Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Ramallah‘s Contemporary Dance Festival, fusing the traditional with the contemporary

By Beth Staton - May 05, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [Ramallah]

Sareyyet, Ramallah’s scouting organisation, has been a well-known part of the community for decades. In the group’s Al-Tireh Centre, the walls are covered with photographs of drumming parades, sports and ceremonies, snapshots of the city’s history, and trophies recording the group’s success in Dhabke and traditional dance.


In the organisation’s studios two weeks ago, however, a more unusual kind of class was taking place. For the whole day dancers from Company Ultima Vez, an acclaimed Belgian contemporary group, held open auditions that challenged local dancers to learn their innovative style of movement. By four in the afternoon, on a day when the summer heat seemed to have finally arrived in Ramallah, the young participants were exhausted but deeply engaged in the abstract movement and music of the class.


This audition was one of dozens of workshops, film screenings, talks and performances of cutting edge dance that, for the past two weeks, have been taking place daily in Ramallah and all over historic Palestine. The programme is the work of the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival (RCDF): an annual programme of arts that over a nine year history has developed an esteemed global reputation.


The vision behind the project is both artistic and political: “to promote dialogue and cultural exchange between the Palestinian people and other nations of the world,” the festival’s opening letter announces, and to “introduce the Palestinian public to various forms of contemporary dance.” For Assad Hussary, who has been working on RCDF since its inception, it’s an opportunity to develop Palestinian arts, and to show the world the reality both of Palestine and the occupation.


“People come here for the festival, and they see the checkpoint, they see the wall,” he told Palestine Monitor. “It’s an important thing. They see this is the Palestinian life. And they are not just seeing, they are feeling the welcome of the people, and then talking about their experience.”


This year, the talent attracted by the festival has travelled from all over the world and includes some of the biggest names in contemporary dance, such as the Russell Maliphant Company and the Royal Flemish Theatre. Companies from Australia, Norway and Algeria, as well as a number of Palestinian performers, are on the bill.


While few of the professionals that travelled to Ramallah for the festival have histories in solidarity work, many felt their visits to the West Bank were deeply revealing. “I do not feel comfortable in political connections, but it was impossible not to feel the oppression by the other side,” said Bruno Serravalle, a British Brazilian member of the Tunisian Amira Chebli company. “The welcome from the Palestinians and the mature audience who came to watch the shows made me think that we really need to open our eyes around the world and join each other more.”


Today, the international renown of the RCDF – which is now partnered with parallel festivals in Beirut and Amman – means its organisers feel secure in future successes. But this wasn’t always the case. For many of those who have worked on the projects since the beginning, the festival’s current popularity and scale can still seem surprising.


Sareyyet’s dealings in dance were primarily concerned with Dhabke and other traditional arts, when the festival’s founder Khaled Elayyan began introducing contemporary ideas around 2005. At first, colleagues were sceptical: modern dance, they believed, was risque, and would not be easily absorbed by Palestinian audiences. But then the group’s first modern production, At the Checkpoint, proved a success – and lit the “fire,” Hussary said, behind the festival itself.


The performance went on to tour all over Europe. It translated, critics said, the language of Palestinian folk dance into movement for the contemporary world of armed Israeli forces, walls and restrictions. According to a reviewer for Dance Europe, it was a “breathtaking piece”: “humiliation, despair and resilience,” he wrote, became “an integral part” of the dance.


The success continued. In the following years, Sareyyet has continued to tour globally, with productions including Sandweshet Labaneh, Ordinary Madness, and collaborations with Botega Dance Company Italy, Yaa! Samar USA and Tunisia’s Nawel Skandrani dance company. The festival itself has attracted an impressive roster of global dance companies, including Mathilde Monnier and, memorably, British choreographer Akram Khan, one year before he opened London’s 2012 Olympics.


As the festival’s renown grows, so does the international interest in its story. Elayyan, the festival’s founder, has spoken at numerous events internationally, drawing attention to the challenges facing not just dance in Palestine, but to the Palestinian cause itself.


This year, too, the festival programme featured several young performers who have achieved impressive success in the international dance scene before returning to Palestine to work and teach. Among them is Fadi Zmorrod, one of Palestine’s first professional circus artists, whose performance B-Orders debuted in Palestine during the festival following runs in Belgium and France. He currently tours with both B-Orders and Badke, a Belgian Palestinian production, as well as teaching at the Palestinian Circus School in Birzeit. “Through the circus school we’re attracting a new audience to the contemporary dance scene,” he said, such as “families, kids, [and] people who might not have been interested in dance before.”


As a Palestinian artist, Fadi must contend with a series of intertwined and unusual challenges. The difficulty of securing funding to deliver accessible arts while remaining independent from the demands of corporate and NGO sponsorship is just one element of that struggle. “From here, you are judged as a Palestinian, and not an artist,” he said. “You are a Palestinian first and then maybe an artist, and as Palestinians we are painted as either rebels or victims. But I want to be seen somewhere in between that: I’m not powerful, and I’m not poor. I want to be seen as an artist in my own way.”


Questions like these are not the only challenges the festival has faced. In 2008, statements in opposition to the festival appeared on a number of Hamas-affiliated websites, prompting founder Khaled Elayyan to publicly defend the event. This year there have been no problems, although Hussary told Palestine Monitor that contemporary dance is hardly familiar in rural areas and more conservative West Bank cities. “But this is Ramallah, people get what we’re doing,” he said. “And because we’re the first Ramallah group, people know that whatever we do, we are doing good. We aren’t just going to do something for one year and then leave. We’re serious.”


Fadi, too, is conscious that his art seems unusual to many audiences. “When we perform in Palestine we’re doing something that’s not traditional, where people tend to like traditional stuff and see stuff outside as not so acceptable,” he said. “But more contemporary shows give people more chance to see these new, different things, and we can explore ideas in a different way on the stage.”


The festival’s political consciousness, still, is explicit and considered. For the first time this year, events are taking place in Nazareth: a recognition, Hussary says, of Palestinian unity and a response to the thirst for Palestinian cultural activity in the city. Many of the international professionals involved in the festival are engaging with wider activism, on a longer-term basis. The festival seems set to continue growing.


“When we started, there were maybe ten people doing this kind of dancing in Ramallah,” Hussary told Palestine Monitor. “Now there are so many more, and people in Ramallah are thirsty for dance. For Palestinians, the festival means meeting teachers and dancers from all over the world, performing and seeing professional dance, learning and exchanging.


“This is dancing, yes,” he said. “But it is not just dancing: it is fighting.”





(disclosure: my sister’s a professional dancer for Russell Maliphant company, and performed in this piece)


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