nasa4nasa: The Cairo-based dance collective leaps from Instagram to the squash court

In December 2016, an Instagram account appeared under the name “nasa4nasa.” Its first post was a flickering, GIF-like slow-motion video capturing a smiling duo holding matching table tennis rackets, a large trophy resting on the blue table behind them. Even though their broad smiles indicated a win at the end of a major tournament, the hall they posed in appeared to be deserted. Were they partners or opponents? And where was everyone else?

Over the past couple of years, nasa4nasa, a dance collective based in Cairo, as per their Instagram bio, made many more posts, some viewed hundreds of times by their followers. In one video, they sink very slowly to their knees in a large warehouse, wearing matching oversized white shirts and staring uncompromisingly ahead. In a series of photos, they pose inside a blue-tiled, almost fully drained pool in black swimsuits, like unsynchronized swimmers robbed of water. And in a haunting series of videos and images, the pair lay horizontal and near-camouflaged on silky sand dunes, making subtle movements as they gently roll down the dunes, leaving wrinkles in their wake.  

Behind the nasa4nasa collective is the effortlessly charismatic dancers Noura Seif Hassanein and Salma Abdel Salam. Both of them studied at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC) — founded in 2012 by Karima Mansour — and received scholarships from danceWEB, a five-week training program that takes place every summer in Vienna as part of the prominent IMPULSTANZ International Dance Festival.

As they continued to curate images and short videos for their Instagram, nasa4nasa experimented with compositions set against various types of spaces, ranging from open space, to their own rehearsal studio (which they have named “Feryal”), to sports facilities. When they visited the squash court at the Maadi Sports Club, however, the dancers knew a full-length dance piece, set inside the court, was in order. A mere Instagram post wouldn’t do.

In early 2018, Mophradat — a Brussels-based organization that supports contemporary art projects primarily in the Arab world — selected nasa4nasa for its inaugural Consortium Commissions program. In addition to the financial support, the program co-commissions artists to produce an artwork for a solo show in partnership with two international institutions — in nasa4nasa’s case, these were Next Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium and MDT in Stockholm, Sweden. The program allowed them to produce Suash — a performance anchored in the squash court. They returned to court for months of rehearsals, and collaborated with musician Asem Tag on an original score for the piece.

nasa4nasa performed Suash at Next Festival and MDT in November 2018. Though both Abdel Salam and Hassanein had previously performed with prominent choreographers, Suash marked their debut as choreographers in their own right.This week, nasa4nasa will return to the squash court at the Maadi Sports Club — this time for the Cairo debut of their full-length piece. In this conversation, we discuss their social media-based practice, Suash and nasa4nasa’s aspirations.

Sara Elkamel: How did your dance collective, nasa4nasa, begin? How did you two first start working together?

Noura Seif Hassanein: When we were both studying at the CCDC, we worked on an improvisational piece as a duo, which we called “Just.” Soon after that, Salma left for New York [to purse Performance Studies at New York University], while I finished the three-year program at CCDC. As soon as Salma returned, we started talking about forming a collective. We had a strong chemistry and we shared a lot of the same ideas, so we figured working together would be interesting.

The name started as a combination of our two names, “Noura/Salma” — it had nothing to do with NASA. We just wanted to call it “nasa,” but when we came to set up our Instagram account, “NASA” was obviously taken. So we had to choose between: “nasa1234” or “nasa4nasa.” We liked how the latter captured the idea of us working as a duo.

Salma Abdel Salam: And we also liked how it stood for “dance for the sake of dance” or “movement for the sake of movement,” since that was our point of departure.

SEK: It’s so fitting that Instagram had a hand in coming up with your name, since it’s also been the main platform on which you exhibit and share your work. Can you tell us a little bit about incorporating social media into your dance practice?

NA: I think we originally started posting images and short videos on social media as a way to allow ourselves to take the process of creation more playfully. To make something for the stage would have entailed a more developed thought process, and much more work. Instagram forced us to create work that was less than a minute-long. And we thought, why not just put our work out there?

SA: Also, because of the rules imposed by social media, we began altering our work so that it could fit — be it within an actual frame or within a specific time-frame. So we’re not only messing with social media, but we’re also allowing it to mess with us.

Our feed is becoming a showcase for nasa4nasa, a portfolio, and a place where we can explore ideas and develop a dialogue with other artists.

