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.



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