Tunis: a crossroads for dance

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From 29 April to 4 May 2003, the 2nd Rencontres chorégraphiques de Carthage were held in Tunis. With over a hundred choreographers and dancers invited, this event is set to become a platform for contemporary dance in the Arab world. The festival is undeniably a gamble – with stakes that are at once artistic, social and political – driven by a figurehead for the Tunisian dance scene, Syhem Belkodja.

« There has never been such a need for dance as there is now. Admittedly this statement does contain a considerable dose of naive militancy, a characteristic common to all lovers of things choreographic (…) However, its relevance to the current situation lends it special meaning. Inter-cultural contact has rarely been so complex and those who dance are lucky to be able to do so without needing a particular accent, without having to resemble someone else in order to express themselves. The dancer’s body language is still a common language, while also being perfectly individual, implicating everything that a given culture can imbue into muscle and bone. Dance is one of the few means of affirming oneself without forgetting about others, without imposing anything upon them in the knowledge that what they are about to receive will not be deformed by the filter of language. Decidedly, dance’s ideal possesses, with respect to the preoccupations of the world, a powerful breath of utopia in action ». These are the words of Syhem Belkhodja, founder and director of the festival. They were written several weeks before the opening, at the same time that Iraq was being assailed by Anglo-American bombs. They were read at the opening. Utopia and action: these two words reflect the spirit of the Rencontres, which is also known as the « Printemps de la Danse« , or « Springtime of Dance ». Usdfwx
Let us first address utopia. It is essential. To imagine transforming Tunis into a new international crossroads for contemporary dance. This gamble would have been extremely far-fetched several years ago. Dance – being protean – has a fairly dense history in Tunisia, from the bygone status of the folk dancer that was created by President Bourguiba during the 1960s, to the establishment of the innovative Centre national de la danse Borj El Baccouche (that ran from 1990 to 1996), and the classical ballet classes at the Conservatoire de Tunis. Dance is not only at the heart of Tunisia’s cultural heritage but it has also succeeded in becoming institutionalised – a rare thing in Africa. However, here, as almost everywhere else around the continent, so-called « contemporary » choreographic creation is still in its infancy. The first professional dance company began to favour this approach in 1985. Since then, more than a dozen choreographers have chosen this path. However, these individual examples outside the two accepted alternatives of traditional dance and classical ballet are still a long way from forming a recognised movement.
Link between Europe and Africa
« Here, everything is still to be done in the field of contemporary dance », explains Syhem Belkhodja. « How do we build a dialogue between Arab-Muslim tradition and modernity? How do we create a language of our own, that is not a photocopy of the dance of the West? » In Tunisia, as in other African countries, the creators have more questions than answers. This is no doubt why the festival’s director has chosen to present such a wide variety of approaches. From the very conceptual, minimalist dance of young German choreographer Tom Plischke, to the blended hip-hop of Cameroon dancer Jean-Claude Pambé Wayack, and French dancer Catherine Berbessou’s revisionedTango. In total, there are over twenty creations from eight European and African countries. These are coupled with an understanding of the obvious fact that Tunis’s geographical location makes it a fascinating crossroads where artists from the Arab world, Sub-Saharan Africa and the West can meet. At a time when culture is becoming an imperative of globalisation, it is of some relevance that this platform is situated on the African continent, rather than in the North – providing greater balance between the various players, throughout their meetings and presentations.
Contrary to most other Sub-Saharan capitals, Tunis possesses the infrastructure necessary to host a major international festival, as can be seen from the renowned Journées théâtrales de Carthage. The Rencontres chorégraphiques were spread over three interior venues (the municipal theatre, a beautiful and sizeable Italian-style theatre built during the colonial period; the Théâtre 4è Art; and the Centre culturel Menzah 6) and an open-air theatre set up in the Avenue Bourguiba. The result was a rich programme of three to four performances per day that drew an eclectic audience.