SEK: There’s a lot of diversity in the videos and images you’ve posted on Instagram over the past couple of years. There’s one gorgeous video shot on sand dunes in Fayoum, there’s a few photos of you in yellow shorts at a gymnastics hall and then the short video shot at an IKEA storage room. So there’s some in nature, some in sports facilities and some in unusual indoor spaces. How do you select the spaces you perform/shoot in?

NA: Some of them are inspired by spaces we had already interacted with in different contexts — for example, we both trained in gymnastics halls as children. Other times, we chose places that grabbed us visually, such as the IKEA storage room and the squash court.

SA: I don’t think there’s a specific kind of space we’re looking for; we always have an openness to scout around, go places and see what happens. And I think the more time you spend thinking about space and its relationship to moving bodies, the more you start to see viable spaces all around. And by constantly considering how we could interject, change or just exist within a space, we found ourselves developing all these dialogues with different kinds of spaces.

There’s a kind of game you have to play when you arrive somewhere. You have to be sensitive to the space, and really think through what could work for it: Every space is different. You might suddenly feel compelled to go unnoticed, to become part of it or to disrupt it completely.

SEK: How do you think you developed that sense of what kind of intervention (or lack thereof) would work for each space? Is it a matter of intuition?

NA: Part of it is intuitive, yes. But there’s often a lot of planning required, a lot of visualizing and imagining what could work. And sometimes, we arrive somewhere and the place imposes a different plan entirely. In some cases, we found that we didn’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves, so we would get there and have to come up with something on the spot. There is sometimes an urgency about having to enter a place, snap an image and get out that we find very compelling. Other places allowed us to luxuriate a little more and spend more time thinking about the compositions we wanted to create.

SEK: Can we talk a little bit more about this process of creating images for Instagram? Dance is obviously something that’s fluid and often built on constant motion — but what you do is fix still photographs, or videos that last less than a minute. How does that work, exactly? Do you choreograph a whole sequence then extract an image from that, or do you start with a specific image in mind?

NA: For Instagram, we work in a way that is very image-based. We say, okay, we’ll stand like this, or we’ll roll around like this and we’ll take this picture. We are, at once, composing and choreographing the image. But sometimes, we do come up with an entire choreography and then extract stills.

SA: Because dance is so ephemeral — because it vanishes — there’s something very interesting in trying to hold on to it by way of a single image, even if it will disappear. Even if the image will change as the newsfeed changes, or the viewer changes, or if people see it differently every time: We’re still interested in “archiving” the image.

SEK: Do you think of social media as a physical space?

SA: Well, we’re definitely thinking of its physicality when we make the picture fit the screen perfectly. But even then, it’s also fleeting. You’re only up there for the duration of a finger-snap, and there’s an algorithm that dictates your presence and absence.

SEK: What was your inspiration for having a social-media based practice?

NA: There was so much inside of us that wanted to come out. And this way, we didn’t have to wait to hear back from a theater about whether or not they were willing to host us, and we didn’t have to wait for licenses or go through all these draining logistics. There was something very exciting and freeing about just getting it done.

SA: And we didn’t have to agonize over a concept. It was more based in image-production, and then going where we wanted from there.

SEK: Last year, you got this big grant from Mophradat to develop a new, full-fledged performance. That must have been a big shift in how you were operating, right? 

NA: Yes. Suddenly, someone took us seriously! We immediately thought: Our Instagram is working!

SEK: It’s clear from the images we’ve seen on social media that the performance is set against a squash court — you’re even performing it at a real-life court at the Maadi Sports Club this week. Out of all the places you tested out on Instagram, why did you select the squash court to be part of your performance?

NA: The squash court was one of the spaces we had visited to gather material for our Instagram account, but I think we both agreed after our first visit that a 10-second video wouldn’t do it. This was too big of a deal. We were originally thinking of making a super low-budget performance around it, but when Mophradat gave us the grant, we upped our game.

SA: Very early on, we discovered that the squash court exerted so much power over how it wanted to organize our bodies in space — partly because of the grid lines, and its particular volume. And on some level, I think we picked it for this power. So we had plenty of negotiation to do with the court. We were constantly wondering: How can I compliment a space, and at the same time, serve my own dance or my own creation?

NA: We were in awe of the squash court. We knew that we couldn’t enter it and do just anything — we had to do it justice. So there was this conversation going back and forth with the court. We built our whole concept around the beauty of the space, and the process of creating form inside this existing form.

