Battery Dance Festival: From the Middle East

Battery Dance Festival online
August 16, 2020

Maggie Foyer

After homo sapiens travelled north to Egypt, the written history of mankind blossomed in the great civilisations of the Middle East. Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians and others left us a wealth of cultural riches.

Time moves on and the Middle East is currently wracked with conflict, cultural treasures are destroyed, and artists flee. Dance, never a prominent art form, is particularly vulnerable. While a war poem can be penned in the trenches, our fragile art needs more. Dance needs space, a good floor and healthy bodies to survive and grow. So, when a dancer like Palestinian, Ayman Safiah lights up the dance scene it is an occasion to rejoice. Equally it is a moment of despair to hear of his untimely death by drowning in the Mediterranean on May 31, as he pushed a female friend to safety. It is a tragedy for his friends and collaborators and an immense loss to dance. This programme was a tribute to him.

Ayman SafiahPhoto Oliver C
Ayman Safiah
Photo Oliver C

There was also work from Hussein Smko, an Iraqi Kurd and his company Project TAG; from Iranian, Tanin Torabi; and from Lebanese, Hoedy Saad; but it was Safiah who dominated the hour-long programme.

The documentary, Between Two Worlds, a co-creation with Leena Diab, features the students of the Alamal Dance School in Nazareth. What becomes clear is that the process is more important than the performance. The participants acknowledged how they had changed, not only in newly acquired dance skills but in something more fundamental.

Safiah declares, “there are no limits, don’t obey. Object! Discuss!” His pupils, mainly female, look at him with wide eyes as he reaches out, daring them to trust. His warmth and his infectious smile bring the flat screen to life and his passion infuses the virtual space. We don’t get to see much of the actual choreography, but it introduces Ayman, the inspirational teacher in a workshop filled with love, laughter and movement.

In an interview, Samaa Wakeem recounts working with Ayman before and after his time at the Rambert School in London. She highlights his energy, his inclusivity, working with old and young, dabke in the streets, practicing Sufi dance and creating his own solos. He joined the Badke company and toured internationally with the highly successful C de la B production.

Dawn is the world premiere of a short film with Safiah dancing to a sound score by modular synth artist Raymond Haddad. Working on a hillside, the rough terrain limits his movement despite wearing trainers, and the idea of primal movement in nature finds little place to develop. It proves an interesting experiment but little more. However, Haddad’s evocative music is intriguing, and I hope it finds an afterlife.

Tanin Torabi in The DérivePhoto Milad Sanaei
Tanin Torabi in The Dérive
Photo Milad Sanaei

Tanin Torabi sets her film, The Dérive, in an old souk in Tehran. The camera follows her as she deftly weaves her way through the shoppers, her arms weaving patterns in the air. Some stop to stare but most barely acknowledge her graceful dancing form, as she nimbly sidesteps traders and their stalls packed with clothes and produce. The fluffy toy in the opening shots relentlessly pushing against the retaining cardboard box as the battery powered legs run on the spot mirrors her frustration in a country where contemporary dance is not an accepted art form. She is dancing in public but cannot break out to express herself fully. It’s a poem of quiet resistance celebrating an ancient art ready for a renaissance.

Hoedy Saad in Folk VogueScreenshot from film
Hoedy Saad in Folk Vogue
Screenshot from film

Taking dance to a very different place, Hoedy Saad pioneers a unique dance video fusion of voguing, belly dancing and Roma music in Folk Vogue. He has a striking presence, daring you to look away as he totally dominates the walled pit, prowling the space and swinging his costume with defiant gestures. His torso has the fluidity of a belly dancer while his arms flicker, twist and entwine with the rapidity of a snake’s tongue. His hypnotic eyes lock onto the camera’s lens in a performance of mesmerising beauty.

Hussein Smko presents his work on the Battery Park stage, a platform backgrounded by the harbour. His five performers, three women and two men including himself are simply dressed but their bodies are painted in extravagant fashion by Zaur Tarushvili. Titled A Call to Prayer, the opening trio has a measured pace. Sustained shapes are silhouetted against the sea and spiritual depth is added through Vivaldi’s music. The mood continues as the men join in partnering two of the women. The peace is disturbed as human volatility intervenes. The music changes to a Middle Eastern song by Rachid Taha and the pairs face each other gesturing in argumentative fashion.

The rhythmic power of the music builds as the five strong dancers work in unison then the energy dissipates, melting to a low-key ending. Saad’s movement is inventive, the emotion is potent, and the choreography articulate. It’s a short piece neatly balancing cohesion with cultural diversity. Smko has a further accolade as he is the recipient of Battery Dance’s Adel Euro Fellowship for Dancers Seeking Refuge.

The closing section is a tribute to Ayman, compiled by Samar Haddad King and here we see Safiah’s great gift as a dancer, his magnetic movement quality and his remarkable presence. They worked together in Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre for six years and the chemistry was immediate and complete. Working in her company, she noticed how he never missed an opportunity to help other dancers recognise their potential. “Dance was how he put thought into action. We wanted things to be better, whether it was our situation here in Palestine under occupation or finding a place for contemporary dance in our society. There was always a reason for improvement, to keep moving and make it better.” Amen to that.

Battery Dance Festival: From the Middle East can be watched on YouTube until August 26. For full programme details visit