Fully booked performances… with curious, novice audiences
While the diversity of the programme is to be praised, the festival’s success is also attributable to the large audiences it succeeded in drawing. Every single performance played to an almost-full house. Admittedly, the audience was at times somewhat unruly, however the spectators always ended up recognising and applauding the quality of the creations. The fact that the tickets were free is no doubt responsible for the number of spectators. « The festival has been running for two years now, in a difficult international climate. Last year, the Djerba bombing took place several days before the opening. This year, there is the war in Iraq », explains Syhem Belkhodja. « We have therefore decided that the performances should be totally free, but not blindly so. We have distributed 15,000 entry cards around the artistic departments of the University of Tunis, and some cultural venues ». The result is an ample, varied, relatively young audience new to contemporary dance but very curious about it. « Tunisians are thirsty for contemporary culture. Here, no one knows who Carolyn Carlson and Merce Cunnigham are. The objective of the festival is to introduce contemporary dance to as wide a public as possible. This also implies educating people gradually. Here, the public is used to football matches and variety shows. We have to teach them to watch and respect the work of the choreographers ».
It is hard to forget about the Tunisian public, especially one as eclectic as that at the municipal theatre. Whispers, constant mumbling, rude remarks, and exclamations at the slightest sign of a naked leg reign until the performance starts to capture the audience and a relative silence falls, which is only interrupted intermittently by applause. Admittedly, audiences of this kind are not easy for the performers. However, successfully capturing their attention brings extra satisfaction. Thus, Weeleni, the last piece by Burkina Faso dance company, Salia Nï Seydou, was one of the most powerful moments of the festival. Not only because the dancers and musicians were capable of deeply moving the audience, but also because this creation, which called upon the skills of a Moroccan musician (the excellent Youssef El Mejjad), chose to unite Sub-Saharan and North Africa – an alliance that is still extremely rare and that was charged with a special intensity in Tunis.
« We are impressed with Salia Nï Seydou’s work », explain Syhem Belkhjoda and Tunisian choreographer Hafiz Dhaou (cf. interview in Africultures 55). « They have found a choreographic language capable of truly dialoguing with both their traditional African heritage and modernity. They have nothing to envy of the famous Western choreographers ».
Tunisian choreographers: an identity crisis
In Tunisia, as in Sub-Saharan Africa, choreographers are often confronted with the burning issue of identity. And their unease is fairly similar, as demonstrated at the round table organised on the theme of « National identity and contemporary dance in Tunisia ». In a society that is itself undergoing an identity crisis, it is highly uncertain whether dance can become a framework for the demonstration of a cultural identity. And yet, all over the place, Tunisian choreographers are being asked to create « something Tunisian ». Malek Sebai, a dancer-choreographer who returned to her home country in 1998 after a career in Europe and the United States, provides the following summary of her experience, « In 1999, Danse Bassin Méditerranée (DBM) organised, in Tunis, the first Arab contemporary dance festival. On this occasion, I formed a duo with another female dancer using music by the French group, Louise Attaque. At the end of the performance, foreign guests asked me what was Tunisian about my creation. That question somewhat alarmed me. What does being Tunisian mean? If they can tell me, great, because I don’t know what it means myself. I’m certainly not going to use Arab music just to « make it Tunisian » … I’m not against an Arab identity but Tunisia isn’t just that. It’s also French speaking, African, Mediterranean… It’s a crossroads for lots of civilisations. We are experiencing an undeniable identity crisis in Tunisia. I wonder if it isn’t up to us, as choreographers, to work on this malaise. If everything is shaky then it’s up to us to show it. After all, aren’t artists supposed to be revelatory? »
This questioning of their identity, of their multiplicity, can be found in Tunisian creations presented at the festival. Firstly, Pièce Montée by Imed Jemâa, who is possibly the most renowned Tunisian contemporary choreographer currently. His creation offers a reflection on the trials and tribulations of the creative process and the gaze of others, in a choreography that is heavily inspired by Western contemporary dance.
Corps Complices, by Nawel Skandrani, half Swedish-half Tunisian choreographer and founder of Tunisia’s national ballet in 1991, questions the place of dance in Tunisian society. Two dancers and one actor react to statements and comments by artists about dance and the body projected onto a video screen above the stage. This exercise in style is both informative and humorous.
