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Without formality: Mawred’s 10th birthday celebrates collaboration
 
 

Ten years after its foundation, Al Mawred Al Thaqafy culture resource has been celebrating its anniversary with a program of events between Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut under the title “Bidoun Takleef.”

Al Mawred’s successful history of culture programming and production funding is a fundamental point of reference for artists and audiences in Egypt and beyond.

Bidoun Takleef — meaning “without formality/protocol” — diverted slightly from the institution’s traditional focus on live music and theater, proving a more experimental curatorial approach. It presented a rich line-up of projects by emerging and established Arab visual artists, musicians, writers and performers capable of attracting sizeable audiences.

A few months ago the organization launched a special call for proposals aimed at 50 former beneficiaries of its production grants, selecting seven projects through a committee that included acclaimed Egyptian musician Fathy Salama, Nidal El Debs, Khaled Harouny, Qassem Hadda and Hanan Alhaj Ali. Artists willing to establish a collaboration or revive an existing one were favored.

Contemporary art shows in Egypt are usually curated in the context of international English-speaking audiences acquainted with globally trending historical or political references and a specific aesthetic awareness, so it is remarkable that Bidoun Takleef’s organizers risked presenting works in progress, all in Arabic, in a range of formats that are not immediately familiar to the local public (which nevertheless showed up and loudly appreciated the shows), nor indeed a safe choice anywhere.

Collaborations are a challenge and gamble for artists and producers, and while they represent valuable opportunities to experiment at different stages of the creative process, develop skills and expand networks, the success or failure of their outcome is difficult to evaluate.

A collaborative work is also often a compromise due to logistical limitations, with artists pressured to squeeze the best out of limited time together. Every creative process involving multiple practitioners requires continuous negotiation: It unfolds at its own pace, and each individual with their different backgrounds, modes of work and sensibilities can find letting go of full control over the final piece frustrating.

Projects that focus on process rather than product can open the possibility of pursuing artistic research further, but generosity is needed on the artists’ side to show unfinished work in all its fragility and rawness.

The Bidoun Takleef artistic collaborations were fruitful, if challenging, artistic experiments, both enriching for the participants and entertaining for the audience, and tackling a diversity of subject matters. Many viewers left theaters intrigued, hoping to see how the works would evolve in the future, possibly transformed into multiple alternate versions.

Below, three of the five events staged in Cairo — all presented free of charge — are reviewed.

Live from Casino al-Shatby

For Bath Mabashr min Casino al-Shatby (Live from Casino al-Shatby), performed on September 29 at Makan, Alexandrian novelist Shaimaa Hamed commissioned veteran Cairo musician Ahmed Omar to compose a soundtrack in response to a selection of excerpts from her novel (published in Arabic by Fabrica this year), set in the charming, nostalgic atmosphere of 1950s Alexandria.

Many of the novel’s scenes take place in a smoky cabaret where a band is lazily playing jazz, blues, bossa nova and traditional Arab music. Some of the novel’s protagonists are themselves musicians, singers or bar dwellers. Hamed’s intention was to recreate the scenes she imagined theatrically, adding rhythm and emphasis to the dramatic story through musical narration.

Together with musicians Wael Elsayed, Wika, Azima, Mahmoud Dayes, Mohamed Sami, Mohamed Labib and Faisal Fouad, and in a progressive exchange of feedback with Hamed, Omar composed 13 tracks. Some are catchy jazz and blues standards that the fictional band would play in the background of the cabaret scenes, while others are discreet, dreamy minimal soundscapes or melodic themes accompanying spoken narration. The tracks are assembled in a CD available for purchase alongside the book.

Makan’s cozy atmosphere and contained space immediately shortened the distance between the audience and the numerous performers, creating a sense of intimacy so that at times it was difficult to separate the two categories clearly. It felt like a group of friends had been invited to an exclusive open rehearsal in which actors and musicians didn’t worry too much about making noise while moving instruments or furniture around on stage or adjusting equipment for fear of breaking the solemnity.

Entrances and exits on stage felt spontaneous, like in a open-ended jam session. A choral, engaging show, it unveiled the performers’ ability to improvise, master stage tempo and switch rapidly between moods.

The musicians challenged themselves as performers in the sort of tableau vivant that Hamed had put together. The technical accuracy of the execution and the originality of the music were not the most important aspects, as the artists experimented, many for the first time, with a new way of inhabiting their stage presence, improvising outside of their comfort zones.

In the dramatic final act, professional actor Muhammad Gabir and 17-year-old amateur Mariam Amer skillfully interpreted, mostly in silence, a tormented story of jealousy and desire between a singer and a cabaret costumer.

Hamed herself proved to have remarkable versatility as a theater director, choreographer, performer and surprisingly talented singer. Her deep, smooth vocals and stern, authoritative presence combined naturally with the scenes’ melancholic mood.

The sensorial gratifications of live performance combined well with the content of the narration. Audience members and the performers themselves said they wished there were more events of this kind as an alternative way of experiencing literary or poetic works, while Hamed hopes to develop it further into a proper theater play.

The Third Circle

Al-dairat al-Thalithat (The Third Circle), a dance performance staged on September 28 at Falaki Theater, emerged from a long-term research project focusing on the relationship between Sharia law, music and dance. Lebanese musician Wael Kodeih has composed original music for choreographer and performer Nancy Naous since 2008, but this was the first time the two realized a project together from A to Z.

