Archive | April, 2011

The first Lebanese Circus comes to town

30 Apr

JDEIDEH: Without a second thought, fearless kids take risks that their parents would balk at. They ski backwards, jump out of windows and dangle their bodies out of speeding cars.

This is one reason child performers are so appealing: youngsters throw themselves entirely into their practice; they are ever keen to push their act that little bit further, to take that extra risk. Add to that the fact that there is something mesmerizing about “mini-humans” doing things we, as adults, cannot, and you have a fail-safe recipe for performance success.

The recipe is something Izhac Abu Sari, 25, and Thierry Antonios, 23, seem to have taken into account. Performers themselves, the pair are the founders of the “Cirque du Liban,” Lebanon’s first circus entertainment company, this week performing “The Mystery Show” at Jdeideh’s Sagesse Theater.

Comprising 25 of CDL’s multi-talented entertainers, it is no coincidence that the show’s performers range in age from 7 to 25, with the heaviest concentration in their early-teens.

Backstage before the show begins, a 12-year-old boy, clad in a baggy clown outfit, smiles cheekily and then falls in a dagger-straight collapse to the floor. If it wasn’t for the lack of attention the other young performers pay him (such jests are clearly commonplace) you might have feared some bodily attack; as it is, you know that he is simply priming his shocked, aged spectators for what is to come.

This zestful, mischievous sort of energy was exactly what made “The Mystery Show” successful.

Though called a “circus,” the Cirque du Liban is more a group of talented entertainers. Abu Sari and Antonios saw a gap in Lebanon’s entertainment sector and, with the help of performer-friends, brought together a group of individuals worthy of public performance.

The company was founded in 2006 and has been performing at venues across the Arab world since 2007. Though a private troupe for hire – they customize their performance according to occasion – CDL decided last year that it was time they put together a show.

The decision was one determined by more than aspects commercial. As the show’s organizer George Zughbi pointed out “this is the first time circus in Lebanon has been a form of art.”

Thus while CDL generally offers a variety of shows, parades and kids or adult entertainment, “The Mystery Show” is a coherent, sequential piece. “We wanted to put a show together, all together” explained Antonios.

“[In Lebanon] we like to bring people from abroad to perform for us, but it is better to have our own,” continued Zughbi. “Performers from Tripoli, from Beirut, from the south – all have come together here with one dream: to perform in the circus.”

“The Mystery Show” is aptly named; as a member of the audience, you are never quite sure what is coming next. The show is an extravaganza of Cirque du Liban specialties – a sort of catalogue of talent – set to pulsating music.

Acrobatics, juggling, stilts, fire-breathing and -dancing, body contortion, ballet and plenty of slapstick comedy well worthy of Charlie Chaplin, are all included in the Cirque du Liban roll-call. In pride of place on the show’s billing is local celebrity illusionist Amine Jabbour, whose guest role dominates the second half.

But it is the spicy eagerness the youthful troupe bring to their parts that lights up the show. Gymnast Zein al-Koubasi’s routine, for instance, was kept visually stimulating because of the tantalizingly teasing nature of his performance. Essentially an exhibition of his athlete’s strength and phenomenal muscular power, the piece was made successful by Koubasi’s use of his props: five chairs he used to build a tower.

The slow, drawn out introduction of each new chair elicited gasps from spectators, as did the apparently magical way in which he constructed them: They were balanced at angles increasingly unstable. Such hand-tingling tangents thrilled onlookers and vitalized the set.

Likewise a trampoline-and-gym-horse routine was livened up by the performers’ comically sized clown gear and vividly orange wigs. Though they were obviously keen to display their skills, the boys’ act centered around comic timing and seemingly painful landings.

Impressive shows of physical prowess were, throughout, made subordinate to this ambience of fun. Juggling was mixed with exaggeratedly seductive Arabic dancing; a mimed motorbike sequence was interrupted with a blast of Celine Dion’s “Titanic” just moments before a crash.

