La Compagnie de Soi: When the Arabs Used to Dance

La Compagnie de SOI: When The Arabs Used to Dance

When the Arabs Used to Dance
Photo Agathe Poupeney/PhotoScene

Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London
July 15, 2015
Maggie Foyer

The fascination with the East pervades dance – one has only to think of Léon Bakst’s costumes in Schéhérazade, the themes of Le Corsaire and Alexander Glazunov’s music for Raymonda. Set this adoration against the duplicitous and shameful colonisation of Arab lands then add the commercialisation of Hollywood, for example the dance scenes in MGM’s Cleopatra of 1963, and you have a bizarre and colourful mongrelisation.

Edward Said developed a comprehensive theory of the West’s relationship to the East but on another plane there is the love of beauty and the culture, even when not fully understood, that is the artist’s preserve. However at the Shubbak Festival we had the rare privilege of a Tunisian’s take on Arab men’s dance.

Choreographer, Radhouane El Meddeb, writes a homage to the heyday of Arab Cinema in the 60s and 70s, the splendour of the baladi in the nightclubs and the divas of Arab dance. In an extraordinarily complex reading he uses men as the belly dancers (there is a strong historical precedent for this) and brings in contemporary interpretations backgrounded by the rise of hopes engendered by the Jasmine revolution. And all this is built into a skilful sixty minute structure.

The build-up is agonisingly slow. Four men: Youness Aboulakoul, Philippe Lebhar, Rémi Leblanc-Messager and Arthur Perole, dressed in trousers and shirts line up facing the back of the stage. They rise to the balls of their feet and wait. Then, very slowly in the gloom, sometimes in silence sometimes to distant sounds they make involuntary hip gyrations and thrusts gradually starting to move around the stage. They kneel on the floor as though to pray then shift to pose sensually, lounging along the line of prayer mats.

The arms come into play and the emotional level rises as they carve the air in gorgeous swirling gestures; both inviting and expressive. As their arms relax, the movement centres back on the hips, each dancer self-contained, expressing and shaping inner urges and stirrings. One removes his shirt, lightly wrapping it around another’s head like a niqab, before whipping it off just as quickly.

Movement now ripple through the whole body as the rest remove their shirts and rejoice in the rhythmic intensity of the dance. At times they dance solo in a hypnotic haze or fleetingly work with a partner. Occasionally, one will catch the eye of an audience member with a knowing smile.

In the final moments the focus shifts to the video screen as rare and wonderful black and white footage of nightclub scenes in Egyptian films pays tribute to the allure of the belly dancer. It was a joyous and deeply moving dance work celebrating male sensuality and one that revealed a surprisingly different side to North African culture.

For a short video of excerpts of When the Arabs Used to Dance, click here.