Middle East Solos: Out of Context, Creating New Ones

Last weekend New York Live Arts presented a program of solo works by four women. This wouldn’t be news in itself, except that these were four writer/performers from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, most making their American debuts: Marie Al Fajr, Leyya Mona Tawil, Mona Gamil, and Amira Chebli. The program, which ran March 25-26, was part of NYLA’s Live Ideas Festival, which kicked off in February and has the full title of “MENA/Future: Cultural Transformation in the Middle East North Africa Region.”


According to Cairo-based artist and curator Adham Hafez, who partnered with NYLA director of programming Thomas Kriegsmann to program the festival, each solo piece raises issues that may not be expected of Arab female performers. There are no rallying cries against disempowerment, for instance, and no survival tales designed to engender empathy. This sets the evening apart, he said, from much of what is imported to U.S. venues from the region, which he characterized as “melodramatic work” that “just satisfies Orientalist expectations. I don’t find melodramatic work productive anymore. If ever.”


Marie Al Fajr, a French choreographer who has been documenting dying dance traditions in Egypt for more than 20 years, performed first with Shagarat Mussafira (Traveling Trees). She began slumped on the floor, face obscured, and took her time there in a kind of meditative state before commencing a range of movement sequences blending traditional Egyptian and contemporary dance. Her serene, assured presentation was set to a recorded score featuring the tabla, oud, rabab, and flute by Egyptian-Armenian composer Georges Kazazian. The net effect was enchanting and mellowing, a bit like taking a bath.

Syrian-Palestinian-American choreographer Leyya Mona Tawil’s Atlas, a collaboration with violinist Mike Khoury, followed. In the first half, Tawil, dressed in a knee-length army green coat and combat boots, rolled back and forth from stage left to stage right for what felt like an hour but was probably more like 15 minutes, thrashing, hurling at various speeds, as Khoury played a tense and urgent intermittent score. It was disturbing, uncompromising, and awe-inspiring. Tawil had earlier told me that the piece was about caving in to and pushing against the burden of knowledge. Viewing it called to my mind such turbulent visceral intensities as vomiting and rape. But it also evoked endurance. After the rolling sequence, Tawil lifted herself up and into the pose of Atlas holding the heavens—a balance made more majestic given that she’d been unfurling there, disorientated and discombobulated, so recently and for so long.


The next piece, SAP: Safe Art Practice, provided comic relief. Donning a bicycle helmet and shin guards, Irish-Egyptian performer Mona Gamil delivered a PowerPoint presentation selling a how-to book on “safe” art making. Gamil, a clever and beautiful polymath gifted in visual arts, dance, video, and comedy, has clearly strained under the pressure to define and market herself in more narrow terms for curators and grantors. There was evident glee in her satire of the commodification of art and artists, and the New York Live Arts audience, an international and intergenerational mix, joined in, laughing often.


In a prior interview, Gamil said that calls for Middle Eastern art in the U.S. tend to prioritize work that proposes solutions to sociopolitical issues.


“If the goal is to educate and emancipate, the kind of works selected will be very different from those selected based purely on aesthetic,” Gamil said. And while she wasn’t making a case that one is inherently superior to the other, she was concerned that “many artists are being marginalized and pigeonholed into the former. This limits what could have been a potentially rich artistic exchange into a monotonous debate that circles around a few key hot topics while everything else falls by the wayside.” Art, she said, should be a space that gives people the room to ask new questions, “rather than going back to the same ones over and over again.”


The final piece, In-Situ, belonged to Tunisian choreographer Amira Chebli, a dazzling young stage presence. Mixing boxing with virtuosic bellydancing, it was perhaps the most polished of the four pieces, with supertitles, sleek lighting, and a kind of self-awareness of star power. In an interview, Chebli called it a “dance play,” and said she was exploring how memories transfer to stage. “I take them out of their context and rewrite them the way I felt them, like a dream, a nightmare, or a fantasy, with the sounds and the lights that correspond to what they represent in my memory data.” She is also investigating what it means to be an Arab woman performing internationally—as she put it, “How does it feel to be in it, and what I see when I observe from abroad.”

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