Broad and challenging: D-CAF performing arts highlights
Courtesy: Mostafa Abdel Aty / D-CAF

My first experience of D-CAF’s 2014 performing arts program was being turned away: Billy Cowie’s “The Art of Movement” proved so popular that not everyone could get a seat.

The overall program was diverse, ranging across experimental, collaborative, improvisational, and more conventional theatrical and dance forms. There was a play performed entirely in Mandarin, an evening of revolutionary testimonies in the form of El Warsha’s “Zawaya,” focused one-man works such as Ahmed El Attar’s “On the Importance of Being an Arab,” and a challenging combination of dance and theater in “An Empty House for Hospitality.” My knowledge of performance is only as good as the next person — so the range of approaches made a pretty good crash course.

On my second attempt at “The Art of Movement” I got in. After the lights dimmed in the small Viennoise Hotel hall, a 3D video projection of a woman addressed the audience. Acting as chapter divider between dance segments, she read from a book enumerating various defined tropes or gestures common in modern dance, which were then demonstrated both by a projected dancer and a live one, with robotic simultenaeity. With the 3D glasses, it appeared as though there were two dancers in the room, shimmery at the edges.

Why was a projected performer necessary? Would it have been as interesting if it were just two live performers? I’m half ready to dismiss it as pure spectacle to make up for dry content, but there is something to be said for how a totally digital performer combined with the live one and the kitsch trickery of 3D can intensify your sense of a living presence.

Both performers (video and flesh) had abstract drawings projected on them, further confusing the sense of space, surface and presence. This and the Yann-Tiersen-esque music also made it, basically, pretty. I appreciate escaping the presumption that dance must always have interpretable or narrative meaning. There’s an inherent criticality to laying movements bare in a dictionary-definition way, as it hints that we can question this overly literal duality of mind and body. Adding layers of abstract drawings and an appealing soundtrack would appear to be a contradiction, decorative wizardry for the bread-and-circuses crowd. But it worked — D-CAF had to double performances due to popular demand.

Another work that took on technical matters, but in a much more interactive way, was Edit Kaldor’s “C’est du Chinois” at the Falaki Theater.

“Thank you for your interest in learning Mandarin. It is a good use of your time,” said a man in the audience, who had been asked to read from a paper offered by the cast. A self-conscious giggle ran through the audience. The rest of the play was entirely in Mandarin, and the cast of four Chinese people politely insisted that we repeat and memorize keywords like tofu, love, sleep, rice. Through this extremely simple build-up of vocabulary, the characters and story were introduced.

The play did not attempt to replace language with nuanced physical acting. Every portrayal was a picture-book depiction. Its humor and charm functioned mostly around regressing the audience to a preschool level of interaction while dealing in adult topics like family strife, alcoholism and the drudgery of hawking DVDs in Cairo. This did not raise the theatrical stakes; the effort required to rapidly translate the dialogue could not amount to emotion or reflection on any of the stories raised, so the novelty wore off fast. Ultimately, the family inverted their relation to the audience, ending the play by setting up a DVD stall at the theater exit, maintaining the same obliging monoglot personas in a quiet nod to stereotypes around the immigrant salesperson. (The DVD, costing LE19, is a sweet but probably pointless flash program reminding us of the words we learned.)

In conveying enormous force without spoken language, for me Attar’s “The Last Supper” was unintentionally far more successful. The shimmering translucent backdrop — designed to emphasize the empty glossiness of the play’s milieu — almost completely obscured the projected subtitles, so I and other non-Arabic speakers remained ignorant as to the script. Going by audience reaction and friends’ comments, I missed out on some excellent words. It’s testament to the actors that the play’s 15 minutes were riveting nonetheless.

“The Last Supper” was presented as a work in progress after three months of workshopping and improvisation that will continue to create a longer finalized work. An upper-class family and their attendant servants and nannies gathered for a family lunch in a starkly fancy dining room. Stereotypes were skewered: two children glazed over by iPads, a vapid, hair-twirling young woman who agreed with everything said, a veiled mother whose manicured nails constantly occupied her smartphone, an older man full of joie de vivre, a military patriarch, and a deeply punchable artist. In between being bullied by the artist, and not asked once to put her bags down or take a seat, the nanny did an admirable job of attempting to be invisible and deaf to this incredibly privileged family. Despite contextual differences I was reminded of Mike Leigh’s classic play “Abigail’s Party,” which came about by similar workshop methods and is also set in a single convivial domestic space, dealing in repressed hysteria, revealingly empty conversation and class aspiration. From as little as I understood of the script, I really hope that when not directing D-CAFs, Attar finds time to finish this play.

Another event that deserved a lot more fanfare than it got was the unobtrusively-named “Dance Double Bill” at Falaki. Despite thematic similarities it might have been better to program these two experimental dance-theater combination performances separately. The second piece, Mohamed Shafik and Laurence Rondoni’s “An Empty House for Hospitality,” overflowed with enough ideas to make the first piece, “What Is Left,” seem simplistic. Both hummed with a post-industrial, apocalyptic mood, conjuring dystopic futures in a way that inevitably troubles our feelings about the present.

