Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 09.07.2006:
When Skill Shines
Two of El-Funoun dancers dazzle audiences in Palestine and beyond
By Omar Barghouti
‘Maher’ is Arabic for skillful. Noora is derived from ‘noor,’ meaning light. When Noora and Maher created their latest dance, Message of the Soul, it was a moment of light shining on skill, producing breathtaking brilliance. With their agility, musicality and movement precision, this El-Funoun duo helped break new grounds in contemporary Palestinian dance.
Noora Baker joined El-Funoun when she was a child. She literally grew up dancing and, later, experimenting with movement. In my 12 years as El-Funoun’s trainer, I do not recall Noora ever missing a skill-development workshop organized by the group. It is remarkable that the first impression several international dance artists hosted by El-Funoun had of her was the same: this young woman has amazing muscle control. Indeed, she had a natural talent that she kept nourishing until it became a sublime asset in her artistic performance. Other than her palpable dance deftness, Noora has always epitomized commitment, willpower and an exceptional sense of community and volunteerism. Those character attributes have set her apart from many of her peers who only had their talent to count on. In El-Funoun’s international tours and dance workshops, Noora has always stood out as a virtuoso, as a tamed power of nature, no less.
Maher Shawamreh, a professional electrician, works for the power utility company. He emits sparks, however, only when he is immersed in a new choreography. Recently, El-Funoun nominated him to participate in a performance of an hour-long production by an internationally acclaimed dance company, Les Ballets C. de la B. of Belgium. The Belgian choreographer had some doubts whether Maher could learn the role in the less than two-week period available before the scheduled show at the Ramallah Cultural Palace. When he started working with Maher, he immediately realized that he is not dealing with an average dancer with talent. Maher not only learned his role by heart, he added a lot to it, choreographing movements that fit in with the production’s theme and spirit. With unique flexibility, power and an ability to express, Maher was indistinguishable from the three other world-class dancers, except perhaps by addressing the audience in Arabic, not English, in a part of the performance where dancers revealed in words some of their inner selves.
When Noora and Maher jointly choreographed Message of the Soul they examined the effect of employing light and silhouettes in conveying an unspoken emotion embroiled in tension, appeal, unity and diversity. Audiences from Detroit to Bethlehem had very different interpretations of the dance. Some thought it audacious. Others felt it was exceptionally revolutionary in its theme. What they all agreed on was its subtle brilliance and creativity.
But why would such creative people choose dance in particular as a medium for communicating their dreams and their fears? Noora once held a career-track administrative position at Birzeit University, while Maher continues in his successful job. But both felt they had more to say and wanted to explore other ways of saying it. After all, both were touched, in different but very personal ways, by the occupation and its repression, which was not something they read in newspapers or watched on TV, but experienced first-hand as an inseparable part of their lives. With El-Funoun, they also learned quickly that artists in Palestine are not exempt from the everyday brutality that all other Palestinians are compelled to endure. So their dance became part of their resistance, part of their defiance of an order they reject, even of traditions that they rebel against.
When El-Funoun was established in 1979 it was this spirit of rebelliousness that turned it almost instantly into an icon of popular culture. One aspect of its art, however, did arouse substantial ire in certain conservative circles in society. By merely holding hands or putting their arms on each other’s shoulder, El-Funoun’s male and females dancers knew they would confront a barrage of criticism by traditionalists bent on perpetuating a folkloric, quite sentimental perception of Palestinian life, as if preserved in some museum. The group’s popular renown helped it in fending off such minority displeasure. With full body contact in Message of the Soul, Noora and Maher inadvertently contributed to taking that challenge to the next level. The dance reflects a well-rooted perception of women in El-Funoun as equals, as independent fellow artists in every way. In fact, El-Funoun’s women collectively have always had more than their fair share of influence at every level of the group’s decision-making structure, not because of some positive discrimination scheme, but because they have honestly deserved it, professionally speaking.
Noora is now El-Funoun’s assistant director, assistant trainer, one of the main choreographers, principal female dancer and a member of the Artistic Committee, which shapes the work plan for the group. Maher is a lead male dancer and an endowed choreographer. Their inexorable creativity embodies El-Funoun’s, and indeed Palestinian youth’s, aspirations for playing a pro-active role in shaping the Palestinian cultural agenda and in resisting oppression artistically.
Omar Barghouti is dance trainer and choreographer in El-Funoun.
Source: This Week in Palestine, July 2006