This is the time of year in Palestine when contemporary dance companies from around the world come to participate in the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival. The festival is part of a network of contemporary dance festivals that for the past five years have taken place in Lebanon, Syria*, Jordan, and Palestine. YSDT has had the honor of performing as part of these festivals in Jordan (under the direction of Dina Abu Hamdan) and Palestine (under the direction of Khaled Elayyan) in both 2007 and 2010. I always laugh that I see more dance in the Middle East than in New York City- my other home- which is arguably the dance capital of the world. Last night, for the first time, Palestinian audiences experienced the work of William Forsythe.
In this program Cyril Baldy, Amancio Gonzalez, Tilman O’donnell, Ander Zabala and Jone San Martin performed William Forsythe’s Chamber Works, a series of three works that haven’t been part of the company’s repertoire for a while: N.N.N.N. and The Vile Parody of Address (the title of the first duet, performed by Jone San Martin and Amancio Gonzalez, was unfortunately missing from the program). The evening opened with Jone’s elbows luring you in (I remember her arms from a performance years ago in NYC). Even from many meters away, the manipulation of her arms alone will seduce you, as well as Amancio’s care of the space and those around him. For the next- all male- piece, Amancio was joined by Cyril’s expanse, Tilman’s speed, and Ander’s quirkiness. The men looked as if they were a big factory of emotions and physicality producing one dependent body, yet somehow retaining a distinctiveness that directly challenged the idea of dependence. The final piece, set to JS Bach’s Fugue no 22 in B Flat Minor interpreted by Glenn Gould, included all of the dancers in a series of solos and duets. Space was illuminated, their conversation haunting. Perhaps I am too much in awe of their brilliance to be objective. I studied Forsythe’s modalities with Helen Pickett, who enabled this appreciation in me. The dancers and William Forsythe gave me perhaps the best gift dancing can give: humor and sadness at once. There is something about the isolation of body parts that is funny, yet sad. Forsythe’s dissection of space breaks down so many of my perceptions of what space is, that I found myself overwhelmed with feelings. He is a choreographer that brings up a lot of questions. And while the questions linger, the impatience of wanting an answer is eased by some kind of feeling, some kind of awakening of sense. And because I have studied the modalities, seeing Forsythe’s work for me is akin to an emotional game. The game of recognizing some of the modalities used and combined, the guessing game of what task was given, and a big smack of soul, a marathon of human emotions.
However most of the audience members had not studied Forsythe’s modalities, and in fact had probably never seen his work before. Contemporary dance didn’t appear regularly in Palestine and Jordan until the early 21st century, and even now festivals like this only happen once a year. One big difference between live art and other genres of contemporary art is that a performance can’t be referenced over and over again. Even as an experienced dance viewer, I am much more satisfied the more I get to see a particular work or choreographer’s work. Often my first meeting with a particular piece is an explosion of emotions, and it isn’t until my later encounters with the work that I can really decipher my own emotional details.
And so it was for many of the audience members tonight, especially those who are just being introduced to contemporary dance. After the show, my husband told me, “I spent the first 20 minutes trying to figure out what it meant. It was making me a bit crazy. Then, once I stopped caring about the meaning, I was taken somewhere else.” He decided that he never did figure it out, but that this was okay. During the post-performance Q&A, many people asked questions regarding what the piece was “about”. One woman said it reminded her of her work with mentally disabled children, especially when parts of the body were isolated and couldn’t move another part. Another said it reminded him of nature; a kind of meditation; very German; the struggle of old vs. young; man vs. woman. There was an array of interpretations. “You all are right.” Said the Forsythe dancers. The idea that there is a wrong and right to interpret art is a concept that is beginning to change with the festivals, where audiences are creating their own stories and sharing them.
Later I was explaining some of the modalities to my husband: matching (where you match one body part to another), collapsing (collapsing a point in the body), folding (folding a body part, like folding a piece of paper); I was amazed that he recognized many of them. One of the dancers I’ve worked with here mentioned the idea of reaching beyond the reachable points in space, which is a concept that I’ve talked about with them. The modalities are like tools to help the artist reach their goal through movement (whatever that is). It involves trial and error. When one way of moving doesn’t work, you can try another, like a game to find a way through a series of obstacles. There was an eerie resemblance between what I saw on stage and life here, where in order to travel one must confront obstacles and borders again and again; re-route trips, map new trajectories; like a game that- though rarely fun and often humiliating- is characterized by a certain perseverance.
There are many companies coming this year; all with their unique approach of what dance is. I don’t believe there is one definition out there, and the festivals do a good job at showing people this. I hope that these festivals continue to grow. That more companies come to perform and stay to teach, that the Palestinian and Arab dancers I know and don’t know, keep paving the way for dance in the Arab world to expand.
The dancers last night said they have never felt so welcome to a festival as they have in Palestine. ahlan wasahlan, you are most welcome. Thank you for coming to Palestine. I hope this was just a taste, and that you come back again.
*Syria was canceled this year due to the political situation.