In “What Is Left,” two performers had the relationship of dog to man; the dog was huge, but submissive to his master. Meanwhile, a mother tended to an adorable gurgling baby. They were in a strange environment surrounded by stacked-up cathode-ray TVs, in and out of snowscreen throughout — the set and lighting design were excellent. Through brutality and confrontation, the dog-to-man relation was reversed, and by the end all the adult cast were eating out of bowls.

The metaphors of people as dogs and the obvious analogy with Egyptian security institutions and more general social dynamics were easily readable. But the most controversial device was the use of a real baby. (Twitter was not impressed: “Art, apparently,” tweeted one person. “I call it child abuse.”) It seems to me that the ethics of this are not so bad in terms of safety — children live in more noisome conditions all over Cairo and the baby was clearly at ease — but more in the defiant objectification of a child who cannot consent to the viewer-actor relationship. The intention may have been sentimental, but in fact it just raised the tensions about the bare vulnerable oblivious untainted little life spotlit in front of us. The point was effectively made at the end of the performance by the TV screens and their white noise winking out, leaving the air dumb and dark.

“An Empty House For Hospitality” deserves a review of its own. The structure was an abstract series of encounters. Strange, emphatically ruined people inhabited a stage floored with what looked like a giant black plastic bin bag. Madness, sexuality and desperation tinged the scene. One woman contorted herself crablike across the stage, making the skin crawl. A man crooned “Hotel California,” howling to himself and throwing confetti. Later he simulated masturbation under his coat. A wiry host wrung his hands and talked at the speed of light about his guests, his entire musculature seeming to converge around his mouth. The only romantic left in this horrible world gave a pathetic oratory to an absent lover; eventually, the crab-woman seduced him with a frankly sexual kiss that mopped him and the long minutes around the stage. When she finally undressed him, however, it was to cackle at his nudity. One wondered what a therapist would make of all this.

Presiding over everything was a Siri-like character, played by the nightmarishly beautiful Mona Gamil with a constant smile and digitally administrated movements. She talked on a pay-per-view basis as information was sought by an absent user who didn’t have quite enough credit for anything to make sense. Anything that might be wholesome was mocked or broken, including “Siri” herself, and her deterioration was horrifying. The theme of hospitality was vacated of its humanism through sapped, needy hosts and parasitic guests, everybody hungry for something. A piece this revolting and fascinating makes no specific commentary but commands huge power to get under the skin.

Toward the end of D-CAF, my art stamina seriously flagged at the prospect of “La Voix Est Libre.” According to the program, it would be a three-hour experimental mini festival-in-festival combining numerous contemporary art forms through collaboration and improvisation.

Things didn’t start out promising. At around the point that an experimental dancer jerked around a jazz saxophonist while a man whispered into some hanging metal tubes, my notes simply read: “So fucking french.” But things moved rapidly uphill, turning into a patchy but virtuoso evening of media as diverse as opera singers, hanging metal-tube juggling (that’s the only way I can describe it), electronic oud, dancers and poetry.

Not every collaboration between mediums worked — particularly, I think, with the dance, which ended up highly interpretative and surplus to requirements — but the attempt to abandon disciplinary boundaries was in some cases incredibly effective. I never enjoy opera, but the technical abilities of vocalists Élise Caron and Élise Dabrowski improvising across different modes (soaring opera, characters such as wiggling cartoon voices, drawling faux-jazz) awoke an appreciation I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Instruments were pushed beyond ordinary uses — a flute was made to speak, eerily. Peter Corser played his saxophone as a percussion instrument before launching into a banging solo with rivers of notes punctuated by bass and treble melodies, with simultaneous harmonics simulating a human voice — while those bloody metal tubes spun mesmerizingly around him. I remain fairly confident that Corser gave his soul to a djinn to be able to pull this off without submitting to madness or head injury.

It was hard for other performances to follow: A noise metal drums-and-voice duo using mostly reverb and screaming was particularly hard to take. The collaboration between Egyptian performers Ahmed Saleh (Telepoetic), poet and vocalist Abdullah Miniawy, Mohamed Sami (violin) and French artist Mehdi Habab on electric oud was also a disappointment even with an enthusiastically supportive audience. Despite Miniawy’s haunting voice, the performance of five unstructured and slushily generic electro pieces with accompanying hipsterish VJ projection was overlong and indulgent. The instruments, deep in their comfort zones, sought complementarity rather than confrontation or experimentation.

This video is produced by Medrar.TV and is featured in partnership with Mada Masr. Please activate the CC options on YouTube to follow the interview in English.

Strangely, one of the most notable aspects of D-CAF’s program was not played up in its press material: that so many of the projects came out of serious investment in collaborations. This was the case in the Egyptian-French component of “La Voix Est Libre” and in “An Empty House For Hospitality,” not to mention the putting together of Fayrouz Karawya and Ismail in the music program and both Ex Nihilo and 100 Hands with Egyptian performers in the “urban visions” program. Collaboration necessitates risk, and we’ve seen the mixed results — but it’s clear that the artists who are truly willing to take those risks can offer something very strong.

Mia Jankowicz 

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