision had become clear. The stage lights – dimmed to a warm yellow suggestive of bonfires and candlelight, rather than the clinical whiteness of the preceding sequence – displayed a single dancer arrayed in a carnival mask, clinging to one of the ropes.

A bird’s head with yellow beak, blank eyes and fluffy white feathers covering the back of the head completed his transformation from human to beast, while the sound of a string of clamorous farts on the soundtrack marked the comic, oddly endearing, abandonment of human social conditioning in favor of animal practices.

Set to wild drumbeats overlaid with the growls, roars and trumpets of wild animals, the third act was an anarchic, often comical display of exuberant energy. Arrayed in animal-like headdresses made of twisted rope, paper and spikes, adorned in ridiculous ensembles – a fur coat and sagging gray briefs, a smart pleated skirt and men’s T-shirt – the five men stripped away the thin veneer of civilization to reveal the instinctive creatures beneath.

The closing sequence, “Final Examinations,” was pure comedy, a satirical, thoroughly irreverent take on human society, interaction and worship. The bulkiest of the five performers – bare chest, dressed in leopard print trousers and thickly furred with black hair – stood silently on stage as the four others reverently adorned him like a Christmas tree. They began with a gold sash, then draped him in hanging rattan breasts, a voluminous skirt, cheerleaders’ pompoms and an assortment of cloth and fringing.

As the 90-minute performance ended, one performer was riding him off stage like a donkey while another spanked his buttocks with a length of knotted rope. As the laughter of the audience was overpowered by applause, the siren call of anarchy triumphed briefly over the reassuring straightjacket of civilization. – I.S.

The celebrations for BIPOD’s 10th anniversary continue Jan. 15 with the opening of Maqamat Dance Theatre’s “Watadour” at Masrah al-Madina. For more information please call 01-343-834.





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