The hysteria of everyday life
Still from "Sequence Three-In Six Movements (Byblis and Caunus)," 2012. - Courtesy: Doa Aly

Doa Aly and I sit smoking on the floor of the Townhouse Factory Space in May, pondering the approaching opening of her solo exhibition, Desire, Deceit, and Difficult Deliveries.

A friend walks into the space to keep us company, and notices the unusual behavior of the factory floor. Perhaps due to a recent flood, it has sunk away from the wall in some areas, drooping down into itself, creating cracks and strange slopes and valleys.

 “Djinn,” he pronounces solemnly. “You have djinn under the floor.”

Something mad and unearthly about the four videos we were showing in the space made this explanation somehow plausible.

The videos comprised a series called Metamorphoses: The Sequences (2010-2013). Loosely inspired by supernatural tales of obsessive longing and desire from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Doa worked with non-dancers to develop an idiosyncratic, restricted vocabulary of a few gestures. Each performer enacted these gestures against an ethereal backdrop, while walking in a pattern designed by the artist.

In Townhouse’s First Floor Gallery, another video piece, Roy, was filmed in 2012 while the artist was on a residency at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, and was a more relatable, human encounter with a performer she met there. The crisscrossing lines and circles of the trajectories walked by the performers in The Sequences informed the design of a spindly, Odradek-like wooden sculpture, which was surrounded by pencil drawings related to anatomical drawings of skull bones in Grey’s Anatomy. Finally, a wall text sutured together extracts from the Metamorphoses with writings on dementia, hysteria and mental illness.

It was easy to get lost in this world of supernatural madness and frustrated movement, and at times Townhouse seemed like an eerie, otherworldly home for this exhibition. It somehow made sense that some invisible djinn would be making mischief underneath our feet as we worked.

Doa said that Desire, Deceit, and Difficult Deliveries represented a turning point in her interests, and by the time the show opened on May 15, she was already thinking ahead to a solo show she would be having at Aleya Hamza’s yet-to-be-launched Gypsum Gallery.

That exhibition, The House of Sleep, opened on December 10 and will run until January 7. Doa is still using Ovid as her reference in this new body of work, but restricts her explorations to drawings, paintings and hints of text.

I had this conversation with Doa as we were preparing for the Townhouse show.

Ania Szremski: We should start by talking about “The Sequences,” which was the impetus for the other work in the exhibition. You mentioned you began this project in 2010, when you were interested in certain readings on hysteria. What texts were you looking at?

Doa Aly: I had just come out of The Girl Splendid in Walking (2009). I had read Freud’s account of the book before I actually read the novel (Sigmund Freud’s Delusion and Dream is based on Wilhem Jensen’s Gradiva). I read this, then I read the novel and made the project; and then I went back to Freud’s writing and got into this super clinical stuff on dementia. That led me to narcissism and all of that.

I liked it, but it’s funny, because if I had started with [Jensen’s] story I wouldn’t have been so attracted to it.

AS: So you were reading the stories through the psychoanalytical lens from the beginning. And why did you choose these specific tales [“Echo and Narcissus,” “The Fountain of Salmacis,” “Byblis and Caunus,” and “Myrrha”] from the “Metamorphosis”?

DA: There was all this research on Narcissus and all this scholarly work on the “Metamorphoses.” I found this amazing essay called “The Mirror of Hermaphroditus,” which compared Ovid’s telling of the Hermaphroditus myth with Francis Beaumont’s Renaissance epic based on this story, a poem that’s about nine times longer than Ovid’s story.

Beaumont made this comparison between Hermaphroditus and Narcissus in the poem — when Hermaphroditus looks at Salmacis, he drifts away looking at his reflection in her eyes, and she warns him to watch out or he’ll end up like Narcissus. That moment got me interested in the tale of Hermaphroditus.

Up until that point, it was all thought through and naturally moving — but then it got too emotional and I needed a different approach, which was working with the female body. That’s when I started looking at the heroines, and basically went through the entire book and chose their stories.

AS: What was it about working with the female body that was easier, or less fraught?

DA: It is much easier, and you see it in the videos — it’s a much more fluid movement of the body. It’s not about awkward movement anymore, it’s something else. This idea of constrained movement and space translates into something else entirely.

With the male body, you’re dealing with a body that is very much used to a certain language through which it asserts itself, and you have to work through this. I always tell the performers, “Bring out the woman in you!”

But there’s a process which always ends up being super emotional and intimate — not physically intimate, but you have to talk about so many things to get past these postures and all these ways through which a male body presents itself and asserts its presence. You have to break down all of this.

AS: Going through that process you have to first deconstruct these socially coded gestures that we’re making unconsciously all the time … I guess 90 percent of the way we move in public space is something coded and received.

DA: You isolate them first; this is very deliberate, and this works with all the performers. Something happens when you do this, but more intensely with the men because of the nature of the process. With the girls it’s quite different, but somehow I have to be more alert with the women. I feel more vulnerable somehow. I have to be more alert and more focused, but it’s not an emotional strain.