Even the act of Freddy Kachoua, a 15-year-old contortionist, was spiced up with slapstick. Given a spot in the limelight in order to dazzle the audience with a body that seemed to be made entirely of fluid, Kachoua then played the clown in a gym-routine, ending up pushed over mid-contortion. Every member of the ensemble delighted in interacting with and provoking the predominantly under-12 audience.

A clever variation on the pie-in-face theme came with the dangling use of a basketful of eggs that managed to find its way into the audience.

Music was central to the show. Songs were constantly blasted to keep the audience at an incredible level of hyperactivity; they were jumping about as much as the onstage performers. And unicycles were even used as guitars.

Though not a seamless show, and at times more akin to variety than circus, the excitement of the audience throughout was proof of the success both of “The Mystery Show” and the Cirque du Liban.

This talented cast of young performers are sure to continue their triumphant formula: Comedy, rousing displays of daredevilry, and above all, roguish tomfoolery.

“This,” emphasized Zughbi, “is the first time ever in Lebanon that a Lebanese people have performed together as a circus.” It won’t be the last.


Turning the Tables on the Audience

22 Apr

BEIRUT: A strange sight greeted dance enthusiasts intent on enjoying a pre-performance drink at Masrah al-Madina Wednesday night.

Anyone descending the stairs from the box office to the auditorium found a hooded girl laying at the base of the stairs, sandwiched between red bathroom scales (two at her head, one at her feet), eyes open.“Are you okay?” someone asked.

No reply arose. Her eyes didn’t move, blink or acknowledge the world in any way. 

The power of this disturbing encounter stemmed as much from audience reactions as the immobility of the performer. The putative spectator reddened, glanced about furtively – as if for direction, or to see whether her response was being noticed – and quickly stepped over the prone performer.

What could it possibly mean? Do the scales represent eating disorders? Image obsession? Were they simply additional barriers to block your way, forcing you to step over the girl’s body?

This human obstacle to the audience’s passive enjoyment of professional movement was only one facet of the 20-minute performance-installation “Permanent State of a Transitory Phase,” the brainchild of Lebanese dancer Mia Habis.

The work was performed on the opening evening of “The Arab Dance Platform,” a series of creations from Arab artists enclosed within the Beirut International Platform of Dance.

Habis’ hope was to push spectators “to slow down, stop and take the time to realize their own presence and their connection to others.”

Spectators hoping that, having overcome the obstacle of the unmoving performer, they could conceal themselves within the security of audience members milling about the Masrah al-Madina’s bar were mistaken.

Immobile, unresponsive performers were stationed around the lobby, prompting you to ponder the sorts of social dances that you perform in daily interchange. How do you (and how should you) react when someone simply refuses to respond?

A boy stood next to a white plastic “X” mark on the floor. Wearing only a pair of funky stripe-patterned boxers and a thumb ring, he, like his co-performers, stared vacantly into space.

He elicited a rather different audience response than his colleague laying at the foot of the stairs. Excited spectators posed next to him for photos, as though he were a tourist attraction.

Habis’ principal props in disorienting her audience were bathroom scales. Anyone wanting to order a drink from the bar was forced to climb aboard, involuntarily weighing herself, to be served – or else to stand back and shout to get the bartender’s attention.

Opposite the bar, meanwhile, on the drinks table in front of a lobby couch – and, like the scales, nicely in patrons’ way – lay another young woman. She too was eerily still, quite dead-looking aside from her faint Mona Lisa smile and her right arm, which was raised in the air while the left one was left to hang. A tear pooled in the corner of her left eye.

For those needing the toilet before the next performance, there were more obstacles. Barricading one door, a young woman had lowered her eyes demurely, in a jarring juxtaposition with her defiant refusal of entry. You simply had to push past.

Habis’ work deployed her performers in such a way as to force audience members into acts of anti-social behavior – stepping over a woman as though she were roadkill, ignoring another while she wept; posing for a photo beside a man as though he were a the Rock of Raouche. Intriguingly, audience members don’t shy away from such behavior – at least they did not Wednesday.

