BREST, France: It was Friday night at 10:30 p.m. and a battering rain assaulted the crowds queued outside the Petit Théâtre du Quartz auditorium.
The Brestois (Brest natives) defied the elements for the European debut of “These shoes are made for walking,” by Lebanese dancer and choreographer Nancy Naous. The disjointed movement of dancers Dalia Naous (the choreographer’s sister) and Nadim Bahsoun – accompanied by Wael Kodeih (aka Rayess Bek) – is a gasping, suffocating, ripping and discomfiting thing, meant to distill the present situation in the Arab world.
The audience was captivated.
At the end of the show, people cheered and whistled, then crossed the street to the legendary Vauban concert space to hear DJ Maurice Louca, who strides at the forefront of Egypt’s experimental music scene.
Naous’ and Louca’s shows were part of “Beyrouth – Les Lucioles,” (Beirut – the Fireflies), a multidisciplinary program that has been the guest of honor at Dansfabrik, the contemporary dance festival hosted by the Quartz cultural center.
The Quartz’s young director Matthieu Banvillet developed a passion for Lebanon after 2009, when he invited dancer, curator and activist Yalda Younes to dance in Brest. Traveling to Beirut in 2013, he asked Younes to curate a program for the festival’s 2014 edition, deliberately choosing to showcase artists working at the margins of the limelight.
“It was important to me that [Younes] was politically engaged,” Banvillet told The Daily Star. “We have a privileged space here and can allow ourselves to make statements. Yalda was coherent in her choice of artists, and audiences can follow a clear and rich line of thought.”
Banvillet said his colleagues were immediately receptive to the idea. “Although very few have traveled to Lebanon,” he said, “there is a strong imaginary about the country as well as empathy and a great curiosity.”
“We are not only Lebanese,” Younes stressed at a packed Q-and-A session, noting that several of her program’s artists were from elsewhere in the Middle East. “I do not want to limit us to our nationalities. I do not want to represent Lebanon. The government does that.”
The point went over well with this public, which has a very strong regional identity.
The audience was curious, asking a wide range of questions, but were most interested in learning how artists work in Lebanon. They were surprised to hear that there is no state funding for the arts in Lebanon and that in fact there is a pervasive contempt for those who choose an artistic career.
“How do your parents react to what you are doing?” asked a Belgian high school senior, among a group of 18 computer technology students who spent a weeklong school trip attending Dansfabrik performances.
The question provoked the most laughs, yet a degree of sadness underlay some of the artists’ responses.
Among the program’s several successful events was the Baladi Dance workshop led by dancer and activist Alexandre Paulikevitch, which drew twice as many people as the space allowed.
Three of the Belgian students – Nicolas Denié, Sebastien Loncin and Luis Lopez – all agreed that their participation in Paulikevitch’s workshop was their favorite part of the week.
“He made us feel at ease and brought out the best in us. ... We learned that one’s pelvis should move down rather than up. ... We let our feminine side out. ... He taught us to get to know our own bodies,” they chimed. “Dance is hard work!”
Paulikevitch will feature in a video the students will complete about their week at the festival.
The music and dance performances took the students by surprise as they assumed anything coming out of an Arab country would be traditional. “They have a revolutionary side to them,” Lopez observed. “They are passionate and creative, maybe because no one helps them. They are amazing. They are warriors.”
Christine Tamburro, a former dancer who heads the Escabelle Association, which introduces school children to dance, said it was inspiring to discover artists from the Middle East.
“We are very happy when people from far away come to us in Brest since we are a little off the beaten track,” he said. “It’s very interesting to see the political side of the performances and also to learn about the difficult work conditions there.”
Dansfabrik ended on a high note with Paulikevitch’s riveting Saturday evening performance of “Tajwal” (Wanderings). He followed the show with an improvised Q-and-A session with his enraptured audience, keen to know more about the messages in his choreography.
“I had a certain responsibility, because in way we were going to be telling the audience a story,” Banvillet recalled. “We wanted to give people an idea of what is being created in Lebanon.
“Even if on the scene we are sometimes confronted by violence – because the performances are rooted in politics – at the same time there is gentleness, an impermeability to this environment, which is not stopping these artists from moving forward. They have a luminous presence.”
For more information about Dansfabrik and “Beyrouth – Les Lucioles,” see www.dansfabrik.com.