AS: And how do you generate this vocabulary of gestures? How much of it is deliberate and coming out of the text, and how much is coming out of the performer themselves?

DA: Half-half. First you have the performer and his or her ability. You sense this right away, and very instinctively you work around it. The repertoire of gesture really depends on the performer’s imagination and willingness to experiment with you on all of this, so you start by sort of checking out what they’re capable of doing, deconstructing these coded gestures. Then you put them through another coded phase of really stylized movements. My reference is always ballet because it’s the most unnatural movement, and you see how this blends. You make them really comfortable and then see what happens.

AS: It sounds like a torturous process for the performers.

DA: This is really a sadistic process.

AS: Especially how you get into this intimate psychological space with the performer and tap into this intimate matter; it’s almost exploitative.

DA: It’s totally exploitative and totally sadistic, and it’s the best part of it! Though it’s really confusing. There was this one performer, we were sitting on the couch, and he just put his head on my lap. You’re talking so much and I really want to open them up, and it gets confusing if you’re not used to nuances of human relationships. But it’s something I have to work through as well. It’s something that I like. I’m super blessed — I would never do this for someone, what those performers do for me. In the end you see them standing there, and their bodies shiver because they’re under so much strain, and they do it out of love. There’s so much love and so much trust.

AS: Alongside the question of the gesture are the trajectories, which are much more proscribed by you.

DA: You can think of it as an element in the design, basically. I wanted them to have a progression among them, and a progression through space, gradually using more space.

It becomes spiritual, it becomes an obsession. You forget where you were going and why you were doing what you were doing, and this becomes what you wanted … but it’s fixed within a certain space.

AS: The way you described it sounds a bit mad, to always be stuck between these two points.

DA: I wish I had the time to do it properly, I have to; I always go back to catatonic diseases and hysteria and schizophrenia.

AS: Schizophrenia is always the model for this kind of feedback process.

DA: Yeah, schizophrenia and the idea of repetition, if we’re talking about these auditory hallucinations. But catatonia is also quite fascinating, because all of this thinking gets you into thinking through the difference between voluntary and involuntary movement, and how can you make an unconscious movement become conscious and enter your repertoire, and what happens when it enters your repertoire.

All of this got me into thinking about the psychological stuff, and it’s very funny, because through working, when I’m rehearsing with someone, the movements are very repetitive and the rehearsals are very repetitive. I mean, we’re perfecting one or two or three, or maybe six movements.

AS: How long does that rehearsal process take?

DA: It takes a month, four or five times a week, but I depend a lot on the performer’s generosity. It’s very funny, and this is something I’m discovering with the work — I don’t know if this has to do with the nature of the movements, or the performers or the nature of repetition. But this repetitive movement, if you’re just repeating it, it doesn’t do anything. The moment it becomes mechanic, something drops, and I see it right away. I can tell.

AS: It has to be intentional.

DA: Yes, it has to be intentional, and it has to be conscious. There has to be an awareness.

AS: We were touching on this before — the stylizing is important for that, not just in terms of your aesthetic vision, but breaking them out of their customs — these easy shortcuts that help you get through your day, all of these little gestures that are comforting —

DA: You don’t feel them anymore —

AS: And they let you not be completely who you are, they keep you in place.

DA: I’ll tell you exactly what I was thinking about. There’s a reason why they’re not dancers. You put on these fake movements and try to perform with your own background or baggage, and it’s never perfected, so there’s always a little bit of awkwardness that comes through. It is that moment that the affect comes through, the moment where you see the vulnerability of the character, or person or whatever — the moment these two things meet, the stylized movement and the physicality of the body, and the personal history. That is always the moment I was looking for.

So it always had to be stylized, but up to a certain point. It’s not like ballet, this complete make-believe of becoming completely something else. It’s not about metamorphoses, it’s about metamorphosizing!

AS: Something you said reminded me of this contrast between really mundane and everyday alongside something that’s completely exceptional. In the stories, there are magical things happening and gods are interfering; but you’re working with non-dancers, and gestures that anyone can make. It’s similar with these source texts on hysteria, these are extreme exceptional cases, but there are these seeds of the possibility for madness in all of us. I know that you’ve gone back and forth a lot on if “Roy” should be included …

DA: “Roy” was difficult.

AS: Well, I felt it really belonged in this show, and maybe because of its complete non-exceptionality. It’s really about him.

DA: Reality always scared me. This make-believe, costume and affected movement —

AS: Everything’s super aestheticized —

DA: Exactly — was actually a distance. Everything is super aestheticized, although the process was super intimate and emotional, and this is the way I was taking distance from this. I don’t think I could have handled it otherwise. Even when working with text this happens, and I can feel it. It’s very important to me that I’m working with languages that are not my native language, but the language of the gestures and the language of the text. This quality is quite important to me, because it gives me this distance that I need to not be totally immersed, to be slightly objective.