The younger generation is more intimist. Nejib Ben Khalfallah’s solo, Pousser, is intended as a kind of inner monologue on the act of creation. However, the piece sorely lacks rhythm and staging. Creations by Aïcha M’Barek and Hafiz Dhaou (two former members of Syhem Belkhodja’s dance company who have also been through the CNDC in Angers) are more finished, particularly that of Hafiz Dhaou, entitled Zinzena, « the cell » (cf. interview in Africultures 55). A square of white light on a dark stage represents a prison cell. A man in blue trousers and a white tee shirt is standing immobile. We hear the clicking of a lock. When the dance begins, it is full but pure, without any embellishments. It is charged with a powerful introspectiveness. As with the movement, the soundtrack, with its extensive silences, is simple and evocative. Hafiz Dhaou magnificently lends substance to his prisoner. Dhaou’s stage presence and quality of interpretation should open doors onto a prosperous career.
Reacting to a closed Europe
While Aïcha M’Barek and Hafiz Dhaou were able to study in France, it should be known that it is increasingly difficult for young Tunisian artists to travel to Europe. For several years now, requests for simple short-term visas have been refused with increasing regularity, to the extent that it is one of the reasons for creating the Tunis festival. « I have a company with approximately twenty young dancers », says Syhem Belkhodja. « Previously, we would attend or participate in artistic events in France regularly. However, since September 11th, this has becoming increasingly difficult. Young dancers often have their visas refused. That’s why I decided to create a festival in Tunis. If they can’t go Europe to see what’s happening in contemporary dance there, then it’s my duty to bring the dance companies here. It’s very important for the young dancers because in Tunisia, as in Morocco or lots of other countries, religious fundamentalism poses a very real menace. And the best protection against this danger is to not cut young people off from the world… ».
Over and above its artistic intentions, the political intention of the Printemps de la danse is very clear. Syhem Belkhodja continues, « Presenting these creations in Tunisia is to fight against all forms of intolerance ». This energetic Forty-something is an extremely popular figure in Tunisian culture. Having trained at the Tunis conservatory, she created her own company, the Sybel Ballet Théâtre, some fifteen years ago. At the same time, she also set up a non-profit training centre for young people from all social backgrounds. She travels around the country performing her creations, sometimes accompanied by several dozen musicians. Syhem Belkhodja is original in that she teaches contemporary, jazz, hip-hop and traditional folk dance. Such variety is also to be found amongst the 15 or so young dancers (aged between 11 and 20) who already show a certain professionalism in their approach.
Utopia and action: these two words are a perfect summary for Syhem Belkhodja. She is a fighter, offering a charismatic example to the younger generation, and she is poised to succeed in her gamble. Making Tunis a new international crossroads for dance – for all forms of dance. Syhem Belkhodja has successfully convinced a number of institutions (several Tunisian ministries, the Tunis and Paris city councils, embassies, the Afaa, the EU, the Agence de la Francophonie, etc.) to lend their support. One of the festival’s main funds providers is the Institut français de cooperation whose subsidies have helped attenuate the poor image created when France shut its borders. Nevertheless, the issue of the circulation of artists from the South is still one of Syhem Belkhodja’s main preoccupations. « It’s harder to get African and North African artists to come to Tunis than Europeans, » she remonstrates. « The choreographer Karima Mansour, who lives next door in Egypt, in an Arab country like Tunisia, didn’t come this year because of problems with her visa. It’s the same thing with information. I can easily find out everything that’s happening in dance in Europe and the United States but I can’t find any information on what’s happening in Algeria, Lebanon or Mauritania ».
Through its artistic, social and political aims, the 2nd Rencontres Chorégraphiques de Carthage has successfully demonstrated (not that it was necessary) just how important it is that it continues to be held annually.

Companies and choreographers participating in the 2nd Rencontres:
Tunisia: Théâtre de la Danse dance company; Nawel Skandrani dance company; Syhem Belkhodja dance company; Hafiz Dhaou; Aïcha M’Barek; Neijib Ben Khalfallah.
Italy: Antonio Montanile dance company; Patrizia Cerroni & I Danzatori Scalzi.
Germany: Tim Plischke dance company; Unit Control dance company.
Burkina Faso: Salia Nï Seydou dance company.
Great Britain: Eddie Ladd dance company.
France: Claude Brumachon dance company; La Baraka dance company; Martine Pisani dance company; Catherine Berbessou dance company.
Spain/France: Rafael Linares Torres.
France/Cameroon: Pambe Dance Company.
France/Africa: Braves Gars l’Afrique (BGA) collective.
Egypt: Karima Mansour dance company (absent because their visas were refused).///Article N° : 5704


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