Being apart, being together: Mohamed Toukabri’s The Power (of) The Fragile

Battersea Arts Centre, London
June 27, 2023

It’s a story. It’s their story, their stories. Told their way. It’s authentic, it’s honest. It’s told with love and a great deal of feeling.

Mohamed Toukabri’s The Power (of) The Fragile sees his and his mother’s bodies, lives and dreams come together and merge. Those bodies are different. He is young, tall, powerful, she older and smaller, although in her own way, strong too. But what they have is connection in every sense as they find each other in what turns out to be a very poignant 75 minutes although not one without humour. You will smile and laugh.

Tunis-born, now Brussels-based dancer and choreographer Toukabri’s mother, Latifa, is not a stranger in her son’s work. In The Upside Down Man, a solo he made in 2019, and another quite autobiographical piece, she was seen in her home in Tunis, dancing away to the Bee Gees. But with him in Europe and her in North Africa, for years unable to get a visa to visit, there was a physical distance. No more.

With both in T-shirts and joggers, he introduces her to his world. It’s gently humorous and very endearing. You cannot fail but warm to them. About performance, he tells her, “It’s like life. What you give, you will get back.” So true.

Mohamed Toukabri and his mother, Latifa,
in The Power (of) the Fragile
Photo Christian Tandberg/Dansens Hus Oslo

The Power (of) The Fragile may be their story but Toukabri also tells the story of the show. How it was postponed twice: because of Covid and then his mother’s visa problems.

We hear his story. His leaving home. Auditioning. Studying. How his mother was stopped from being at his graduation, something that clearly still hurts.

When they dance together, it’s tender and caring. There is a wonderful sense of trust between them. There’s a lot of closeness, of carrying and taking weight, by both, and very much a metaphor for security. A ‘covering eyes’ motif repeats, perhaps a metaphor for the other not being there, for not being able to see each other.

Toukabri hoists his mother high on his shoulders. He takes her in his arms, he cradles her, he swings her, as she no doubt once did him. Despite the physical distance that has often separated them, they clearly remain deeply attached. He may now have Belgian citizenship, Brussels may be his home, but the pair remain incredibly close. In many ways she still does carry him and always will. She is part of his life, his dreams.

When Latifa dances, it’s initially with a sense of uncertainty as she explores the possibilities of moving his way. Later, having previously described Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as “boring and a complete nightmare,” she really comes alive when she dances to the 1978 funk/disco song ‘Le Freak.’ Now she runs around the space with a childlike freedom. Someone released. He joins in, throwing in some impressive hip hop.

While The Power (of) The Fragile is a meeting of two their two worlds, two histories, two bodies, once Latifa starts to tell her story, it’s not long before things start to blur. She speaks with a compelling intensity, her words sometimes translated by her son, sometimes on the curtain at the back. Her face tells us as much as her words.

Mohamed Toukabri’s mother, Latifa, with him behind,
in The Power (of) the Fragile
Photo Christian Tandberg/Dansens Hus Oslo

Similarities start to emerge. Both dreamt of becoming a dancer. He made it. But to do so, he had to leave Tunisia. Latifa, we learn, also left her homeland when younger, finding work in Italy, only returning home permanently when she met her husband. As she speaks, her son dances in the background, partly illustrating her words.

Her story is clearly deeply felt. She talks of discrimination, about women and about those who have a supposedly inferior education. We all have lived experiences, and the ‘less educated’ might just be able to teach the intellectuals a thing or two, she observes.

The end hints at a new future, a new togetherness. A touch of politics creeps in too. Although it and its associated symbolism feel a little clumsy and somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the work, that’s forgivable in the circumstances.

Touching and uplifting, The Power (of) The Fragile is an intimate, tender, beautifully drawn portrait of mother and son. About being apart and being together, it pictures a relationship that not only survives but thrives. Beautifully judged, it’s a show that will send you away feeling very warm inside.

The Power (of) The Fragile is part of Shubbak Festival of contemporary Arab arts and culture that is taking place across London and the UK to July 9, 2023.
It’s at Battersea Arts Centre to June 29, 2023; then at The Lowry, Salford on July 1.