21 March, 3.08pm
Eight minutes after the start of “Running Nucleus,” I’m late and bothered. Late because I subconsciously invent special, reassuring laws of the space-time continuum and apply them to Cairo traffic. Bothered because I’ve so far garnered lavish harassment, rich in imagery of creaminess, hotness and prostitution.
I’m headed to the Boursa, where there is a large gathering around a performance from the Urban Visions part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). This takes the form of dance performances in the Boursa, Alfy Bey Street, and the American University in Cairo’s former Greek Campus. Out of all D-CAF’s programs — which encompass visual arts, performing arts, film, workshops and discussions — the rhetoric of Urban Visions probably most closely embodies what they’re about overall: plunging cultural activity, like a “Game of Thrones” sword, directly into the heaving bosom of downtown Cairo. It emphasizes dance that physically and conceptually engages (read: happens in) these urban spaces, which are so layered with histories, complex affiliations and unseen commercial arrangements they are generally too tense to do anything unusual in.
So I dad-jog towards “Running Nucleus,” which sounds like a weeping skin condition but is, in fact, a performance by a Dutch duo called The 100Hands, along with two Egyptian collaborators. The crowd, boisterously curious, is forming a large lozenge shape around a space being forcefully renegotiated by the performers. In two pairs, they’re swinging around each other as fast as possible, attached by ropes roughly looped round their waists and fastened at the thigh. They come together, and begin a sort of cat’s-cradle procedure between all four bodies and the ropes, all elbows, knees and knots folding, clambering, grappling and unfolding, which is all but impossible to describe.
Needing an experienced perspective, I’ve enlisted a dancer friend to join me. But as he is terminally feckless he’s only just shown up and sails by on his bike giving me a big encouraging thumbs-up as I loiter for a word with Jasper Džuki Jelen, one of the founders and dancers of The 100Hands. Džuki Jelen works on a collaboration basis in various contexts of social change.
“We’re interested in this idea of resilience, a quality that a community builds up if they connect with each other,” he says. “We were very curious in exposing how you collaborate with each other, carrying each other, being in the same rhythm, feeling each others’ tempos.”
The ideas of The 100Hands and their collaborators are thoughtful, but I find the performance tame and uncritical. D-CAF has invested heavily (and, in my view, quite admirably) in collaborative productions between local and international performers, and the knotted forms of the piece are absolutely appropriate, but embodied, contextual knowledges take literally a lifetime to accumulate, and collaboration might need to employ different strategies.
A metaphor implies a stable and universal system of meaning, in which we can unilaterally infer “a” from “b.” It relies on trust. These streets might actually resist that, resounding as they do with constantly shifting affiliations and hall-of-mirrors approximations of other people’s credulity. So whether the knotting metaphor was “correct” or not, the next question is whether straightforward performed metaphors have universal street currency anyway. In the Boursa many, many things happen and transactions are encoded well below surface appearances. The artist Iman Issa wrote a short piece about Cairo, “Paranoid City,” in 2003 that remains relevant today:
[informal] practices … seep into every aspect of the city’s life and activity, from parking cars to signing contracts. These practices are as fluid as they are a constant attempt to deal with an unstable system that they themselves continually change … does this not change the way one sees and hears? Does it not change the very appearance of forms?
Perhaps the defining aspect of this city’s systems of meaning is not in their content at all — whether they’re about community support or resilience or not — but in the fact of their constant mutability. This would propose a very different, perhaps more interventionist approach to dance in public space, one that acknowledges the structures of how meanings are formed here.
I head to the ex-AUC GrEEK Campus, which is now a hotbed of tech start-ups. I like the sound of any business idea with EEK in its name. Contrary to the building’s exterior that practically yells “STAY OUT YOU BRUTES,” once inside you feel like you’ve entered a barricaded leafy haven designed for the privileged to escape the city, which is basically how things are.
A long set of steps forms a semi-amphitheater, framed by trees and modern cloisters. It’s a lovely space for a dance performance, if you’re not a dancer. I wince a little in sympathy with the shins and spines of all these people whose job it is to writhe creatively on concrete. The next piece I see is “Remind Me,” by the Dutch choreographer Lotte Sigh. It consists of a man and a woman playing out the story of a relationship, and unfortunately hits right up against clichés that even I can recognize.
