by Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero & Hildegard de Vuyst
A World Stage Presentation at the Fleck Dance Theatre. February 17-20, 2016
This joint Belgian and Palestinian dance creation has a title that is a deliberate reversal of “dabke,” the name of an ancient Palestinian folk dance, a number of whose variants exist. Of course, because of its origin as an old folk dance that was popular entertainment at weddings and other celebrations and because of numerous appropriations by non-Palestinians, “dabke” provokes much academic discourse that is pretentious at best, and irrelevant at worst–as was demonstrated in the pre-show Tea chat at the Fleck, when the resident dance scholar (an American trying his best not to sound culturally insensitive) made my eyes glaze over by encouraging discussion about such knee-jerk terms as “authenticity,” “appropriation,” and “indigenous.”
The trouble with academic discussion is that it wallows in its own ideology and truisms, mostly self-serving in a cozy complicity. That plus the fact that most academics who treasure their jargon seem oblivious to their own post-colonial appropriations. Do many of our contemporary dance or theatre or literature departments at university acknowledge the simple fact that we are all post-colonial and are, therefore, only authentic in the ways by which we express our deepest selves? Art by its nature allows us to appropriate whatever personae we desire. A true creative artist does not worry about terms or definitions because it is the art itself that creates its own authentic expression, and every worthy artist is fully justified in appropriating whatever he or she wishes, with the only criterion being the scope and quality of the product. So, we can have Derek Walcott’s assimilation of Greek mythology and literature in his Caribbean poetry and plays, V.S. Naipaul’s portraits of suburban or pastoral England in the novel genre, Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Portia, Shylock, Richard III, Rosalind, or Caliban. The true artist does not usually share the hermetic community of the academic critic. There are always exceptions, of course, and many artists are forced to teach to make a living. But it is best to leave categories and their definitions to the lecture room where definitions matter more than the art itself–as the eventual 60-minute dance performance vividly and passionately showed.
Badke is a contemporary riff on its root Palestinian dance source, whose precise origin and nature are only vaguely known. Ambiguity can have its creative freedom, after all, and the multi-disciplinary collaboration on display that absorbs politics without annotating the experience of suffering and oppression is splendidly emotive without devolving into mere victim art. Intriguingly, the piece opens in darkness, with only the sounds of yells and foot stomps delivering themselves to the audience. The intensity of the stomps changes, so does the rhythm and tempo. When the ten dancers (six male) of various ethnic backgrounds and training reveal themselves in a line, some of their footwork hearkens back to other folk or ethnic traditions: Greek, Israeli, even Scottish and modern Hip Hop. The line breaks when a female separates herself from the group, moves downstage, and tropes into semaphores from modern interpretive dance. There is a lack of uniformity, which runs counter to the oldest known form of “dabke.” One woman wears headphones and moves to the music she hears privately, but even she devolves into traditional patterns of body movement as in classical ballet or folk dance. Then a huge release occurs when the corps (to the recorded soundtrack of Arab music) breaks into quick strides with uplifted legs, leaps, and twirls. This breakout sequence breeds familiarity with old “dabke,” the dance of eruptive joy.
Modernity impresses itself on the piece via violence and sex as with one heterosexual duo where the female and male engage in a rough push-pull dynamic. The woman flings herself at the man and they both roll to the floor. There is a sense of dangerous physicality, of threat and counter-threat, perhaps as a metaphor of contemporary Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, as well as of in-fighting within the Arab world itself. The dance permutations make it difficult to pin down the precise political semiology, but this is an asset rather than a flaw. After all, Badke intends its relentless collective energy to be a statement itself on the perseverance of a people ever subject to threat of subjugation and extinction. It openly and warmly incorporates miscellaneous dance styles: street dance, Hip Hop, circus acrobatics, line dance, ballet, etc. It also revels in its freewheeling movements and groupings, but it has a dramatic thrust, as when at a high pitch of festive release, the music stops abruptly and the lighting fades, with the dancers cast into a limbo of awkward silence. Another example of metaphor incarnated–this time of political disorder and harsh suppression.
The dancing is put on edge when sirens sound at occasional moments, signifying war or military assault, and even though the exuberance and festivity is not fully quelled and there is further artistic freedom in one male dancer’s deliberate self-feminization through costume and movement, there are unmistakable reminders of the violence communities suffer and strive to transcend. A sequence of mimed murder and suicide is just one example, as is one remarkable section where with their bodies prone on the floor, some of the dancers begin to bang their heads slowly on the ground, increasing the force and rhythm of their desperation. Then they rise slowly and resume their dance, incarnating perseverance and survival. When they link hands and face the audience, their collective gaze provokes us to ponder some of the signification of the piece. It is a compelling moment, but there are many others in this formidable dance about displacement, oppression, and community, and it speaks far more eloquently to a sensitive audience than an entire book of dance theory or cultural ideology.