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THURSDAY, 17 APR 2014
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Ghosts dancing atop the machine
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BEIRUT: Accomplished contemporary art propels you back to first principles. When, 60-odd years ago, John Cage had a pianist sit at a keyboard for four minutes and 33 seconds without striking a chord, it was an invitation to reassess “music.” More recently, flamenco virtuoso Israel Galvan unraveled conventional expectations of that form – stamping without accompaniment, then through cushioning mounds of powder before removing his shoes altogether.

“Watadour” (It turns), the newest creation of choreographer Omar Rajeh and Maqamat Dance Theatre, challenges most assumptions that an innocent public might harbor about the nature of “dance.”

The auditorium of the Masrah al-Madina is virtually black as audience members file in to take their seats. A single spotlight reveals a lone dancer (Bassam Abou Diab) at center stage, lying with his cheek pressed against an elevated, disk-shaped surface. Down stage left, at some remove from this surface, another spot illuminates a second set of apparatus – where the show’s audiovisual elements will be performed.

The auditorium plunges into complete darkness for a moment and the whir of an electric motor issues from the gloom. As the spotlights rise tentatively, Abou Diab remains prone while, several meters above the stage, Mia Habis hangs limp in a harness.

The light increases by increments as the score reverberates from the electric guitar of Sharif Sehnaoui. Sitting faceup on the musician’s lap, it is played (at first) as a percussion instrument, Sehnaoui striking the strings with sticks, leaning on the neck of the thing to bend the notes.

As the score veers closer to melody, Abou Diab stirs. After a few minutes of fish-out-of-water flopping about, he pulls himself haltingly off the floor, struggling to lurching, staggering movement.

Having reached his feet, the electric winch lowers Habis’ body to the disk in stages. Abou Diab is able to grasp her by the thighs before the machine yanks her back, then lowers her again. It is a choreography of attraction and retraction played out mechanically, while Habis’ form remains dormant.

She rouses herself, and the pair’s movement comes to resemble that of lovers who would lay in embrace. The winches to which they’re harnessed repeatedly yank them apart, as if being manipulated by an omnipotent puppeteer, eventually pulling both off the stage altogether.

The disk-shaped surface that invisibly confines the dancers’ movement also serves as a screen. Upon it are projected the liquid illustrations of Mazen Kerbaj. Transparent bowls of fluid are placed between a light board and a video camera. Kerbaj dribbles ink into the stuff and fiddles with its diffusion to form fleeting abstract images, which the camera projects upon the disk’s surface.

With Abou Diab hanging from the rafters, Habis frees herself from her tether, only to be confronted by the shifting patterns of light and darkness projected on the stage. These seem to present obstacles to her and she dodges, bobs and weaves like a boxer or lone figure trying to move against the current of an invisible mob.

The percussive score, having by now refined itself to a bell-like quality, operates less as accompaniment than a restriction, confining her movement as much as the harness had done earlier. As Kerbaj’s patterns fill the surface ever more elaborately, Habis is forced to move along the edge of the platform, arms raised, as though inching along a building ledge.

“Watadour” had its world premiere last week and will conclude its run with three more performances starting Thursday. This complex and demanding work is a collaboration embracing four quite distinct forms and talents. Complementing Abou Diab and Habis’ interpretations of Rajeh’s choreography, and the performances of improv veterans Kerbaj and Sehnaoui, is the work of Palestinian visual artist Nasser Soumi.

Soumi’s contribution, the disk upon which the dancers labor, revisits the artist’s “Memory of Indigo,” an installation-dance piece staged in the artists’ village of Shilparamam, near the Indian city of Hyderabad, in 2006. In that piece, dancers moved across a disk-shaped surface placed at an oblique angle to the ground.

Here the disk isn’t fixed at an angle. Over the course of the hourlong performance, the circular surface is ever shifting. Parallel to the stage at the start of the piece, by the end it stands at a 90-degree angle. By this point, the dancers resemble urban guerrillas rappelling across the face of the screen, themselves reflecting Kerbaj’s swirling abstractions.

“Watadour” isn’t “The Nutcracker.”

In its program notes, Maqamat has depicted their work as seeking to express in movement the “impossible” obstacles thrown up by a contemporary reality utterly lacking in stability – by implication a stability that earlier generations might have taken for granted.

The premise of the choreography appears to be two figures negotiating the proximity of a duet. Yet any narrative audience members might try to glean from the dancers’ furtive efforts at movement is incessantly assailed and undermined by the piece’s aural, visual and mechanical facets.

As such, the piece stands as an elaborate, metaphor for frustration – the flip side of individual agency, which is conventionally the stuff of artistic expression.

For such an assiduously dissonant work, the several components of “Watadour” gel quite well.

Habitués of the free improv scene may be quite surprised at where Sehnaoui’s approach to his instrument is steered by the score that he himself arranged. Kerbaj’s abstractions provide precisely the illuminating obstructions the choreography requires.

The piece’s mechanized aspect – the electric winches and harnesses working in counterpoint to Soumi’s discreetly moving surface/screen – lends the piece an unexpectedly retro quality. The violent juxtaposition of human fragility with the omnipresent machine is very much a 20th-century obsession, by now superseded by the digitized, ego-fellating virtualities to which “The Matrix” gestured.

“Watadour” tends to penetrate the audience via the brain rather than the heart, yet by the time this performance is done viewers’ hearts may go out to Abou Diab and Habis.

Challenging as this work is to the audience, it is all the more demanding on its dancers. Embodying human agency, yanked and tossed about by machines they cannot control, theirs is an exhausting depiction of frailty.

“Watadour” continues at Masrah al-Madina Thursday-Saturday. For more information, please contact info@maqamat.org or 01-134-3834.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 22, 2014, on page 16.
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Story Summary
As the spotlights rise tentatively, Abou Diab remains prone while, several meters above the stage, Mia Habis hangs limp in a harness.

As the score veers closer to melody, Abou Diab stirs.

Abou Diab is able to grasp her by the thighs before the machine yanks her back, then lowers her again. It is a choreography of attraction and retraction played out mechanically, while Habis' form remains dormant.

The disk-shaped surface that invisibly confines the dancers' movement also serves as a screen.

Complementing Abou Diab and Habis' interpretations of Rajeh's choreography, and the performances of improv veterans Kerbaj and Sehnaoui, is the work of Palestinian visual artist Nasser Soumi.

Parallel to the stage at the start of the piece, by the end it stands at a 90-degree angle.

The piece's mechanized aspect – the electric winches and harnesses working in counterpoint to Soumi's discreetly moving surface/screen – lends the piece an unexpectedly retro quality.
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