The result was an interesting approach to the dangerously trendy, even predictable topic of Islam and sexuality, which is difficult to tackle without the risk of being too literal.

Naous conducted a series of interviews about the topic with several religious scholars in Lebanon, inviting them to watch and comment on a video of one of her solo performances realized in 2010.

The material collected during Naous’ interviews became part of a mixed media installation situated in a hall in the indoor area outside the theater. One by one, while waiting for the theater to open its doors. audience members were quietly introduced to the work, sitting in the corners of the room to watch the video and listen to the Islamic scholars’ voices as they elaborated philosophical and theological interpretations around dance and movement.

Some of the scholars sound progressive and flexible in their interpretations, but they all seem to conclude that the implicit limits of choreographic expression are those of sensuality and desire. The borders of such abstract concepts are naturally difficult to trace even in speech, so the fundamental challenge of The Third Circle was to translate those vague restrictions into codified movements, postures and gestures.

Inside the theater, the two dancers appeared under a spotlight, seemingly tied to a chair, performing slow, restrained movements alternately with sudden seizures while maintaining intense, almost hypnotic eye contact with the audience. They looked strikingly alike as the spotlight intermittently moved from one to the other. The first part of the performance happened in complete silence, until the duo started changing costumes, from swathed, bandage-like tops and wide long skirts to masculine suits.

The choreography then unfolded in parallel with an electronically manipulated live score consisting of pop song samples and rhythmic mechanical noises and beats. The performers’ repetitive steps were progressively interrupted in conjunction with the music’s irregular, syncopated pace. After each interruption the two figures started over, performing their repeated pattern, gradually adding new steps until the dance culminated in an abrupt ending.

In the central act, the performers mechanically read out loud definitions of some words and symbols — such as “ithara” (excitement), “tarab” (trance), “eghra” (seduction) — written on individual paper sheets that they threw away after reading.

The two dancers showed a solid technical preparedness and confidence with their bodies on stage, as well as an impressive vocal ability and a particular ease in marking narrative rhythm. Their powerful stage presence added dramatic tension to the script. They seemed to confront the audience, helped by an elaborate lighting design.

They looked and were looked at, moved under the spotlight and then turned into silhouettes against backlight as the beams targeted the audience, suggesting a metaphoric inversion of the act of gazing.

For the artists, the third circle, which in Islam stands for the circle of the “strangers” or others, represents the audience, while the figure of the circle is also reminiscent of an artificial enclosure of meaning or possibilities.

Love Letter to Mars

Rasalit Hub ila al-Mareekh (Love Letter to Mars), by Palestinians Lara Khaldi and Yazan Khalili and performed on September 26 at Medrar, was based on an exchange of letters with a fictional character named Wa’ad, now residing on Mars for the rest of her life.

The carefully elaborate piece combined voice with video, photography and sound to outline a complex story of scattered fragments that stretched between earth, the desert, the Gulf, Palestine, outer space and the red planet.

Khaldi and Khalili revisited a practice — of a fictional epistolary correspondence — and a form — the mixed-media lecture performance — they have used in previous works (such as Love Letters to a Union, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut 2013). In developing the text’s content, they drew in part from elements of Khalili’s past projects, such as Border Patrol (based on research at the border in Marfa, Texas 2014) and The Aliens (the story of a group of astronauts, 2012).

The lecture presented a fictitious yet aesthetically convincing documentation of live forms, fossils and minerals that could have existed on Mars in the past or come back to life in the future, while narrating a very personal story of exile, exploitation and failure in an apparently post-apocalyptic setting.

It was unclear where the cryptic images, presented like items of scientific evidence, could have been taken or by whom, or how they made sense together in the narrative, yet they combined as distinct elements in the poetically surreal report from outer space.

“Mars is a ruin and a metaphor for a failed earth,” says Khalili. “Everything is privatized, everything can be sold and colonized.”

Our relationship with earth is ultimately based on the limitless exploitation of its natural resources and on frenetic consumerism, to the point that our most scientifically advanced endeavor as an intelligent species is to put an incredible amount of resources into abandoning our own planet to colonize another.

The parallel with the Palestinian condition was inevitable, though never mentioned explicitly. A dystopian promised land, broken transmissions between the letters’ protagonists and the impossibility of returning to the motherland resonate intuitively with Palestinians’ extra-territorial condition, serving as a reminder of the probability of interrupted love stories, or encounters that can only take place from a distance.

Several other video and sound artists were involved in the creative process, responding with specific works that mirrored the material Khalili and Khaldi used in their sci-fi rendition (including a video by Egyptian artist Maha Maamoun and a trademark text and music-based video by Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries). These were shown alongside the lecture.

The audience was left with a hazy collection of clues hinting at a loose script. The audiovisual fragments were almost impossible to piece together into a linear narrative, leaving a wide space for personal, abstract interpretations.

Mawred’s desire to favor collaborative projects had pushed Khalili and Khaldi to think of the project as an exploration of different formats and practices.

“We conceived the show as both a lecture performance and an exhibition. We wanted the individual works to function independently, isolated from the larger framework of our performance,” Khalili says. “We tried to develop a work in which the single elements have their own energy to continue grow elsewhere on their own.”

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Laura Cugusi