Irish Modern Dance Theatre at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival (April 21 – May 10), 2009 (thanks to CULTURE IRELAND)
An international dance festival in the middle of a war-zone? It may seem unlikely, but with a line-up this year of top dance companies from America (for the first time), South Korea, Europe, Scandinavia, Algeria, and, thanks to Culture Ireland – our own Irish Modern Dance Theatre too – the four year old Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival has become a testament to the power of culture to break down barriers and transform negative preconceptions and stereotypes.
In the midst of a politically charged situation which President Barack Obama recently referred to as “intolerable”, the softly-spoken festival director Khaled Elayyan said “we want to welcome people from all over the world. We want cultural exchange, and artistic things”.
Upon arrival our mobile phones bleeped “Marhaba. Smell the jasmine and taste the olives. JAWWAL welcomes you to Palestine”. Ramallah itself is an open-minded place where culture is revered, women are unexpectedly empowered, and Muslims and Christians co-exist easily. “I am Muslim, my wife is Christian”, shared Elayyan. A chorus of “welcome”, and “you are welcome”, wafted towards us on the warm air from passersby on Ramallah’s busy streets. Near the rehearsal space, Irish choreographer John Scott wandered into a tea-shop where an emotional owner declared “I don’t want money. Thank-you for coming to Palestine”. Then he hugged the large choreographer and cried. The genuine delight at the sight of anyone who has defied media clichés, and risked enduring ordeals of airport security and checkpoints to get there was disarming.
This extraordinary festival is part of a broader international cultural revival in the West Bank (with its population of 2.5 million), in an effort to connect with the outside world, and inspire hope. Not unlike the Barenboim-Said Foundation for classical music, Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival grew out of a youth organisation’s initiative to give Palestinian youth – many of whom have never known life outside of occupation - another focus other than the seemingly interminable conflict.
Given that the festival can only afford to offer accommodation, publicity, and techincal assistance, it is amazing that they boast some of the biggest names in Contemporary Dance – for example Belgian Les Ballets C. de la B, who are developing an ongoing project with the festival. Festival tours across the West Bank have to be co-ordinated by email and telephone due to travel restrictions on the Palestinian organisers.
Considered the most radical show of the 2009 festival, Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s joyous and zany post-modern choreography “The White Piece” was warmly received in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Haifa. While they were giving a dance workshop to young Palestinian dancers, I sat in Ramallah’s charming 350-seater Al Kasabah theatre, full of children from nearby refugee camps squealing with delight at The Jungle Book by Washington DC-based “CityDance”.
“They remind me of how I was when I was starting my company”, said Scott, energised after giving the workshop to young Palestinian dancers. “They are very fresh, they’re hungry, they’re motivated, and they are tired of being identified as terrorists. They are trying to fight for their identity”. Scott has been hooked on the creative energy here since he first came last year to make dance-film “Eternal” with local artists. “They are at a beginning. I think they are too jaded to have any hope in the political process. They are just trying to get on with it, independence or no independence – regardless”.
But the festival inevitably gets caught in the crossfire sometimes. At the outset of this year’s festival, for example, Mohammed Nuwwara, a 16 year-old festival volunteer from Al Jalazon refugee camp was shot dead by an Israeli soldier outside Beit El Israeli settlement. As a mark of respect, the preview performance he should have been part of, “Vertical Exile: West Bank Dreamerspass” by Scandinavian “Public Eye” dance company was canceled. A week later Nuwwara’s friends were bussed to Dheishish refugee camp, where the show went on regardless.
Elayyan was slow to be drawn on the tragedy. “I don’t want to speak too much about our history and the situation... War is our daily life.” Sadly, the incident is not unusual. This festival was initiated partly to give teenagers like Nuwwara somewhere else to focus their energies other than the suffocating political stalemate they are trapped in.
Rhetoric-free, at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, the medium is the message. What better way to celebrate the human being – untethered by political ideology - than through contemporary dance? John Scott was delighted his powerful choreography “The White Piece” was part of this uplifting initiative. “I don’t underestimate the power of culture”, he said. “You feel there are big powerful eyes watching”.
Scott describes “The White Piece” as “a ritual, an act of defiance, an act of identity, it’s like a big passport for all those strange people who make up the cast”. In Ramallah he added versatile Palestinian actress Riham Isaac to his eclectic line-up, which boasted a pair of ex-Merce Cunningham dancers; breath-taking “new Irish” survivors of torture from Uganda, Roumania, and Congo; the magnificent Joanna Banks who traces her dance lineage to Ninette de Valois; African-American dynamo Winston “Dynamite” Brown, the mighty Scott himself, and top Irish contemporary dancers James Hosty and Rebecca Reilly.
Striking a deep chord with the audience afterwards, Immaculate Akello, Ugandan-Irish survivor of torture, spoke with powerful emotional acumen from her own first-hand experience of the effects of War on mothers and children. Scott drew parallels with Northern Ireland.
Scott’s abstract idiom was drawn into this realm of the “accidentally political” when he collaborated with Dublin’s Centre for the Care of Survivors of Torture in 2003. “I don’t think about the politics”, he said. “I just think about the wonderful people I’ve met... I don’t use anything didactic in my work. I think the most political thing I do is to simply have the people present in my work. That’s the statement”. Scott has also performed in Holocaust choreographies by legendary choreographers like Meredith Monk and Anna Sokolow, and is keen to praise the many Jewish achievements, including Karl Marx.
Elayann, himself a lefty choreographer, underlined that Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival is an NGO, aligned with neither Fatah nor Hamas. Yes, he has indeed been invited to participate in a dance festival in Tel Aviv. But “even if they were from the left parties”, he cannot entertain the possibility of cultural exchange with Israel until there is a Palestinian state, he says.
That could be like waiting for Godot. But in the meantime, like Lucky, in Beckett’s famous play (who uttered “Dance First. Think Later. That’s the natural order”), at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival they are throwing their arms up in the air, and dancing. I can’t help thinking that Beckett would have been proud, could he have seen Irish Modern Dance theatre in Ramallah’s Al Kasabah theatre, dancing their strange, and beautiful dance. I was.