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At The Checkpoint Sareyyet Ramallah Troupe for Music and Dance

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

By Nicholas Rowe

This Week in Palestine

May 2005

One gets the impression Palestinians are very disciplined at stillness. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Israeli checkpoints, concrete walls, “detention facilities” and bureaucracy have all no doubt contributed to this, but At The Checkpoint elevates this stillness into an art form.

As the first truly contemporary dance production by a Palestinian folk dance troupe, At The Checkpoint displays a radical development in both style and content. In the past decade there have been numerous modern dance workshops and some short contemporary “pieces” presented by local folk dance groups, in which vibrant traditional dances are usually exchanged for expressionistic poses of angst. This production marks the first time that an existing folk dance group has put aside historical costumes, settings, music and movements for an entire evening however, allowing a 21st-century vision of Palestine to emerge.

For the Sareyyet Ramallah Troupe for Music and Dance, founded in 1965, such a transition from village folk tales to the urban reality of a huge concrete wall is historic.

The result? Very impressive. The choreography, by Khaled Elayyan, Lena Haramy and Elena Hammoudeh displays a strong maturity that would be comfortable on any European stage. Gone are the static declarations of dissent accompanied by revolutionary songs, which pervaded many earlier attempts at “modern” dance. Socio-political ideas are still present, but far more skilfully blended within fluid movement sequences.

Humiliation, despair and resilience all become an integral part of dance. As such they do not appear as simplistic slogans, but thoughts that are being explored in greater and greater depth.

The collage of scenes, all set at a checkpoint and performed by a mixed generation of dancers, is filled with humour and poignancy. A boy having his birthday, a wedding party divided, a woman giving birth, all remind us how central and bizarre a feature Israeli military checkpoints have become within Palestinian daily life. Young Basil Rashid’s solo with a football captured this sense of containment and trepidation well. Similarly, the daring, athletic trio performed by Yousef Toumeh, Amal Al-Khatib and Hanin Mansour also gave a sense of how these constraints make people react to each other.

The highly disciplined ensemble work (a technique honed over years of folk dancing) is probably the most remarkable feature, however. The 26 dancers never leave the stage/checkpoint, trapped in limbo behind a see-through screen that separates them from the audience. As various solos and small group works emerge, the chorus of dancers presents an interesting additional layer, juxtaposing the main action with subtle movement ideas. It is rare to see anywhere in the world the choreography for the group being given as much consideration as the solos; within this Palestinian dance it is a defining feature. They never become a distraction and always remain an integral, if distant, part of the action – a solidarity suggesting “what happens to the one happens to the whole.” Their hanging stillness at times introduces a Bhuttoesque quality to the whole checkpoint environment.

Motifs of Palestinian folk dance did resonate within this ensemble work, and provided some of the most interesting backdrops to the scenes. There is no doubt that Palestinian folk dance is a beautiful and powerful sight to behold. Palestinian folk dance being rediscovered (with relevance) in a contemporary setting is, however, quite breathtaking. Our ancestors leave us many things. That which we can make significant to the next generation is heritage. The rest just reminds us of what we no longer understand. Within some of these dance scenes, it was possible to see elements from Palestine’s past being projected deep into its future.

The shadowy lighting design by Muaz Al-Jubah underscored the sense of constraint and isolation. The eclectic score, from techno beats to folk tunes also reflected contemporary Palestine. Sometimes kitsch and sometimes rich – it provided an aural taste of the West Bank’s current diversity. The weakest links in this production, however, are the poems, voiced-over during certain scenes. They are an unnecessary distraction, overstating some of the more subtle movement ideas.

Otherwise the production avoided the whining morbidity that its title might suggest, and with it the sticky label of Victim Art. At the Checkpoint has hope, with even the stillness suggesting patience and perseverance, not weariness and degradation. As such, it becomes a fascinating journey into contemporary Palestine. For anyone whose “balanced” understanding of the Middle East is forever teetering between Fox News and Hollywood, this dance production will be something of an eye-opener. For those actually within the Occupied Territories (cleaning the spittle of Israeli military disdain from their imaginations on a daily basis) At The Checkpoint is positively life-affirming.

Nicholas Rowe is a dance critic for Dance Europe magazine, where this article first appeared.

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