Ahead of dance troupe Badke’s UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Centre on 9 September 2016, here’s a re-post of my interview with dramaturg and choreographer Hildegard De Vuyst. We caught up when Badke were invited to perform at the Southbank Centre in London for the Shubbak Festival 2015.
Aimee Dawson: Badke is a take on the traditional Palestinian dance dabke but it is fused with contemporary elements. The performance itself is not an outright assertion of Palestinian identity but is rather trying to find a sense of Palestinian belonging, both nationally and internationally. Was bringing a contemporary side to the traditional dance an important element in getting across that message?
Hildegard De Vuyst: Dabke has been built over years and is the result of an ongoing dialogue with a variety of Palestinian performance artists, whatever their background. We were regularly visiting Palestine and having all of these exchanges in the form of workshops. The three co-creators, Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and myself, had worked with a group of ten Palestinian dancers in 2009 and it was then that we understood that bringing in contemporary dance was not an easy thing to do or to cope with – you come across a lot of big issues that are related to politics, colonialism, aesthetics and values. Everything in this piece has been negotiated with the dancers – the material is theirs. This was important so that the dancers could really defend it – the dance is made up of their own proposals and they know exactly why it is there and what it means. We started with the dabke dance for this reason but also because this is what the Palestinians have to offer the world of dance – it’s not contemporary but it’s theirs. This is what they all have as a starting point, this collective dance that is connected to the soul. So for us, to start from dabke meant starting with their strength and what they have to offer and not from what they are supposedly lacking.
AD: The ten Palestinian dancers come from a variety of dance backgrounds. Was it important for you to showcase these differences?
HDV: Yes, the other thing that was important for us was working with non-professionally trained dabke dancers. There are lots of trained dabke companies in Palestine that really know what they are doing but we wanted to work with individuals, not an already-established group. We also wanted to work with people who were from a variety of different backgrounds in terms of training, socio-economic position, and geographic location. Two come from the Palestinian Circus School; two have come from Israel and have had training at Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company; three come from Serreyet Ramallah Dance Company; one from El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe; and three are completely self-taught – two are from a refugee camp near Nablus and one is the Palestinian kickboxing champion! And so the element of ‘contemporary’ comes from each dancer bringing their own experience to the performances and sharing with one another. It is a very diverse group of people with different things to offer. What was a triumph for me was that the piece was actually embraced by the traditional dance companies.
AD: There is always the concern when you are reinterpreting a traditional dance of national significance that it will be in some way offensive. But I read that, at a show you did in Palestine, a very traditionally dressed woman came up afterwards and said, “When my girls grow up I want them to be like that”. The audience for that show was also huge despite concerns that this type of dance wouldn’t be accepted. It must be really great to get such a positive reaction, particularly in Palestine where this performance has extra significance and resonance.
HDV: Yes, they somehow really felt like we respected the tradition and that at the same time found a way to deal with something that was contemporary. I think it is mostly in the composition of the piece that you find the contemporary, through the use of space; the use of the group versus the individual and then the re-emersion of the individual back into the group again. It is almost a reflection of Palestinian society on an existential level.
AD: One of the things that stands out in the videos and reviews for Badke are the comments on the overwhelming energy and positivity of the piece. Do you think that this is just part of the nature of the dabke dance or is it something that you really wanted to portray?
HDV: Part of it is in the nature of the dance because it’s very affirmative, with a lot of stamping and shoulder shakes. There is an affirmation of “I belong here” and creating a connection with the ground is a very joyful thing. But we were particularly interested in dabke as a social dance rather than the way that it is often portrayed on stage where it’s often used as a representation of Palestinian suffering. For us, the piece is a feast – a wedding but without a bride and a groom! It has this energy that Palestinian weddings parties often have, this wild energy which is also a way to release tension and energy that can’t go anywhere else. So the energy and the vitality of it is one part. But for me, it should also be read as a party that goes on for too long. It’s exhausting itself and emptying itself. For us in the end it’s like the people in this party cannot stop dancing but just have to continue. They turn in rounds and they keep turning – they cannot go anywhere, they cannot stop. It becomes painful. For us it’s a reflection of what is going on right now in Palestine. They are stuck and they cannot stop resisting. They have to go on but it’s not going anywhere. So it ends in a section that is both dream-like and nightmarish, of both joy and pain. That’s what we aim for. Sometimes it’s clearer than others – over time, as the dancers have improved their stamina, it has become more acted whereas before they were genuinely feeling this emotion of pain!
AD: This is the first time that Badke has been to the UK but it has travelled to other places, too. Can you tell us about the tour?
HDV: Yes, it is a tour with a great deal of contrast. Recently we took it to Salzburg and after that we went to Kinshasa. The Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg (KVS, The Royal Flemish Theatre) put on a festival in Kinshasa called Connexion Kin and so we included Badke. For the Congolese dancers there is a lot of traditional material still there but it is sometimes translated rather problematically into the contemporary world of dance – you would never find a traditional Congolese dance company at a contemporary dance festival and we wondered why.
While Dabke were in Kinshasa they met with a traditional Congolese dance company called Ballet Arumbaya Ndendeli and it was an incredible experience. The dancers worked together, like an exchange, for two days. They each taught the other a phrase from their own choreography. The Palestinians were really inspired by the Congolese body movements – in dabke there is no movement between the chest and the knees – and suddenly in Kinshasa they discovered their pelvis! It’s incredible how it changed their relationship to their bodies and I’m sure now Badke will look different than before!
Book tickets to see Badke’s at NYUAD Arts Centre, 9 September 2016, here.
Read this interview on the Shubbak Festival blog here.