The unnerving installation was bound to resound in the minds of the audience as they entered the theater auditorium for Nacera Belaza’s “Le Temps Scellé.” As the performance progressed, however, it became clear that its intention was quite distinct from that of the installation.

Soundtrack music slowly rose over the dimly lit stage. A slowly gyrating figure in the half-light was unsettlingly sexless. At length, the lights brightened to a dull grey, and a writhing feminine form was discernible.

As the light rose and the musical accompaniment grew louder, the dance too changed, becoming more technically accomplished.

An Algerian-born choreographer and dancer, Belaza’s practice stems partly from her earlier studies of literature and film, and her interest in words and visual arts obviously inspired the choreography and execution of the 45-minute performance, featuring Belaza herself, Tarik Bouarrara and Dalila Belaza.

The main motif of the choreography was circularity – swirling arm, ellipses carved by hips and retraced by kicks of the feet and turns of the hands. At times the dancers seemed to evoke spinning Sufi mystics, their arms outstretched like tree branches.

Though not clearly divided, “Le Temps Scellé” seemed to fall into three sections marked by obvious changes in the lighting or tempo.

The end of the second section provided a moving mimicry of the first, when the lone dancer’s arms had been stretched out to the audience, as if in supplication, her face shaking in accompaniment.

A dancer stretched her hands out toward the other as if she were holding a weapon in mime. As the lighting continued to fade to black, however, her arms came to wrap themselves protectively around her head.

The final movement was the most intense, with renewed lighting and with the lyrics – “Say yes,” repeated interminably – overthrowing the rest of the soundscape. A sudden acceleration in the choreography, as if in answer to the call to “Say yes,” suggested a triumph of the human over the unknown.

Another experiment on the boundaries of performance, audience and communication was accomplished.

Arab Dance Platform performances continue until April 23. BIPOD resumes on April 24 and continues until April 30. For more information call 01343834.

Painting in the company of Antonio Vivaldi

15 Apr

JOUNIEH: The Tate Modern, one of the U.K.’s most renowned museums of modern art, is currently showing a retrospective of works by Catalan artist Joan Mir?. Produced over a 40-odd-year career, Mir?’s work was, in part, an act of defiance to Franco’s regime. It was also inspired by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and it was this work that earned him much of his critical acclaim.

Mir?’s 1940-1 “Constellation” series, full of birds, fish and stars, was directly influenced by the composer’s work. Though the nature of the relationship is obscure (even invisible if one isn’t aware of it), its existence has vitalized the critical praise of the series.

The link between the visual arts and music is highly individual and difficult to classify or define. Naturally, a collection of artists with similar styles and training, all listening to the same piece of music, will not produce the same work. That’s the theory.

This theory was put to the test Wednesday evening at Jounieh’s Kulturzentrum, where the Association Libano-Allemande pour la Promotion de la Culture hosted its own exploration of the relationship between music and visual art – and, in effect, performance.

For two hours, 23 artists – spanning students, amateurs and professionals – collectively painted to musical accompaniment. In this case Antonio Vivaldi’s oft-re-heated chestnut “The Four Seasons” provided the soundtrack.

Conceived by the Kulturzentrum’s Lotti Adaimi, a German violinist and artist, the initiative is now in its fifth year. The musical accompaniment varies year to year but it’s always “classical.” Kulturzentrum coordinator Astrid Fischer Khalifé explained that this “is because, nowadays, people aren’t so used to [classical music]. So it prompts them into something new.”

The Kulturzentrum’s motive in pairing music to visual art differs somewhat from that of Mir?. Although the event speaks to aesthetic experimentation, the center’s objective is to promote artistic enterprise across society. The event is open to all.

“We wanted to do something modern,” Khalifé explained. “We do it to get people to come into contact with music and painting, and of course to have a young audience.”

