TransDance14: A destructive and stimulating start
Courtesy: HaRaKa / TransDance14

As you repose on the wooden chairs in downtown Cairo’s Townhouse Rawabet theater, the rubble of the city fazes out and you prepare to enter another zone. It’s dark — only a dim light on the side catches your attention, drawing soft silhouettes on stage.

Adham Hafez has just launched TransDance14, the festival’s “Forever” edition. The opening performance is about to begin.

A spotlight draws your attention to the performers. At the front edge of the stage, three women stand with their backs to you. A musician on the side picks up an electric guitar. He fiddles with the top frets, producing a distorted psychedelic set of rhythms. The performers begin to walk toward the far wall and back. They walk for some time, their backs still facing you. One walks faster and one stops, the other walks slowly: You feel compelled to shift your regard from one dancer to another. The music intensifies as one dancer stands still. She tilts her head back … But the walking continues. The notion of forever resonates in the back of your mind, as in, “Will this go on forever?”

A few minutes in, the performers break into a series of convoluted movements, as if being hurled to the ground by an invisible force while tossing their heads in a circular motion. The movements are faster, they repeat them over and over again. They fall onto the ground, stand back up and fall again. The show is on.

What you’re witnessing is DESTROY //, which has toured the western world and is landing for the first time in the Middle East, in Egypt, in downtown Cairo.

Leyya Mona Tawil, a US-based Syrian-Palestinian choreographer, conceived of DESTROY // in one day during a residency in San Francisco back in 2009. The piece stems from a question: “Can a dance be destroyed?” In every city the performance is built on location, usually in four hours — although for DESTROY // CAIRO the dancers had a mere two-and-a-half — and is performed by Tawil and local dancers. The process is two-fold: build a dance, then destroy it.

Four sections of choreography serve as the dancers’ main reference points. Each dancer determines how they’re delivered: Walking, lasting between 5 and 12 minutes; the Long Loop, performed three times and disorienting the dancers’ heads and eyes; the Tiny Loop, shorter pieces — at this point the dancers are apparently in a state of nausea, they’re losing balance, wobbling back and forth, their faces red as they puff and pant. They succumb to the Infinite Loop, when they make contact with the wall, sit with their backs to it, at last facing the audience. The music comes to a halt, the performance has been destroyed — in other words, the dancers have slogged away to a point of utter fatigue.

Of course, were you in the audience on November 11 or 12, you were unlikely to know all this beforehand. You would have experienced the performance as a flow of rhythmic movements, seemingly improvised by three dancers (Mona Gamil, Yasmine Kamel and Tawil) and one impressive musician, Cherif El Masry. On the first day, the performance could have reminded you vaguely of twirling dervishes, although the loudness of the distorted sounds may have cramped your experience. On the second day the volume seemed to have been adjusted, but the absence of one dancer and a brief power cut would’ve made it much harder to indulge in and fully grasp what was going on.

While the glitches may have crippled your view of the festival, the choice of venue for this year’s edition was good. As previous editions of TransDance were held at various cultural institutions, mostly transformed domestic spaces, it was refreshing to see it in a more conventionally equipped performance venue.

For TransDance14 — supported by Hafez’s ARC.HIVE project as well as the Embassy of the Netherlands, British Council Cairo and AJZ-Yerevan — researchers Sawsan Gad, Abdullah Al Bayyari and Ismail Fayed were initially commissioned by HaRaKa, a project operated by Hafez, to produce essays broadly addressing beauty, propaganda, aesthetics and rupture. These were the core texts communicated with the artists as they built together the six-month program — which has yet to be announced.

These ideas are meant to be tackled publicly through a series of events, of which only a few have been uncovered so far. Tawil’s opening performance can be seen as mirroring a fluctuation in downtown Cairo’s cultural scene: A space where a not-so-novice real estate monster is now beginning to implement a vision to drive downtown’s cultural scene, while a new legislative amendment demands reassessment of organizational strategies.

In hindsight, perhaps it would have even been absurd to watch a show that did not aim to destroy itself. DESTROY // CAIRO raises a pressing question: “Can we save ourselves by destroying ourselves?” Seen this way, much could be learned from a dance process that recognizes its own transience and sets out to demolish itself in order to exist. A process of reinvention is put in action, as Tawil’s steady model, or skeleton, is recreated differently in every city through rearranging its parts, the dancers choosing the order on stage, under pressure. The responsibility given to the performers to appropriate the dance suggest endless possibilities for organizational modes. A boggling idea: Could a cultural institution do the same?

The “pre-launch” and a sarcastic tone

On November 3 and 4, prior to the opening, a public “pre-launch” event brought Egyptian artists to the stage.

Ohoude Khadr opened, combining her grand operatic vocals with the live visuals of Nurah Farahat. Khadr occupied the dimly lit space alone, as Farahat’s moving pencil-thin white lines were projected behind her on a black backdrop. Lara al-Gibaly, an audience member, said it felt like “Khadr’s warm voice was guiding us safely through Farahat’s unknown, fantastical visual landscape.”

This was followed by Mona Gamil’s entertaining take on art’s commercialization, presented as a parody motivational talk, complete with PowerPoint presentation on how to succeed in the art world. While Gamil’s monotonous, almost mechanical voice fit perfectly with the talk’s subject matter, it broke from the tone of the earlier performance: She interacted with the audience, posing rhetorical questions that she would then assertively answer, comically playing the role of motivational speaker with all the answers to every artist’s problems.

To close the “pre-launch,” Ahmed al-Gendy performed an entire piece with an open plastic bottle filled with a dark liquid — Pepsi? grape juice? wine? — in his mouth, which he took gulps from throughout. His almost childlike attachment to the bottle, held in place by his clenched jaw, evoked a dependency on whatever this nourishing liquid was. But he did not seem to enjoy it, grimacing as he gulped. He rolled and writhed about, then sat up listlessly and rolled about some more. The performance ended when he had drank the bottle’s entire contents.

An element of sarcasm seems to be surfacing in TransDance14. It mockingly adopts the notion of “forever” although it only really hopes to go on for six months, an already precarious endeavor, given the absurdity of trying to predict the state of affairs for months in advance in Cairo, and the organizational problems of previous TransDance editions.

In suggesting forever, the festival claims to implement a less humorous curatorial process that questions what an institution is (which institution? Haraka? ARCH.IVE? — it remains unclear) and what a festival is at a time of “radical historical and political change.” Where does it plan to go from here? As we await updates, we’re left to ponder over the questions TransDance14’s performances have raised to date.