The Performance “Kawa” of the Dance Company Chatha (Hafiz Dhaou, Aicha M´Bareck)

The stage and the auditorium are darkened. Suddenly a noise of clinking glasses in the audience is to hear. The stage light is slowly moved in, it remains dimmed considerably. The room is bare, dark and corresponds to a black box theatre. One can see a mountain of white cups on the right half of the stage. This dish mountain moves smoothly, slowly, at intervals up to a clatter. One suspects that a dancer must be in this ballast of 1200 cups. The amount of cups is moved, it begins to peel one crouching, arching body dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt and black trousers. It takes time until the dancer Hafiz Dhaou liberates his body out of the batch and becomes visible.

He moves slowly along the ground over the entire stage area, fluently, rearing, creeping, averted his face throughout this dance sequence and denying any presence. One wonders where this dancer is? Is he present here?

Gradually he moves on to a black pedestal at the left front of the stage, sits down, turns his back to the audience. This pose reveals nothing. He lets his head hanging forward, his arms based on his knees and sways in the monotonous rhythm with bowed upper body back and forth repeatedly, as if he would imitate a recitation attitude, indicating desperation or even giving himself urgent reassurance. Certainly he does neither the one nor the other. What do these movements signify?

Suddenly the anonymous, aloof and absent-looking dancer stops, turns his head slowly to the audience, awarding a brief glance and returns to his previous motion sequence. In the sitting position on the podium persevering, lifting his legs, he turns into a steady pace around his own axis. It is a bizarre image that assumptions about childhood memories of coping with a feeling of boredom causes arise. He accelerates his turns, slows them down and lowers his upper body to the ground, head first, legs raised high, as if he would put himself in a weightless state of suspension that expresses an oblique body position and thus an unusual perspective on its surrounding space. The music change suggests a scene change.

The dancer stands now with his back to the audience near the cups. Directly on the ground appears a white neon sign on black background. It’s a long knee-high panoramic projection screen, that makes Arabic and Latin characters visible. Additionally there is a deep, calm male voice to hear. It is the voice of the poet Mahmoud Darwich, who reads a poem that expresses an extraordinary feeling of love for coffee. “That which I crave and what I am longing for every morning is a cup of coffee. With coffee and a newspaper in my hands, I’m not alone ….. “. In contrast, the dancer Hafiz Dhaou moves to the tune of these spoken words in a standing position with strong close-to-the-body-movements. He shrugs, circles, and shakes his body. When the electronic music with a constant beat gets louder, he swings, kicks and throws his body from point to point in space with increasingly directional changes. He throws his head back and to the side and performs mainly the reactions of his body to an externally acting force, which the spectators cannot determine in more detail. It seems like a man fighting in an undefined space with himself, accompanied by unidentified escalating and increasingly difficult physical conditions. For the distinctive voice of the poet, whose praise of coffee is a dramaturgical focal point, the dancer Hafiz Dhaou performs abstract physical forms, with which different everyday moods like loneliness, desire, stress, confusion, contemplation, creative frenzy or mania could be associated.

Despite the body-hugging design with precise movements and full force running, the dancer still seems being absent. What is the reason for this appearance? What kind of movement material is he using? What techniques could be these bizarre movements most likely to describe? His dance form seems to elude all classifications. And this dancer is able to escape the gaze of the spectators, although he acts in front of their eyes.

Seemingly exhausted the dancer now cowers next to the podium on the ground and speaks something in Arabic while he plays with two cups, stands up, goes back to the cup mountain and takes some more of them, puts them at various points on the floor, speaks again and again Arabic. You can identify just some city names in his speech - Beirut, Amman, Berlin, Tripoli. It seems as if he assigns a map using the cups on the floor. In which context does he represent these cities? What do they mean to him? And what do they signify in relation to coffee, solitude and poetry? All those questions are just raised but not answered during his performance.

After several cups were placed in a particular formation, the dancer moves constantly circling around his own axis. Then he stops, stands in profile to the audience, his upper body moves swinging to the left and right, he holds himself to his eye, keeps the ear, vibrates with his hand the pelvis in the opposite direction, turns with one hand the head into the other direction, embraces and touches parts of his body in a permanent change - the gestures constantly renewing. Meanwhile, smoke rises from behind the knee-high projection screen, pungent smells of burnt material comes up, the music is melancholic and the dancer, highly concentrated, seems to be absorbed in himself. He develops rotations starting from his upper body across the room, endless circling around through space and time. Slowly the stage lights fade out.

The Spectators take a moment before they begin to clap. There are no standing ovations, but some isolated “Bravo” calls and an apparently confusion in the room.

The piece “Kawa” of the Tunisian Dance Company Chatha, choreographed by Hafiz Dhaou and Aichia M’Barek is very concentrated, minimal, greatly reduced. The movements are more body than space-oriented. The formation of the circle is absolutely favored space and movement wise. The stage design elements may well suggest a coherent system; yet remain isolated from each other greatly. The dancer continually monopolizes the move with an excellent sensitivity to temporality. The edgy, contrastive angular and circular, not easily recognizable dance vocabulary is not clearly assigned and appears as alienated traces of inner states. But the most difficult part to identify remains the presence of Hafiz Dhaou.