Sigh says, on her website, “I seek to push the boundaries of how open the performance structure can be without loosing [sic] sight of its focal point. How clear can the underlying theme be portrayed while still retaining its ambiguity?”
The use of ambiguity as an aesthetic does not actually challenge overt literalness, because it still complies to the same logic of metaphors, just in opposition. It is still constructed around the idea that arts are there to transfer meaning from site “a” to form “b.” I don’t want to seem a philistine but I had always hoped the more interesting end of dance would be more than just the aestheticizing of humanistic dilemmas, doing exactly what happens in life, but in a “dancey” way. Having a dance piece about the relation between a man and a woman, played by a man and a woman, is a bit like making an arrangement of two bananas called “arrangement of two bananas,” but just arranged with more skill and training, in a way that really emphasizes their banananess. And if you wanted to really push the envelope you’d arrange them in this crazy abstract way to show that you don’t conform to the conventional arrangement of bananas. The thing is, if my only medium of expression was two bananas, instead I’d be thinking: wouldn’t it be cool if they were space bananas exploring the solar system, or were seeing snow for the first time, or if they didn’t know that they were bananas at all?
What I’m saying is that “Remind Me” seemed incredibly literal with a lot of easily readable metaphors. A sample few gestures: standing behind her, he leans forward into her neck as if to nuzzle, but she’s not having any of it and she throws her upper body forward too, following that up with a would-be slap (she misses because he knows it’s coming: that’s choreography for you). Some head-cradling and heavy breathing, possibly from the exertion of dancing but possibly readable as sexual excitement. Later she walks up to him to touch his shoulder, but he turns and swings his arm right round with a would-be slap (he misses because she knows it’s coming); after she’s turned he grabs both her upper arms and sort of pulls her to and fro and she goes with it to emphasize the impression that they are both deeply impassioned people who can’t live with, and can’t live without, each other.
Next up, the group Ex Nihilo present “Mashy.” Ex Nihilo is a French company who mostly make work in and about public spaces, and collaborated with Egyptian dancers to create the piece — I recognize at least one face from the “Running Nucleus” performance. “Mashy” involves eight people ranged across the space, some of whom you don’t initially realize are performers.
The strategy seems to be twofold. There’s conscious dicking around, fiddling with the space and its props, such as putting used tires in a stack over one of the dancers, who wobbles around like a drunk Michelin Man.
This is mixed with more concerted, arranged ensemble dance that faces the crowd, definitely pleasing to my non-dance-expert’s enjoyment of seeing groups of people all skillfully doing matching acrobatic movements at the same time. It’s free and loose, with sweeping tumbling gestures and groups moving in and out of formation, but what I like about it is its apparent (deceptive) spontaneity as groups of two, three and eight dancers reform their arrangements with each other. Even when a more formally definable dance is happening center stage, the resting performers take up absorbing little solo and duo rituals on the sidelines, falling off tires, climbing trees or jerking through a strange routine framed in one of the cloisters. When they all come together, you’re not sure exactly how it happened, but suddenly they coalesce and dissolve. It reminds me of the flow of people in the street, slipping in and out of crowds, confrontations, needs, and conversations, a picture that never resolves itself. It’s unpretentious and probably far more complicated than it looks.
We’re waiting quite a while for the performance of “I’ll Dance While You’re Dancing and We’ll Have Danced Together,” created by Americans Katie Schetlick, Zena Bibler and Abigail Levine in collaboration with The Movement Party. There seems to be a technical problem, so I strike up a conversation with my neighbor, a civil engineer called Youssef. I’m surprised, as I had assumed the audience would be mostly other cultural folk. What motivates you to see the festival, I ask. “It makes you think, to see life expressed in another form,” he said. “It helps me reflect.” I make a mental note to watch out for particularly inspired civil engineering projects in the near future, and offer them as concrete proof of the benefits of culture to wider society, thereby securing D-CAF another year’s funding. By now it’s become apparent that the man fiddling around at a computer in the middle of the stage is part of the performance, and it has, in fact, started.
A man is doing solo movements in response to the space, bunching himself down, twisting and collapsing as if he’s forming a particularly obtuse relationship with the walls and floor. Another woman is doing similar. In the center, the man at the computer refreshes a projected Vine feed of other people elsewhere doing similar things in urban settings. According to the event description, people are responding spontaneously to the place they are in, this gets shared as a six-second Vine video, and then they also respond to each other. The idea is lovely, but the patchy technical setup makes it just look like a guy is fiddling with social media while two people do relatively obscure movement work. I don’t see any tangible or interesting relationship between the sequences, and despite noble ambitions and excellent dancers, the whole thing lacks focus, and people begin to drift off.
