Motaz Kabbani is still making a name for himself on the Canadian dance scene, and now he has done something somewhat daring and unusual that should garner attention. For his one-night-only performance at the fourth edition of the Festival du monde arabe, the Damascus-born choreographer has shucked the small stages he’s performed at to date. (Kabbani came to Canada to study engineering at McGill University in the early 1990s and created his first dance work in 1995.) Featured at the Centre Pierre-Péladeau, one of the city’s major performing arts venues, he presented a triptych of works entitled “L’Sil et la nuit: Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faun” (which premiered at Tangente last season), “Ritual #5” (first seen at the Older and Reckless series in Toronto), and his world premiere of “Le Sacre du Printemps”.
Kabbani’s “Le Sacre” has inherited something fundamental from the original Rite of Spring choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky — a commission for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes first performed in 1913 — and that’s the impulse of sexual awakening coursing through the body. At the time of the original production, the upheaval of pre-World-War-I volatility brought about tremors in the European art world, and artistic sensibilities in many domains were immersed in confrontation and cacophony. In this era, however, it seems that “Le Sacre” is part of a pluralistic impulse among choreographers worldwide. For some, it’s Stravinsky’s thundering orchestral work that draws them in. For others, the work represents a kind of blender practice in the dance world, where choreographers try all sorts of things. Artists who want to be visually ballsy do “Le Sacre”. This year alone I have seen three different versions. Sometimes the arrangements are odd and outlandish. Rarely are they predictable.
Kabbani has put together his five-person-ensemble for “Le Sacre” with professional skill, and it comes to us from out of the shadows, literally. Set in the institution of the hamam, the Turkish communal bathhouse, he uproots the conventional by setting his “Sacre” as a women’s meeting place. Performed in the context of the Arab Festival, Kabbani is perhaps playing against expectations of the community and codes surrounding respectability and law. These are real women, not some idyll, or allegorical figures come to life. They are women in contact, sharing each other’s lives and bodies. That alone seems subversive as, in some societies today, for all intents and purposes women have been under house arrest. Thematically, Kabbani riffs on the original with a contemporary take on the Chosen One: a virgin bride being prepared for an arranged marriage.
Historically, in many productions, Igor Stravinsky’s score comes on like gangbusters, the powerful rhythm overwhelming the melody. This version uses a softer interpretation by Turkish pianist Fazil Say (playing the composer’s two-hands version), with additional recorded strong beats, coloring and layering by composers Dino Giancola and Charmaine Leblanc further softening the music. The result creates a rich soundscape that encapsulates the energy and passion of the dance fused with Stravinsky’s pulsing rhythms. The layered score offers the choreographer an even broader spectrum of rhythm changes, which he accentuates in the movement.
Kabbani favors a fluid continuum of motion. The dancers’ arms entwine as their bodies sway. The dancers (Danielle Aways, Myriam Farger, Cindy Gurunlian, Sheila Ribeiro, and Nancy Rivest) evoke romance and mystery as they execute the movement, especially the belly dancing vocabulary. (Incidentally, belly dance seems a bit of misnomer as the whole body is in motion. It was the “Orientalists”, travelling with Napoleon in 1798 in his exploits of the Mid-East, who named the dance “le danse du ventre” (dance of the stomach). Belly dancing in the West first appeared at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where a troupe of Algerian dancers performed. The star of the show was known as “Little Egypt”).
Kabbani integrates energy into his scenes, but one feels opposition rather than danger or menace. He uses the theme of water as a cleansing device. Here, women not only bathe in the water, they stamp in it. Kabbani’s hand gestures tell a story. The cloaked women, rigid in their black burqas, are a striking image, with their rhythmic feet, arms crossing, hands upheld. When they disrobe, the steam in Kabbani’s hamam becomes a little moist around the edges, but visually his spare stage is substantive. The acute eye of lighting designer Philippe Dupeyroux has geometrically sectioned the watery hamam almost circularly, while the draped women, as they are revealed in the darkness, move as a wall of tension. He’s takes the tone of Kabbani’s choreography and translates it directly into colour and light. He bathes the dancers, highlighting the mournful qualities and detailing the ritual aspects of the work. He uses colour to shape things in a three-dimensional way on stage, and contributes intimately to the sense of place.
It would be wrong to view Kabbani’s work by Western standards alone. As he’s indicated in interviews, he isn’t interested in having his work viewed this way, and to do so in the context of Russian modernism is equally wrong-headed. As a Westerner watching this production, for me questions arise as to whether Kabbani is commenting on the elusiveness of happiness and contentment in a life dominated by men and religious edict. Is he, in fact, underlining the importance of keeping tradition alive when confronted by contemporary culture? Is it a work about destiny and what is preordained? Or is it yet simply another dance work about coming to terms with one’s sexuality and sensual awakening? Kabbani’s “Le Sacre” is all of these things, in some respects, but only elliptically so. Because he works as a collagist none of these themes is ever fully developed, and as a viewer I’m left in a funk. (Although I am not reviewing the other works on the program, as they have been presented previously, this is exactly the problem that undoes those pieces.) Kabbani’s direction alternates between passionate and static; yet, he knows how to compose the dancing beautifully, and with some elegance. Here is a case where a dance’s pleasures outweigh its problems.
Skeptical about my own abilities to position myself in a non-Occidental reading, I reason that I can avoid the pitfalls of subject matter and sensationalism and delve into the sensation itself. What I can say is that there is something inside this creator, borne out of his passionate earliest memories of the Mid-East, that brings out his love for the pace of life in venues such as the hamam. He imbues this work with a degree of nostalgia and elevates the ideas beyond caricature. Kabbani, it seems, wants to jump-start a new take on “Le Sacre”, but the work lacks intensity in its exploration of the complex tensions that exist for women, and between culture and repression in contemporary Islam. However, he does have a smooth way of crafting atmosphere to tell a story and in using shadow to affectingly underscore the sense of enigma.