Modern Dance from Lebanon

The Assassination of Omar Rajeh

The Lebanese dance company Maqamat are currently touring Europe with the play The Assassination of Omar Rajeh. The group stands for politically engaged and aesthetically ambitious modern dance. Amin Farzanefar introduces the first ever Lebanese dance company

The Lebanese dance company Maqamat are currently touring Europe with the play The Assassination of Omar Rajeh. The group stands for politically engaged and aesthetically ambitious modern dance. Amin Farzanefar introduces the first ever Lebanese dance company

​​ On 12 December 2005 the choreographer and dancer Omar Rajeh was writing a letter to the journalist Gebran Tueni when he heard the news that he had been killed by a car bomb as he left his house in Beirut. Suddenly a television news item touched directly on Rajeh's own life.

The question of whether and how to react to this experience as a Lebanese artist gave birth to the current production The Assassination of Omar Rajeh. The choreographer's name in the title indicates how deeply politics can affect us, how closely linked politics and art are in this work.

The political impinges on the private

Yet Rajeh's dance company Maqamat does not present overtly politicising dramatics, but instead a subtly layered piece that pulls out all the stops of modern dance.

In the introduction, Omar Rajeh – wearing a blue Adidas jacket – chops fruit, throws it in a mixer and presses the button. Although actually a harmless domestic activity, this mechanical liquidation awakens ominous associations, capturing fascinating ambivalences.

Szene of a Maqmat production (photo: private)
Ambivalent actions awakening reminiscences of violence in everyday life in Lebanon: Omar Rajeh chops fruit on stage and throws it into a mixer

​​ The play as a whole moves between the private and the political, investigating how the two spheres forcibly permeate one another. Set pieces of a living room – a sofa, three flower pots, a wall with a lamp – are pushed to and fro on stage, creating ever new arrangements. The dancers sit still for a moment, only to intertwine themselves slowly, embracing and stroking and gradually forming a strange Laocoön Group out of their twisted bodies. Part cosy game of Twister, part opponents locked in wrestling holds.

Individual dancers break out of this tangle of limbs for their solos. Ahmad Ghossein breaks out in a – well, what exactly: a speech? A staccato of guttural noises that sound like Arabic but aren't, but certainly seems to exhaust the dancer so much that he has to tear off all his clothing – the civilised facade hanging from his barbarian body in rags.

The value of the word

The programme describes assassination as "an act of the elimination of words, voices and bodies, an act that kills free thought and all hope of change." The list of murdered Lebanese journalists printed in the booklet, accompanied by biographies and photos, is long and moving.

The country's history of assassinations spans from the 1940s to the new millennium, up to those of Samir Kassir and of course Gebran Tueni. It was their words alone – their work for the cause of freedom of speech, human rights and a democratic society – that brought these journalists their death.

In The Assassination of Omar Rajeh every word is fought over, every letter is a battle. Even the dancing body can only reach harmony with great effort. Mia Habis' solo gets caught up in contradictory impulses – individual limbs separating off, striving for independent movement; her body is wracked by twitches, convulsions, inhibited spasms. These unproductive efforts appear an inferior substitute for language, but also a metaphor for the disabling of free expression.

At one point Ghossein calls over to her as she convulses: "Mia, what are you trying to tell us?"

Fragile phrases, threadbare truths

Even the stage design reflects the difficulties of dialogue and understanding: paper-thin taffeta divides the stage from the auditorium, deliberately blurring the audience's view.

The material creates a distance, but also a space for reflection. Writing projected onto it at intervals opens up an additional dimension.

​​ As so often in modern Arab art, this dance piece tackles the difficult relationship between reality as experienced close-up and the "official" truth presented through the media – it is about the fragility, relativity and historical nature of all narrated matter.

In Lebanon, a battlefield of various ideologies over decades, audiences and artists are particularly sensitive to pompous phrases.

Yet these ideas are not suspended in abstract floatation – private experiences and stories are woven throughout the piece. Omar Rajeh tells us how his grandmother reacted to his training as a dancer with rejection, for example.

Rajeh's group is the first ever Lebanese dance company – a new art form still seen with scepticism and still requiring justification. It would be impossible for the ensemble to carry out its dance projects without intensive international networking and European funding.

Dance scene on the move

Founded in 2002, Maqamat thus takes its orientation from the international standards of modern dance and is yet "typically Lebanese" in its efforts at deconstructivism. Its simultaneously personal and analytical approach, its self-reflective narration, its work with Dadaist fragments and alienation effects correspond with the output of Lebanon's renowned performance and video artists, theatre and film makers.

The Arab dance scene appears to be on the brink of a new era: last spring saw the "Beirut International Platform of Dance" ("Bipod"), a festival initiated by Omar Rajeh in 2004 showcasing dance companies from the entire Arab region (and beyond), developing innovative experimental dance pieces and promoting intercultural exchange.

2009-2010 is certainly a very successful season for Rajeh: having performed at two first-class German theatres in Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, Maqamat's European tour continues into January of 2010.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2010

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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