The students for this year’s event came from two North Lebanon universities. The Lebanese University’s Tripoli campus sent 13 students of art, interior design and graphic art. Koura’s American University of Culture and Education was represented by three young artists.

AUCE’s Hiba Darwishe emphasized what “a great opportunity” this was for the students. Clearly it had excited her students, another 17 of whom came along to support their delegation.

The event is concerned with creating social ties as much as artistic ones. In previous years, for instance, the evening was arranged to coincide with Easter and the music reflected that theme. This year, all religious echoes were deliberately removed because, as Khalifé said: “We want everyone to participate.”

At the end of the evening the best three paintings were chosen by eminent Lebanese art critics Cesar Nammour and Joseph Tarrab – both of whom have been judging the event since it was launched five years ago. Both are equally admiring of the center’s ambitions.

“Creating spaces of encounter in Lebanon is very important,” remarked Nammour, who also lectures at AUB, specializing in Lebanese art history post-1950. He said he felt an “obligation to bridge the gap between my generation and now.”

Artists now, he fears, have much less knowledge of what has come before and in particular of their Lebanese heritage. He feels the success of the event lies in its power to unite people of all ages and backgrounds.

“Vivaldi’s masterpiece is fantastic,” he said. “And it’s about what it can do, what is actually happening here. We are bringing amateur artists and students to compete and to be in one atmosphere. This is a beautiful atmosphere. To bring music to individual art and to the plastic arts, it’s fantastic. What’s being done here is outstanding.

“Tonight is bringing [people] from different cultures and different schools together in one place with one goal.”

Nammour said the jurors’ criteria is specifically aesthetic, involving an examination of “the work’s concept, technical realisation and aspects of aesthetic language.”

While the evening succeeded in bringing communities together, both Nammour and Tarrab agreed that the paintings on the whole did not correspond to Vivaldi’s music. In fact, the majority of entrants had decided what they would paint before they began.

In spite of this, some works did depict similar scenes.

A nude woman with voluminous breasts cropped up twice – both times painted in swirls of color. Other candidates chose abstract compositions.

Though the connection between art and music was limited, the quality of the work – especially considering how quickly it was produced – was evident. What Vivaldi-ness was lacking in the work was made good by the liveliness with which the competitors worked.

Not a single dot of unpainted canvas was visible after the two-hour session.

Professional live artist Darine Semaan took third prize. Second place went to Sara Abou Mrad. Maral Der Boghossian won first prize with her four small rectangular canvas depictions, which, with their evocation of four seasons, especially appealed to the judges.

Even more enjoyable than the work was the energy the 23 artists exhibited in making it. Mir? might be pleased.

Read more:

(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

The virtues of stepping outside Lebanon’s performative box

5 Apr

Beirut: “Why is improvisation so important?” Ziad Nawfal asks rhetorically. “It’s a wide open field that leaves a lot of room for ideas, for novelty, for unexpected things to be created.”

Nawfal should know what he’s talking about. A well-known DJ on Radio Liban, where he presides over “The Ruptured Sessions,” a program devoted alternative music, this seasoned connoisseur of Lebanon’s experimental music scene, is this year helping to organize Irtijal, the International Festival of Experimental Music in Lebanon, this year in its 11th edition.

True to its name, Irtijal (literally “improvisation” in Arabic) aims to create a setting for musical experimentation in Lebanon. It was founded in 2000 by Lebanese musicians Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui, who wanted to expand Lebanon’s contemporary music scene beyond the mainstream. At the heart of Irtijal is a desire to promote interaction between foreign and local artists. The festival asks musicians to think beyond not only their instruments and training, but also their culture.

Nawfal became an Irtijal convert in 2004. “I used to always go because they were inviting these strange underground musicians. It was great.”

Nawfal’s love of musical alternatives – nourished since he cut his teeth as a restaurant DJ in the early 90s – drew him into Irtijal in 2009, when he invited festival organizers and musicians onto his radio show to promote that year’s event.

