RCH: How did you decide on France?
MA: I wanted to go to Western Europe, to Belgium, Germany or France. I chose France from the get-go because I already had contacts and knew a few French artists. I was first issued a one-year visa and attended a number of workshops at the Centre National de la Danse in Pantin in the banlieue of Paris. After that, I explored further training opportunities and was accepted for the master’s programme at the Centre Chorégraphique National (CCN) in Montpellier, where I could train with Mathilde Monnier. This was a wonderful time for me because I learned a lot from the teachers and interacted with other students, while also focusing my energies on my own research. My final piece, called “Épreuve du Corps”, was performed in 2012 not just in Montpellier but also at the Théâtre de la Cité Internationale in Paris.
RCH: Could you explain how your work as a choreographer is influenced by the on-
going conflict in Syria?
MA: I have been consumed by the situation in Syria in terms of aesthetics and content from the very start of the revolution. At first, I examined depictions of the dead as shown in the media and throughout the course of art history. This interest was triggered by images of dead demonstrators in Syria. A central concern of my work is to raise awareness of the situation in a way that goes beyond the superficial images circulated by the media. At the moment, I continue to work on this old project which could be better described as an installation rather than a performance.
RCH: The piece you are showing in Berlin alludes to the issue of exile in its title “Displacement”. Could you tell us about the work?
MA: The performance consists of two parts, a solo and a trio. When I choreographed the piece, I felt compelled to examine my country’s recent history, such as the effects of a dictatorship and ideology after decades in power, as well as the effects of military rule and religion, along with other things like folk traditions that still heavily influence rural life. Dance traditions are just one aspect of these.
RCH: The content and aesthetics of both parts are closely connected…
MA: They are. I created this effect by using the same sequence of steps for the first and second parts. The first part is focused on the individual, on questions like “Where do I come from?” and “Where am I going?” – the story of exile, in other words. At the same time, this piece also creates an ambiguous martial atmosphere, leading the audience to wonder if the dancer is wearing boots intended for travel or for the military. In the second half, the focus shifts to society, to the body politics, and to the individual’s role in the group. Even in this part, however, it’s not clear whether the three dancers portray people fleeing or soldiers marching – it could go either way, since the choreography always stays within the realm of the uncertain or ambiguous; in other words, it’s about images that can portray life in Syria and allude to exile. For example, when the three dancers raise their arms and wave their hands at the beginning of the second piece, the gesture could evoke protest, such as at a demonstration, or people who are fleeing and call out for help or even try to fend off physical violence.
RCH: Your work also appears to address the issue of identity as experienced by a displaced person?
MA: Right. Every refugee is confronted with issues of identity. The piece looks at the confrontation between the culture a refugee was forced to leave – yet continues to possess, and likely always will – and the new culture found in the adoptive country that the refugee is confronted with and must first understand.
RCH: The dominant steps are influenced by a folk dance from the Levant…
MA: The choreography is primarily influenced by the folk dance known as the ‘Dabke’ dance, which is known throughout the Levant, not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. Variations of this dance can even be found in Turkey and Greece. I chose this dance because the steps are similar in a way to a kind of flight. It was a conscious decision to use this older dance form because of its range of regional variations: In Syria for example, the steps are performed on the spot, while in Palestine they are more dynamic and take up more space. I suspect the differences can be attributed to each group’s history: Whereas the Palestinians have been displaced from their homeland for generations, the Syrians stayed more or less in the same place. That’s why we still need to learn how to live with exile. I predict, and am even convinced, that the steps of the Syrian form of the ‘Dabke’ will also become more dynamic over the course of time.
RCH: Your work has a unique artistry, yet the reduction and radical nature of your work also show strong echoes of the French school. What can you say about this influence?
MA: It’s hard to say this about my own work. I try in my own way to create stories and representations of the things that really matter to me; but it also goes without saying that I have lived in France for six years and constantly take in everything around me; furthermore, my works are viewed and judged by French audiences. So, it’s perfectly possible that an observer might detect a French influence in my work.
RCH: You perform with two other male dancers in the second part of “Displacement”. How did you meet the two men?