Photo by Houssam Mchaiemch, courtesy BIPOD Festival.
BIPOD International Platform of Dance
Théâtre Monnot, Beirut, Lebanon
January 6–22, 2006
Reviewed by Christopher Atamian
Omar Rajeh and Maqamat Theatre Dance started the BIPOD (Beirut International Platform of Dance) International Festival in 2004 in order to introduce contemporary dance to Lebanon. Less ambitious organizers would have thrown in the towel long ago. Beirut has only recently emerged from the ashes of civil war, and arts funding is still virtually nonexistent. Yet this year Maqamat managed to find local sponsors and host 12 companies from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. As might be expected, the results were remarkable at times and disappointing at others.
Benin’s Tchekpo Dan Agbetou gave a sensual and riveting performance titled L’envol du vent. With his head shaven and his torso glistening above long black pants, the Ailey-trained dancer gently undulated and vibrated arms, hands, and legs in a graceful ballet. Tchekpo started to cackle, emitting a crescendo of guttural sounds until he erupted into flat-out, mad laughter. He spoke in a variety of African languages in a presentation inspired as much by traditional dance as contemporary vocabularies. His trancelike monologue evoked emotions and states of being as diverse as folly and mirth, anger and hope, solipsism and contentedness. As he lifted his arms backwards, Tchekpo balanced on one leg, then jumped in the air and screamed. Returning to earth, he shook again with disconcerting speed and strength. When he finally finished, the audience gasped one final breath along with him.
Lebanese choreographer Alia Hamdan presented the perfect mix of intellectual engagement and dance performance in her powerful solo When the Holiday Inn became again. A video screen projected an image of the bombed-out Beirut Holiday Inn skyscraper, followed by a series of quotations by German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Then Hamdan walked onstage, traced a chalk circle on the ground, stepped inside, and performed a nicely choreographed solo. Although the underlying theory was hard to grasp, the piece was a finely thought out and executed meditation on space, time, and being.
Another highlight of the festival was an outstanding experimental flamenco group from Spain, Grupo Galván. With a classical guitarist and a singer of mournful fado-like hymns in the background, Galván de los Reyes strutted his stuff like a sexy, proud rooster. Historically influenced as flamenco was by the Arab convivencia of the early Middle Ages, this piece, La Edad de Oro, resonated with an audience that hooted back in Spanish and Arabic. De los Reyes’ take on flamenco includes angled, abrupt gesturing in which he arches his back suddenly, pushes out his chest, claps his hands, and performs quick, forceful steps in his black cowboy boots. Then he sits down and lets the musicians take over before he begins another dance. At the end, singer and dancer exchanged roles and the audience roared.
On another night, local actor Raed Yassine and Tunisian dancer Nawel Iskanderani presented sophomoric efforts best left at the studio. Dressed all in black and attached to a ceiling harness, Yassine crushed and spat out what looked like dark cherries while executing excruciatingly slow hand and body gestures in a program inspired by, of all things, Batman. Iskanderani emerged like a latter-day Venus on a half-shell from a pile of sand, and pranced around while mimicking what one presumes was her version of contemporary dance.
Maqamat closed the festival with an overly ambitious ode to freedom titled Concerto 13, inspired by Cervantes and Orwell. The presentation, which mixed elements of Bausch-like dance theater and the Theater of the Absurd, started out with Rajeh as a butcher sitting high up on a toilet seat. At one point a dancer in glasses came out and read from Orwell’s novel 1984 in Arabic. Others banged work boots on a long banquet table before donning them for a Stomp-like section; a thin, boyish dancer in a leather collar and S&M gear crawled center stage, sniffed Rajeh’s feet, and howled. Maqamat should be applauded for pulling in so many dance theatrical references, but it would benefit from concentrating on a set dance vocabulary and developing a more coherent narrative.
In time, the BIPOD Festival will attract a more even and accomplished group of companies and learn to distinguish between talent and pretension. The sophisticated, discerning audiences gave every indication that they will support its continued growth and success. See www.maqamat.org.