So basically, I had these characters on paper, who were imaginary characters. And then there was the person. And these were not randomly cast, the person was always close physically or in personality to the character, so there is a bit of matching going on. But in the end, it’s a character on paper, and then there’s the person who performs a character.

“Roy” from the very beginning was a very different process, because I was fascinated with him as a character, as if he were a character from paper who I was meeting in real life — just everything about him, the way he looked, the way he behaved, his eyes, all of these details, and then his story of course is super compelling. But he was the starting point, as a person, and that’s new to me. You have this person who’s so compelling in real life, and you want to make an image out of him — and that’s a challenge, to capture this presence. That’s what I think about all the time. And I think that’s my problem with “Roy,” I really think I failed to capture his presence that really moved me and touched me. Something else happened, but I’m not sure what.

From the very beginning it was quite different, and then to sit with him and listen to his story, and make movements based on his story, and then to perform this … it’s almost like a process that should have not been on camera, like something we needed to do and it was great, but the end result does not capture everything in the process. That’s something I have to think about for future projects, as well. But I never thought about it before “Roy,” just because it was his reality that was at stake.

AS: Reality’s a lot scarier.

DA: It is, and I keep away from it, but then I tried with the same mentality. I don’t know what happened with “Roy.” I mean I love it right now, I always have this feeling after a video of thinking it’s so beautiful; but with “Roy” it’s painful, it’s a different intensity.

AS: That’s why I felt it was important to include it. It’s clearly a transition to something else, right.  And transition is the most painful thing to live through.

DA: Definitely, I love this blend — the reality of a figure, of a man’s body, just going through these motions, while being very clearly controlled by someone whose standing behind the camera. There’s definitely something I want to keep, I just have to find out how. Even in “The Girl Splendid in Walking,” it was their soul that I see, and I want it!

AS: You’re like a vampire.

DA: I need to think about capturing this properly.

AS: Or if it’s possible.

DA: Or if it’s possible. I do make them act in the end — it’s not a documentary, it’s very subtle. “Roy” made me see this. I start to appropriate something, but it’s not a formula. You have to be careful there.

AS: Since it is autobiographical, it’s a really … the word documentary, it’s kind of like a liminal expression of someone’s truth.

DA: But what is the truth? When I used to write about the work, I always talked about someone’s background and how this translates into the repertoire of movements, and how you can read someone’s body language. But actually, I’m talking the talk, I’m not walking the walk. In the end, there’s the wealth that I’m talking about that I completely erased, and I didn’t see it! This is the danger, I was not seeing that. It’s like, ok, you’re so interested in this, but this is the first thing that you get rid of. And “Roy” made me realize this contradiction in my own thinking.

AS: So do you think you’ll just put the button on this mode of working?

DA: There’s a lot of tweaking that needs to be done, a lot of filtering. But a lot has changed, I’m not interested in the same things as I was before. I need to figure out what I really want from the body, the movement, the performer, and how much this stylizing and the reality of the performers, which carries us through the rehearsals and the entire process. There has to be a balance between the two.

AS: I guess we should talk about how the drawings fit into all of this.

DA: The way it happened was very simple. In 2004, I decided to look at everything I’ve ever done, the paintings especially, and see what I do unconsciously.

I always constrained the body in a certain way. Even on the surface of the canvas, it was always tucked away in corners or huddled, but I would give a tiny window or door of possibility. So that got me thinking — is it about moving, or not moving? And then I started writing about the body and movement, and realized I had to move myself, so that was the beginning of the ballet classes — I have to put my own body through this process of assimilating a different movement.

And this got me thinking about the very unit — and this is something I just realized very recently, that all my work is about units. A unit of movement, a unit of language, a unit of line in a drawing. It’s very basic, just keep going back to the origins.

AS: The building blocks.

DA: So what constitutes movement, and how movement happens? That’s when I started looking at muscles and bones and the anatomy of movement, and hypothesizing about anatomy — how these alterations could look. I started altering the bones. It was very mathematical, not aestheticized and poetic like it is now — just taking out part of the bone and seeing what happens.

AS: So the torture continues.

DA: But you know, I can’t stand gore and bloody movies!

AS: But that’s the thing about anatomical drawings — they turn the body into something so clean and abstract, there’s no blood and flesh.

DA: In the paintings, I was dealing with the most important bones in movement — the pelvis, the knee joint. The joints that if you do anything to them, you’re screwed. And eventually when I got into this psychology stuff, it became mostly skull bones, the bones that protect the mind. And they’re tiny.  And that was a real transition, because they’re not recognizable as bones anymore. So now I just mostly work with these bones.

AS: I was thinking about the juxtaposition of the dancer’s bodies next to the anatomical drawings, it creates this same juxtaposition between something very basic and common to all of us, and something very idealized, which is the dancer’s body, which is something very coveted and special …

DA: This is exactly what it was in the beginning, this aspiring for perfection … when the common body aspires for this image of perfection.

Ania Szremski is the curator at Townhouse and an editor for Mada Masr.

Ania Szremski 

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