Later in the interview the co-choreographer Hafiz Dhaou explained, that exactly this kind of presence was intended. He didn´t want to use his body for an exhibitionist or narcissistic issue in the light of the stage and explains precisely this tendency as a typical hazard in the production of solos. It needs a strong concentration in order to avoid this temptation. But both choreographers are interested in just the presence of the body in space without being omnipresent as dancers on stage. He compares the solo “Kawa” with the production of a documentary. The idea for this production, so Hafiz Dhaou, arose at a time when both, he himself and his longtime colleague and life partner Aicha M’Barek, were very tired of the constant touring and the project works with new ensemble constellations, and when they went through a kind of artistic crisis. For the production of “Kawa” they pose themselves very personal questions about their artistic status, about their life in constant motion and the generation of new material in permanent work, time and production pressure.

They agreed on the fact to choreograph a dance piece, in which the movements are generated from emotions but should not serve either as kinesthetic images for the described emotions in the text of Mahmoud Darwich nor should explicitly exhibit the emotional levels of both choreographers. They had decided on the dramaturgical key idea of coffee as they wanted to transfer the image of an espresso to their own situation as artists - a statement that can be read in conjunction with the metaphor of squeezing, compressing and extracting personal elements for productions. So they were dealing with questions like: How can an artistic production preserve its freedom, without allowing to be taken by economic constraints? How did the understanding of artists change concerning their work, time, movements, relationships and responsibilities? They also draw a comparison to dance, life and art production: “in fact it’s always about some form of pressure”, said the co-choreographer Dhaou.

During the public conversation supported by questions of a professional dance journalist in the venue of the performance in Berlin, the artist is less asked for explanations concerning his presence, movement techniques, specific choreographic design, dramaturgy, former production conditions, regular training methods, the used metaphor of the coffee, positions of the cups and their occupancy with names of famous cities in his piece etc., but gets confronted with the situations in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and has to receive question about the challenge of sustaining two cultural systems.

After countless African artists have made the statement repeatedly in public that they want to be perceived especially as artists and not as representatives of their countries, nations, cultures and so forth, this interactive situation is still constantly repeated, performed and re-staged. What then can the dancer and choreographer Hafiz Dhaou say about the situation in Tunisia? What is expected from him? Why should he express himself as politically representing other people, contexts and regions he does not want or cannot represent at all? It is amazing to observe this kind of provincial attitude repeatedly towards artists, who still get reduced on their nationality while at the same time steadily increasing labor migration, internationally oriented art works and transcultural art movements are to realize. So Hafiz Dhaou winds out himself with irony, charm and courtesy from an embarrassing public situation and reacts that way to probably already well known questions which - perhaps unconsciously- seek to make a projection out of him. He and Aicha M’Barek work, live, dance, perform, choreograph, communicate, tour and curate internationally. Paul Gilroy wrote about a common shift of identity concepts for artists, which should be taken into consideration as well: “The contemporary black art movements in film, visual arts, and theatre as well as music (…) have created a new topography of loyalty and identity in which the structures and presuppositions of the nation state have been left behind because they are seen to be outmoded.”(Gilroy, Paul: The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London, Verso, 1993, p. 16.)

Aicha M’Barek studied ballet at the Conservatory of Music and Dance in Tunis, worked several years with the Sybel Dance Theatre and was the first Tunisian woman who received a dance scholarship to the National Center for Contemporary Dance in Anger, France. Among others her teachers were Kôkô Koffi, Angelin Preljocaj and Dominique Dupuy. Hafiz Dhaou began his career at the beginning as a hip hop dancer. In 1999 he attended the Film Academy in Tunis and also received a scholarship to the National Center for Contemporary Dance in Anger. There he choreographed his first piece in 2001. Following his studies, he produced several short films, wrote some plays, and cooperated with Mathilde Monnier in Montpellier and the La Baraka Company of Abou Lagraa. 2005 both artists together founded the Dance Company Chatha. Since their formation they have carried out numerous productions. It includes the solo “Telegram” in 2002, the duet “Zenzena” in 2004, the quartet “Khallini Aich” in 2006, the quintet “Khaddem Hazem” in 2008. All these pieces toured and have been represented in several countries of Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia. 2010, they collaborated on the dance piece “Kawa”, that got actually invited to the festival “Tanz im August” in Berlin. They also received an invitation from the CCN Ballet de Lorraine from Nancy in January 2011, with whom they realized the large ensemble work “Un des Sens”. Both choreographers are living together in Lyon and in Tunis, where they got offered the artistic directorship of the prestigious festival “Rencontres de Carthage choréographiques”.

To understand such complex productions like “Kawa”, the applied reference systems and the specific philosophical background of those artistic aesthetics, it would be necessary to start a deeper and honest conversation with each other. That chance has been given during the festival with the invitation of Hafiz Dhaou for a public discussion round, but was unfortunately gambled away through confronting the artist with own curiosities about other topics and contexts.

by Grit Köppen
Palcos | 20 October 2011 | chilhood memories, dance company, movements, Music, performance, performs, poem, sequence