“We wanted to create a buzz around the musicians,” he explained. “Part of the difficulty with getting word out about Irtijal is that it is never going to be mainstream music.”

The fact that it doesn’t appeal to the masses is part of Irtijal’s charm. Because it challenges popular notions of what it is that music does, the concerts routinely push musical boundaries in a way that can only be done on the cultural margins.

Contemporary French jazz group “Dans les Arbres” kick off Irtijal ’11 at Ain al-Mreisseh’s Masrah Beirut Tuesday evening with a mingling of percussion, strings, clarinet and piano. Other scheduled performers include the popular Lebanese jazz ensemble “In-version: The Joelle Khoury Quintet” and the duo “Makharej,” whose works explore the sonic potential of the Arabic alphabet.

“A major characteristic of free jazz and improv is musicians from all over the world coming together. It’s collaborative,” says Nawfal. Artists participating in Irtijal often perform separately and then join forces with other musicians. Last year Dutch punk rock band The EX played as a group one evening and then performed duets with various Lebanese musicians in a “carte-blanche” styled festival finale.

This year’s Irtijal is to include a characteristically eclectic mix of sounds from electronically assisted sound poetry to trombone with analogue synthesizer. Friday’s finale is an ambitious ensemble collaboration among improvisers from throughout the week-long festival.

It sounds risky, and it is. Contrary to what some believe, improvisation isn’t as simple as grabbing an instrument and starting to jam.

“Improvisation takes pre-existing forms and subverts them,” Nawfal explains. “So you get free jazz, for instance, or free rock. There’s even improvised electronics [aka “electronic noise”], which is when you create freely with electronics.

“A more complex style of improvisation is when the idea [of improvisation] is applied to classical music. Classical music follows a traditional form, which is exactly the opposite of improvisation. So in this case it’s all about ignoring what you have been taught.

“In a way, that’s what improvisation is: Taking everything you know, everything you have learnt, and removing it. You have to forget what you’ve learnt but of course also be retaining it.”

One reason improv is exciting for a musician is the possibilities it opens. As Nawfal points out, “any instrument can be used to make music. Even a toothbrush.” Naturally musicians can use their instruments in a different way. A guitar, for example, can be beaten so that it is a percussive instrument only.

“You divert your instruments. You’re entirely free but you also need to have reference,” emphasizes Nawfal. “The best improv music comes from those who are really masters of their crafts. You have what you know, and you leave it, but you will always come back to it. What you know is what keeps you grounded and it is what gives your music a form.

“The audience members will always be recognizing something in improvisation. A theme repeated or a tune recognized. Improv is a constant back-and-forth. It’s not as random as you might think.”

Surprisingly, artists rehearse before their improv sets. Nawfal explains that this doesn’t detract from the spontaneity of the session. “The musicians agree on ideas – like themes – for their performance, but the performance itself has no fixed course. The artists have a shared idea that they take into their performance.”

An improv performance ends, Nawfal continues, “when the artists feel it. The idea comes to an end.”

Difficult though it may be to pin down the nature of an art as varied as improv, Nawfal’s definition is far from vague. “Improvisation is trained players playing within the ‘genre’ of improvised music – except that there is no ‘genre.’ It’s a way of playing in which there is no specific ‘way,’ a performance type without any specific ‘type.’ You can’t be too strict, you can only delineate ideas.”

Improvisation seems a complicated art form, relying on intuition and on each artist’s capacity to sense the direction of another artist’s sound. “Improvisation can go wrong,” agrees Nawfal, “but it can also go very, very right.”

Above all, Irtijal is about creating a home for improvisation in Lebanon, where artists from across the world can mingle ideas and passions. “Irtijal creates a bridge between Lebanon and the international improv community. However clichéd that sounds,” Nawfal says, “that’s what it is. The major characteristic of free jazz and improv is musicians coming together.”

Irtijal runs from April 5th -8th at various venues around Beirut. Tickets are LL15,000 per night, or a festival pass is available for LL40,000. For more information see