Following yesterday's sold-out performance of UK choreographer Russell Maliphant's Still Current in Ramallah, the British Council's Suha Khuffash explains what dance, and especially contemporary dance, means to Palestinians.
How to understand contemporary dance in Palestinian society
For Palestinians, dance, known as Dabkeh, has always been very closely linked to their cultural identity and folklore. In addition to being part of celebrations such as weddings, graduations, and National Day, dance has been used by Palestinians to tell their own story.
It’s normal to see groups of Palestinian youth and the elderly celebrating their social occasions by dancing Dabkeh in the streets of cities, villages, refugee camps, schools, universities and at fancy venues.
Palestinian society was introduced to contemporary dance ten years ago, thanks to the hard work of a Ramallah-based local community organisation called Sareyyet Ramallah. Through the work and persistence of Sareyyet Ramallah's Khaled Elayyan, a cultural leader, former dancer and now director of the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, Palestinians have been exposed to a new genre of dance. Khaled’s mission to promote this new kind of dance was challenging, as the first version of the festival, which started nine years ago, attracted only tens of people in the bigger cities.
Contemporary Palestinian dance groups are on the rise
There's been a steady shift in perception about contemporary dance since the festival has been expanding. The shows sell out in several cities, and contemporary Palestinian dance groups are on the rise. The festival managed by Sareyyet Ramallah presents opportunities for young Palestinian dancers through workshops with leading international visiting companies. The emerging dancers can take part in international co-productions and residencies, international touring and education at a new dance school at Sareyyet Ramallah.
Especially considering the local conditions, these workshops are highly valued. First, there are no academic or university programmes in dance or contemporary dance here. Second, daily life is politically complicated due to the checkpoints and closure of cities. Face-to-face interaction in learning is rare and therefore becomes very important.
The performances attract audiences
The Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival is part of a regional network called Masahat (also including Lebanon and Jordan) and is a leading event that has, over the years, attracted around 160 regional and international dance companies, choreographers, festival directors, art critics, journalists and media specialists.
We ourselves have been working with the festival since 2011 to bring the best contemporary dance from the UK, including Akram Khan Company, BalletBoyz, Protein Dance, and Candoco ('the contemporary dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers'). At this year's festival, Russell Maliphant Company is performing its production of Still Current. Russell Maliphant is an internationally known, multi-award-winning choreographer, who formed the Russell Maliphant Company in 1996. He has also worked with other renowned companies and artists including Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage, Isaac Julian, BalletBoyz and Lyon Opera Ballet.
Still Current is an evening of duets and trios. The programme includes two of Russell Maliphant's most acclaimed works -- 'Two' and 'Afterlight (Part One)' -- and integrates qualities and vocabulary from contemporary dance, ballet and martial arts. The show's lighting designer, Michael Hulls, was this week even awarded with the UK’s Olivier Award of Outstanding Achievements in Dance.
We had arranged transportation for audiences to come from Bethlehem and Hebron across the checkpoints. They greeted the dancers with a standing ovation at the end.