SA: And this concept emerged after we realized just how much we listened to the squash court. So we started thinking about beauty and functionality, and of what beauty is in relation to something that is so functional [the court], and then just simply: what is beauty, and how do we reproduce it?

SEK: You’ve referred to Suash as “a spectacle of visual pleasure”. Can we break this down a little? How important do you think visual pleasure is when you’re making a piece of contemporary dance?

NA: Well, we tried to create images and compositions that really worked well with the space. We were seeking that satisfaction that makes you go “ooh” with pleasure once all the elements click. It’s a lot like what we’re doing on Instagram — creating images and compositions that look gorgeous in space.

SA: And we are seeking that beauty. We are seeking that satisfaction the audience gets when body and space create something that is strikingly beautiful. And we call it a spectacle because there’s a sense that we’re inside this box, separated by glass, and that the audience is watching us from far away. We chose the court based on its theatricality. And, ultimately, the squash court always hosts a spectacle, just of a different kind.

NA: Think of gymnastics, for example, and how it’s so pleasurable to watch.

SA: Both of us come from athletic backgrounds, and we were already thinking about how sports become spectacles. We considered how we can use this space that’s otherwise very athletic as a platform for dance. We’re not necessarily saying that dance is a sport, but we’re trying to show that both require trained bodies. Both require hard-working bodies that abide by the rules of the court, or whatever the space dictates.

SEK: You’ve used the phrase “trained bodies” previously, for example, when you stated that nasa4nasa is drawn to “highlighting dancers as trained bodies”. What does it mean to be a “trained” body? And what would it mean for a body to be “un-trained”?

SA: I don’t think we can say that there’s any body that’s untrained. Every body is trained. It’s 101 [Michel] Foucault, but it’s also what we think. As a woman or a man in society, I come with my training. I come with my social cues, with how I police my body, with the politics of my body and what they allow me. So I don’t think there’s an untrained body. Through dancing, we’re highlighting our trained bodies, and we’re highlighting our bodies in relationship to space — which happens to be a squash court. We’re doing sports courts now, but maybe we’ll move on soon, and then we’d be able to highlight our bodies differently. After we’ve spent so much time in the courts, we’re now aching to do something very different.

NA: We want to do something really melodramatic, like sing opera and pull each other’s hair…

SA: …and stab each other and bleed.

SEK: Before its Cairo debut this month, you performed Suash during major performing arts festivals in Sweden and Belgium. What was that experience like?

NA: These festivals marked our debut as choreographers, so it was extremely exciting and nerve wracking. We left Cairo with an unfinished piece — and we completed it in Belgium, during a two-week residency leading up to the performance.

SA: There was something very special about seeing our collaboration come to life. The process of creating this performance not only entailed choreography, but also designing actual sets within theater spaces; since we couldn’t perform in a physical squash court during the festivals. We spent a lot of time thinking about how best to transport a squash court to the theatre, and we finally decided to have a literal translation of the squash court on stage. So the audience was simultaneously in a theater and a squash court.

It took us quite some time to find the language that would best serve the squash court’s aesthetics. The court proved to be a very stubborn collaborator that desired a heavy reliance on form. As dancers trained in both modern and contemporary dance, we found ourselves resorting more to modern dance to serve the space.

NA: We are now very excited to perform this piece in the squash it was created in and for — at the Maadi Sports Club. We also really want it to be seen here, and we hope it will lead to a productive dialogue among the Cairo dance scene.

SEK: How would you evaluate the contemporary dance scene in Cairo right now?

SA: Actually, I would say it’s growing. CCDC is graduating its third class of students this year, and they’re going to be doing some performances. There are a lot of shows on this month. The scene has been expanding — but I’m excited to see what the next generation is going to do, what my peers will come up with.

SEK: Are you ready to take your practice off Instagram and start performing in physical spaces in Cairo? Is there space for nasa4nasa here, or do you feel like now that the grant has run out, you’ll face the same obstacles with regards to funding and finding places to perform?

NA: Yes, we think there is definitely space for nasa4nasa here. So far, we’ve been very fortunate because we got this grant. We had the money to rent out the squash court to rehearse, to pay the musician, pay the light designer, etc. We’ve been very lucky. We’ve yet to try producing something without this support.

We are also excited about going back to Instagram and working on new material alongside new live performances. The grant gave us very good exposure and a good foundation to continue our work.

Sara Elkamel 

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