Displacement: hard hitting dance that embodies Syria’s tragedy

Shubbak Festival, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells
July 7, 2017

Maggie Foyer

The austere Lilian Baylis presented a bleak outlook. Syrian choreographer, Mithkal Alzghair, stands alone on the stage. His body, clothed simply in trousers and shirt, is both the repository of memory and a site of forced displacement from his culture and heritage. And rooted in his muscles is debke, the traditional Arab dance. It lives in his body fermenting like a live culture, waiting for a chance to burst through the interface in full-on display – but that is never allowed.

In Solo, he works through scenarios of humiliation, imprisonment, interrogation, fear and utter helplessness that are familiar to us through Middle East media reports. But deeper down is the pride, resilience and anger that seeps through in the restless dancing feet and haunting eyes.

He pulls on his boots and dances, body rigid and face impassive, with an intensity that burns. A sudden stop and he falls to his knees, forehead to the floor and arms painfully twisted behind. Still the debke rhythm finds an outlet as he lifts his body and dances awkwardly on his knees. Between periods of confinement and brief freedom, the dance continues intermittently, standing, lying, moving backwards or sometimes in circles.

He strips his shirt and boots and walks to the backwall hands raised and waits. The music starts to play and his body moves in seductive ripples which become a fearful shudder and wild trembling as he runs in tiny steps, eyes glazed and desperate.

Trio from Displacement by Mithkal AlzghairPhoto Dajana Lothert
Trio from Displacement by Mithkal Alzghair
Photo Dajana Lothert

A further interruption and arms raised, he again waits obediently. He drops his trousers, shackling his ankles and falling to the floor, arms imprisoned, he writhes, legs crashing from side to side as the buckle of his belt pounds the stage. Exhausted, he lies still as the music continues to play. Eventually in silence, he stands, dresses and quietly leaves the stage. In this solo of fiercely concentrated movement he has embodied the essence of Syria’s tragedy and the fight to survive with more potency than a thousand strident headlines.

In the second part, Trio, joined by Rami Farah and Samil Taskin, Alzghair expands the theme of displacement to a community in peril. The rhythms remain deep rooted and are played out in clapping and synchronised footwork, at times deviating from fierce debke stamping to frightened fleeing feet. A white sheet is held up to cover the bodies and allowing a play of insubstantial shadows on the fabric. In the midst of the desolation, the gentleness with which the men folded discarded clothes and cloth, tenderly and precisely, was extremely moving.

For a brief moment, the trio joins arm to create a powerful body, then break apart. Their long journey, circling the stage, brings exhaustion and a man collapses to be caught by his companions in a twisted elegiac pose. Finally, the three men stand facing each other in the gloom then slowly turn and exit alone, each on a separate path in pin-dropping silence.

When a choreographer, like Alzghair, explores a profound concept and the message hits home, as it does so successfully in Displacement, the result has the force of a demolition ball.