BEIRUT: Context is one of the persistent, stubbornly inerasable, facets of the performing arts. Take acrobatics.
In Barnum and Bailey-style circus acts, acrobats on the tightrope and the trapeze once held pride of place. Suspended from near-invisible wires, muscular lads threw themselves through the air in acts of gravity-defying derring-do, while lithe young women contorted themselves into picturesque poses meant to embody effortless grace and strength.
Naturally late-20th-century literature and cinema explored the circus’ seedy side, but in its heyday these fit young men and women epitomized a sensuality so G-rated that, if you squinted while gazing at them, it didn’t look sensual at all.
The circus acrobat’s physical prowess has mutated to become the premise of Parkour and FreeRunning, that staple of “hip urban youth culture.” As they summersault over inner-city roofs and run up the sides of walls, the form’s enthusiasts (usually young men) embrace the outsider status of circus performers. But without the big tent and the lingering smell of grease paint, their image (insofar as they are visible at all) is something else entirely.
This is to be contrasted with the pop culture expression of the circus acrobat’s feminine aesthetic: the so-called “pole dancer.” Though the object of this form is vulgar sexuality – and some practitioners are expected to supplement their onstage acts with private performances of a more coarse nature – accomplished pole dancers enact routines every bit as impressive as the leotard-clad ladies on the trapeze.
It’s the context – the seedy bars where it tends to be exercised and its attendant economy – that makes pole-dancing déclassé, not its athletic sensuality.
Tuesday evening witnessed the opening of the Samir Kassir Foundation’s Beirut Spring Festival – not to be confused with the Spring Festival, the international performing arts platform that’s been underway at Dawar al-SHAMS and STATION for the past few weeks.
Formed to honor the legacy of the eponymous Franco-Lebanese journalist and editorialist who was assassinated in a 2005 car bomb, the Samir Kassir Foundation founded this festival in 2009, its name reportedly inspired by the title of one of Kassir’s last articles.
BSF’s opening performance was “The Gravitational Waves,” an open-air dance performance conducted by the French troupe Retouramont. Much more of a spectacle than conventional contemporary dance, “Waves” is set within an elaborate set design.
Comprised of four long poles radiating diagonally from a central square, and held in place by a web of wires, the design resembles the rigging of a sailing ship.
This set design is horizontal, not vertical, affixed to the side of a building. The dancers perform in harness – a technique that will be recalled by anyone who attended Maqamat Dance’s “Watadour” earlier this year.
For choreographer Fabrice Guillot, setting is an integral part of “Waves.”
“In this project,” Guillot has been translated as saying in French, “I want the spectator to be like an observer of a large-scale volume exploration in public space. I would like to create a bubble of perception during this experiment, which drags the spectator-observer in a gravitational, visual, choreographic and sonorous daydream.”
The “bubble of perception” chosen to stage “Waves” was Beirut Souks – the Downtown Beirut shopping mall named after the traditional souks that once occupied this space before a developer bulldozed them in the 1980s – Ajami Square, to be precise.
A few hundred audience members stood out from the otherwise-consuming public, thanks to the three phalanxes of white plastic chairs arrayed for them, though the number of spectators exceeded that of the chairs.
The work featured the exertions of Magdalena Bahamondes, Olivia Cubero and Marion Soyer. The harnessed women’s movement embraces techniques reminiscent of circus acrobats and abseiling (aka rappelling).
Perhaps aware of the visual associations the performers would conjure up for circus- and strip club-frequenting audience members, Cubero, Bahamondes and Soyer weren’t clad in leotards but loose-fitting, form-camouflaging costumes.
At its most mundane – clambering over the installation’s four poles and several tightrope-like guide wires – the effect is reminiscent of spiders scurrying about an unfinished web. At its most graceful – as the performers cast themselves off into space and sail from pole to wire to pole – the choreography is not unlike that of the more dexterous forest primates or, as a pair of young women observed after the show, “fairies.”
Yanking the spectacle even further from any circus-like associations were the accompanying electronic soundtrack and an elaborate patchwork-style projection.
Sounding a bit like a demotic version of the cool-to-be-dangerous sound of early Massive Attack, the soundtrack was perfectly attuned to the prevailing ambit. Cast upon the shopping mall’s north face, the multiple-framed lighting design sometimes resembled elaborate spotlights. At others they projected silhouettes of figures performing routines similar to (perhaps playing back) those of Soyer, Bahamondes and Cubero.
This “21st-century urban fairy” conceit was somehow less than riveting, perhaps because of the nearby cinema’s light pollution and the air of shopping, eating and moviegoing that absorbed it.
The athletic prowess of the act was obvious to many in the audience, however, who – from about the midway point – cheered on the performers’ exertions with trickles of polite applause.
The show ended with two performers posing atop two of the diagonal poles, while the third balanced at the central square, arms and legs extended to the base of the four poles.
Her posture recalled Galileo’s famed sketch of man’s dimensions, framed within a square within a circle.
The Beirut Spring Festival continues Thursday with “Voices of Hostages,” an open discussion in tribute to life-risking journalists, staged at Gemmayzeh’s Dawawine space. For more information see http://www.beirutspringfestival.org.