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Access Denied

- Ramallah Dance Theatre, a small miracle

by Maggie Foyer

 

It is always exciting to be there at the birth of something new. This new baby, was no squawking infant, but like Bottecelli’s Venus, arrived both fully formed and very appealing to the senses. It was particularly heartening to see how the local people cheered their home team on. Contemporary dance seldom has mass appeal, but this company has generated an excitement that would be the envy of more established troupes. So new is the phenomenon of modern dance here, that a Spanish colleague was detained for four hours of questioning at passport control as officialdom would not believe that there could be a dance show attracting international attention in Palestine.

Ramallah suffers from a bad press, but once inside the necklace of army checkpoints it is welcoming, civilised and surprisingly safe. You can still enjoy a variety of cultural entertainment and good food. Headscarves and coiffures, tight jeans and long robes are all in evidence - and then there is Rukab’s ice-cream parlour. Bit chilly at this time of the year, but their pistachio flavour is worth the checkpoint wait!

The programme was a collaborative effort from the five leading members: Noora Baker, Raed Badwan, Maysoun Rafeedie, Nicholas Rowe and Maher Shawamreh. Circumstances have bred a company distinctive in their inventiveness, dedication and passion. Many of the dancers have had experience in Palestinian folk dance groups and now, through contemporary dance they are able to develop their creativity and range of physical expression. Access Denied is a collage of scenes from life, some acted out on stage, others shown on video. The technical standards in camera work and presentation were impressive, particularly for a cash strapped company, as were the design elements, from posters to costumes: unpretentious and effective.

The programme had a strong political flavour, but these dancers have spent their entire lives under occupation; a condition that makes every action take on political significance. However, it was not without its own dark humour as in the queue in Waiting for Permission. If you thought the British were good at queues – meet the champions! Squeezing up to find room on the only bench had the inevitable pushing, shoving and devious behaviour to get to the front. It was choreographed to good effect, making the most of the dancers’ comedy skills.

Dividing walls, interrogation and humiliation were portrayed in dramatic fashion, often with minimal movement and maximum effect. A chess-board severed by the Wall, showed a fractured game mirroring the fractured lives. This video was filmed outdoors and the windswept garments added poetry to the desolate images. Noora Baker and Maher Shawamreh’s duet around a table was a performance highlight. The choreography was intriguing, melding emotion and physicality. Shawamreh, with a background in gymnastics, is a strong fluid dancer, well matched by Baker who brings an intensity to her performance that drew the audience like a magnet. Shawamreh created more powerful images in his solo Hanging, used his athletic ability to the full, suspended from the flies in a shroud-like wrapping. Another sensitive duet was danced by Maysoun Rafeedie and Raed Badwan using a pole which simultaneously separated and linked them. The dance video, Interrogation, was less successful. I felt it did not succeed in portraying the tension of the subject matter. Dancers often find the physical restraint coupled with emotional intensity needed for successful screen acting, a difficult combination. More imaginative framing and editing might have helped out.

Art is one of the ways of defining our identity and our humanity. For the Palestinians who have no state, no citizenship, no rights and no remedies, artistic expression is a life-line. At the Popular Arts Centre, classes continue and dancers are given the opportunity to create and perform. A debut of such high standard is a significant achievement, in any circumstances. In Ramallah it is a small miracle.

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Originally printed in Dance Europe, March 2004

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Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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