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Can you dance out of a forest of monologues?

Summary: BEIRUT: Works that move between disciplines pose a problem when it comes to depicting them. If there is a problem with these works, though, it lies in the inertia of audience expectations.Take "I Have Come," the performance piece created by Gaspard DelanoE, choreographed by flamenco master Israel Galvan and interpreted by


Jim Quilty

Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Works that move between disciplines pose a problem when it comes to depicting them. If there is a problem with these works, though, it lies in the inertia of audience expectations.

Take "I Have Come," the performance piece created by Gaspard DelanoE1/2, choreographed by flamenco master Israel Galvan and interpreted by Yalda Younes and DelanoE1/2. The work was staged Thursday evening at the Theatre Monnot -- part of a cavalcade of events timed to correspond with the opening of Home Works 5, Beirut's forum on cultural practices, organized by Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Art.

According to the Home Works catalogue, "I Have Come" is a dance performance. This label may be the single greatest failing of the work. Dance is the artistic core of the performance -- indeed, it's likely that Younes' spare, intensely sensual flamenco technique is the reason most Beirutis in the audience came.

Yet perhaps the first third of "I Have Come" is not dance at all but theater -- politically inflected, absurdist comedy. There, it seemed (at least for some in the Beirut audience), lay the rub.

The curtain rose upon a stage that was completely dark save a center-stage map of the eastern Mediterranean. It might represent Lebanon and Palestine, but all the names on the map were redacted -- blacked out in the manner of a censored document.

The sound of a vinyl LP's prominent surface noise wafted from the stage. Evidently the audience was meant to understand that any musical accompaniment was pre-recorded and antique. In any case, the "musical accompaniment" of this "dance performance" was not very musical.

A formally dressed Younes and DelanoE1/2 strode on stage, to a pair of lecterns flanking the map. In crisp formal Arabic, Younes began to address the crowd, in the manner of a press conference at state function or Arab League summit.

She outlined the salient points of a peace plan, brokered by a clutch of European monarchs (powerhouses like Belgium, Luxembourg and Monaco), that had been concluded for some unnamed country. At regular intervals she paused to allow DelanoE1/2 to provide his English translation, in accented yet plummy cadences.

The plan itself is an amusing pastiche of pop cultural references drawn from today's neo-liberal landscape.

The constitutional model for the new state will be that of Belgium. [sic!] Consequently, the state's three official languages would be Arabic, Hebrew and Walloon. The new state's capital would be divided into four sectors, administered by the same powers with stakes in post-World War II Berlin and "The Wall of Shame" renamed the "Wall of Pride" -- shares of which would be sold on eBay, whose proceeds would pay for rehabilitation programmes within the new state.

All the former state's checkpoints would be transformed into tollbooths. Younes and DelanoE1/2 detailed a number of these, calculating the tolls allocated for the, often minute, distances between each.

If the list of tolls is a little long for the audience -- who seemed to want the pair to either revert to the enjoyable absurdities from the start of the briefing or else to get on with the dancing -- the writer's intention became clear when Younes moved on to the next item in her briefing.

A ministry of national identity and immigration would be immediately created, she said, to oversee the resettlement of refugees. The peace plan details the resettlement of four or five families, all internally displaced. Next to the profusion of checkpoints/tollbooths, the handful of "returned" refugees comes off as comic deflation.

A bilingual weather forecast for the new state was followed by a raising of the new national flag, accompanied by its national anthem. The tune, if alien to the foreigners in the audience would be recognized as an old one, sampled from some vintage Arab record. The flag hung limp until DelanoE1/2 switched on an adjacent fan, revealing it to be the white flag of surrender.

It is at this point that Younes requested leave to express herself more clearly. Removing her hairpins and jacket, she crossed the stage to stand rigid, staring downstage right. Then, finally, she began to dance.

The technique of that dance is not far removed from conventional flamenco. The frilly dresses and array of musical accompaniment (the cajon, guitars and cantor) are all absent, the sole concession to classical flamenco instrumentation being an isolated bit of hand-clapping.

What remains is Younes' erect posture and intensity of expression, precise, staccato footwork and adorning hand-gesture. Here, this footwork and hand gesture are segmented from one another -- just as surely as the movement is shorn of any musical accompaniment.

This intense solo work stopped suddenly, as if striking an invisible barrier, and she dropped from the waist like a marionette cut from its strings. The studious-looking DelanoE1/2 struck a single note as if from a tuning fork, and, detaching himself from his lectern, began a clownish impersonation of Younes' original choreography.

DelanoE1/2 has a gift for physical comedy, so the translator's rendition of Younes' passionate original is funny in a buffoonish sort of way, accentuated by Younes' maintaining the flamenca's mien of serious intensity.

The buffoonery ended, prompting Younes to commence a second solo, which provoked another slack-bodied translation from DelanoE1/2.

By now one reading of his comic echo-chamber presents itself. The whole of "I Have Come" is comprised of parallel monologues -- as opposed to, say, the "cultural dialogue" that underpins European diplomacy hereabouts.

But this isn't a politics lecture, and other more nuanced polarities suggest themselves. The formality of the language in the press briefing is utterly at odds with the absurdity of the words' meaning. The inane political rhetoric is thrust against the expressiveness of Younes' movement, the sternness of her demeanor against the floppy, self-satisfaction of her comic translator.

With that of her teacher Israel Galvan (whose postponed Home Works' performance, "Solo," may yet be staged), the work of Yalda Younes rests among that of a small cluster of dancer-choreographers that have brought contemporary concepts of absence to classical flamenco. Before "I Have Come," this vector in her work expressed itself in a 2006 collaboration with Lebanese composer Zad Moultaka.

The work that emerged, "NO," has been termed "a composition for electro-acoustic environment and zapateado." In that piece, Younes' elaborate choreography wasn't accompanied by "music" either, but by a soundscape based on explosive concussions, recorded during one of this country's armed conflicts, which Moultaka elaborated electronically.

A brief work, just a few minutes long, "NO" was well received for its poetic concision and effectiveness in evoking the precarious mortality of artistic practice in the contemporary world, not just in Lebanon.

"I Have Come" is quite a different beast, more daring in its efforts to place the raw emotional urgency of contemporary flamenco in proximity to physical comedy, embracing the rhetoric of contemporary politics in order to deride it.

As long as the movement of "I Have Come" insulates the flamenco within a structure of parallel monologue, the work comes off reasonably well. In the dying moments of the piece, however, the performers are expected to dance a few steps of the new state's (evidently contrived) folk dance, "together."

The few seconds of physical comedy that ensue serve the didactic purposes of the piece well enough. It also leaves you wising there were more of Younes' flamenco. Perhaps that's the point.

Home Works continues at various venues around Beirut until May 1.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Apr 24, 2010
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