« My body map is not that of a European »

Interview with Tunisian dancer and choreographer, Hafiz Dhaou by Ayoko Mensah

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Hafiz Dhaou came to dance through hip-hop. He subsequently trained with Syhem Belkhodja at the Sybel Ballet Théâtre in Tunis. After graduating from high school and studying for two years at the Institut maghrébin de cinéma, he chose a career as a professional dancer. He is the first Tunisian, along with Aïcha M’bark, to be accepted to the CNDC, France’s prestigious national centre for dance in Angers. Today, at the age of 26, Hafiz Dhaou is a forerunner of a new generation of Tunisian choreographers. He is currently a member of the Exerce dance group at Montpellier’s centre for choreography, directed by Mathilde Monnier.

How did you make the move from hip-hop to contemporary dance?
At the age of 11 I headed a group of boys who danced hip-hop. What we liked about this dance style, which we saw on TV, was its virility and the « star » phenomenon » that went with it. One day Syhem Belkhodja, who is now the director of the Carthage Rencontres chorégraphiques, saw us dancing in the street. During the 1980s, there were very few boys in Tunisian dance studios. Syhem invited us to her studio. It was a totally new experience for us. She told us that if we wanted to improve our hip-hop moves we had to do some bar work. That’s how we got our first contact with a more scholarly form of dance.
At the time, we totally rejected contemporary dance because it represented neither our identity nor our virility. It was out of the question for us to wear tights. I had lots of preconceptions and was extremely reticent. As long as I danced hip-hop, it was okay with my neighbourhood and with my family but when I decided to move into another form of dance, it didn’t cut any more. What’s more, it took me ten years to make the change.
But I eventually got tired of hip-hop. It was too codified, too frontal. Over the years I came to realise that it was a language that I didn’t belong to me, that it was just a trend. I wanted to dance differently. Particularly after a workshop that the choreographer, Pedro Pauwells, held in Tunis. He totally changed my way of moving. I started to enjoy another quality of movement. That said, I admit that hip-hop taught me a lot – to dance in the street, to not be scared to dance very close to the audience. Hip-hop gave me a virility, a masculinity that have helped me define myself as a dancer in Tunisia.
How did your family accept your decision to become a contemporary dancer?
The problem came to a head when I was accepted by the CNDC in Angers. I was 23 and I had to discuss the main reason for their disapproval, that is, homosexuality in dance. Previously, I have never spoken about such deep subjects, such taboo subjects, with them.
Did the Muslim religion provide an additional obstacle?
No. The Muslim religion accepts dance. Look at the Sufic dancers. The most beautiful image of dance in Islam is of the whirling dervishes, communities in which the body is accentuated in order to pray to God. On the other hand, religion greatly influences society. And it’s therefore hard to go against it. In any case, I’m not after a power struggle, I don’t want to shock people. Furthermore, secularism is very much alive in Tunisia. That’s why the country is open to artistic expressions.
Have you tried to study, to learn any traditional Tunisian dances?
As a child, I didn’t know about them at all. I discovered hem when I travelled around the country with the Syhem Belkhodja dance company. I was taken by the richness and the beauty of things we have in our country. I was touched by the generosity that exists in my own heritage, in my own body. That is, my body in the service of tradition. It’s nothing to do with postcard images or clichés. It gave me a desire to work with folk dance. Tunisian folk dance is a North African dance, which is very different to oriental dancing, which is much less grounded. On the contrary, Tunisian folk dancing is very grounded, very much anchored to the ground, rooted. The beat is kept with your heel whereas in oriental dancing it’s done on the ball of your foot. Dressed in voluptuous burnous, the men often dance with their arms spread wide open, like the spread wings of an eagle. It’s a sign of their virility.
What did you gain from your two years at the CNDC in Angers?
In the first year, I worked a lot on my technique, and I didn’t question myself very much. I learnt a lot and it is only now that I’m beginning to realise what happened. In the second year, we began to work on the language of contemporary choreography, which is still fed by several disciplines – film, anatomy, yoga (which I didn’t know), and lots and lots of ballet. To the extent that, because my body wasn’t prepared for nor adapted to such an intensive course, I seriously injured my knee.
It happened when I had to perform a solo for my choreography exam. How was I supposed to create a solo with one leg our of order? In the end, the fact that I was already restricted gave me an advantage over the other students. Otherwise, where do you start when you walk into a dance studio and create a solo? For me, the result was « Zinzena », which means « the cell ». Syhem Belkhodja suggested that I present it in the festival.
How did you create your solo, when you were handicapped by one knee?
I built it around my handicap. I had the experience that the first cell can be the body. You can feel trapped by your body. So, how do you refine it to a maximum, to the extent that you can’t give up anything else in order to return to life? How do you find life within a prison? How can I cry out without the echo penetrating the walls and reaching the sky? How do you survive in a prison? That was the real core of my study.
Then I worked on very simple movements, using, for example, the movements you make when you wash yourself. In Tunisia, gestures are very symbolic. They are revelatory of an entire cultural heritage that is passed down from generation to generation. I now know that I have inherited from the memory of the body of my great great-great-grandfather, which was passed down to me.
In this sense is your body, because of its heritage, different to that of a European?
Of course. For a start, look at the image we have of our bodies. The European body is not the same as mine. My body map – which governs my movements – is different. We don’t have the same references. None are better than others. It’s just an additional wealth. At the same time, the physical elements are universal – our joints, our head, our arms, our legs. We are all made the same way. What changes is the way that we think of our bodies. And our bodies reflect this way of thinking.
In your solo you use a Tunisian music from the Sahara? Is this precise cultural reference important for you?
Yes, it is. When you go to a Tunisian restaurant you don’t expect to eat Indian… If you want to come and see a Tunisian dancer, it’s not to see the mirror image of a French, German or Belgian dancer but rather to discover what it is that makes him – his specific cultural baggage.
You would like to see people talk about « young Tunisian dance ». What defines the choreographers of this movement?
Firstly, their study of the body – the body in its religion, in its traditions, in its fervour and its representation but also its civilisation and even its political beliefs. These days this kind of search is slowly starting to occur in Tunisia. But I don’t think we should rush things. Scholarly dance has been around for four centuries in France but it’s only been around for 50 years in Tunisia. We have to take things slowly because it requires a very deep study of our identity.
You are currently part of the Exerce collective at the Montpellier centre for choreography, under the direction of Mathilde Monnier. How is this of benefit to you?
I am learning a totally different artistic and conceptual approach – to think before I dance. This approach has a very clear political strategy. It’s helping me to grow and gives me the opportunity to meet choreographers like Julian Hamilton and Lisa Nelson that I couldn’t see in Tunisia. That’s why it’s important to go abroad and open your horizons. That way, when you come home, come back to your roots, you can carry out the in-depth work.
Of all the performances presented at the festival, which were you most impressed by?
The one by the Salia Ni Seydou company, called Weeleni, from Burkina Faso. The questioning that I talked about earlier, they did it and they did some amazing work on their identity. There was a whole thought process that helped them avoid clichés. I found it very moving.
Future projects?
I want to join the French company, Abou Laagra, for their next creation. I would then like to work with the Tunisian choreographer Hella Fattoumi, who lives in France and has been working on contemporary dance for some time now. Lastly, with Aicha M’Barek, we would like to develop a pedagogical project in the near future in Tunisia.

///Article N° : 5705


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