I hail a cab. A group of men saunter by, provoked into loud commentary by my outrageously visible lower legs. Thanks to taxi driver chivalry I cruise off with a middle finger in the air. It has been less than 15 seconds between leaving the breezy cloister of the GrEEK Campus to publicly insulting strangers, and as I pull my skirt over my knees I find this contrast perplexing. This only increases as the festival goes on, as I cleave downtown daily hunting out those bursts of cultural magic squeezed into harassment-land. What was I supposed to be experiencing, at D-CAF? Why are my strongest experiences of this “urban vision” nothing to do with performing arts and everything to do with harassment? For what reason should I be separating these two entirely embodied, performative, emotional, visceral and political experiences?
I ask myself about how the female performers in this program may be thinking as they prepare and devise their performances. What is the division in their minds, between “I need to arrive at the performance space unhassled” and “let’s make a piece that delves into the dynamics of this amazing context”? What is this blatant schism in the artist’s mindset — which probably applies to many of us who make cultural work here — and how is it institutionally imposed? How does a cultural organizer get to a place where this elephant in the room is not even acknowledged? Who has the privilege of spectatorship in the first place?
I realize I’ve come to this at least as excited about the simple way the festival has enabled the act of watching. Watching D-CAF’s Urban Visions, I might get a turn at being the gawking loiterer passing unsolicited comment on people’s bodies, and not just from the inside of a taxi or from behind a photojournalist’s lens. And temporarily, that happens, but not because of any particular curatorial gesture, but just because I happen at that moment to be surrounded by culture folk in a temporarily securitized space. I’m privileged, which means that in all my downtown experiences I can cue the mental muzak, the self-enclosure in taxis and Twitter feeds, and look from there. But the appreciation of “the street” as implicitly proposed by the Urban Visions program presumes a viewer who can inhabit an impossible pure form of spectatorship in the first place, without acknowledging the class, gender and racial dynamics of how that spectatorship is enabled.
And I became angry. I’m tired of silently thinking “yes, but…” to art talk of psychogeography, and being a flâneur, and the everyday wonders of “the street” as it is apparently experienced by French theorists and male artists.
I am absolutely against the imposition of a “development”-led theme or topic on arts, and women’s rights tend to sit at the very top of that worthy agenda. My record as a curator speaks firmly of my position. Believe me, if the topic was dealt with as a “theme,” I’d throw it to the other side of Jupiter. But street harassment is not a theme but should be taken on as a structural condition, indivisible from the self, as unavoidable to reality and consciousness as street paving or rotund aunts shoving past you on Talaat Harb Street. It’s not the elephant in the room, it’s the Lifetime President of room elephants, in massive sunglasses with its own all-female elephant bodyguard.
This is a general-audience program, and is unticketed, meaning that a certain popular appeal is central to their strategy. But if D-CAF is to claim to present the best in contemporary performance it needs to push harder. Cairo does have a recent legacy of performance works that intervene more bravely in the meanings of the street, treading right on the nerve endings if necessary, as in the case of the late Amal Kenawy’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (2009). In this piece, various collaborators walked on all fours silently through the streets, and quickly caused an uproar. This was, in my view, a highly flawed artwork, but it had the guts to propose a form and allow the street’s own meanings to thud magnetically towards it. This involved metaphors too, but ones left open enough to find and allow the unsayable to be said about the political realities of the street. Hassan Khan’s “17 and in AUC” (2003), a largely autobiographical marathon of remembering his university years, but spinning constantly off the location he was in, was constructed as, as he has put it, “a technology of communication,” i.e. also not presuming a space in which universally held meanings have currency. And far more recently, the BuSSY project, led by theater-maker Sondos Shabayek, takes the strategy not only of privileging sidelined harassment testimonies; but also has treated public spaces such as downtown Cairo and the subway network as laboratories for testing the dynamics of sexual harassment and gender relations. There is no reason to believe that more dance-related public performances could not also adopt some of these strategies. All these works were risky, excessive and they angered people. And now I’m only angry because they’re not here.
With thanks to Alan Garner.