Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Radhouane El Meddeb: He's Everywoman

In Sous leur pied, le paradis ("under their feet, heaven"), Tunisia-born Radhouane El Meddeb dances to rapturous music and crowd cheers from a live performance by Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian vocalist who died in 1975 after a long, world-renowned career. Costume El Meddeb in satin brocade and glitter, and he might look quite a bit like this beloved singer, substantial of face and body. But in his hour-long solo--a U.S. premiere presented at Alliance Française's Florence Gould Hall for the World Nomads Tunisia festival--the dancer wears a loose black t-shirt and black shorts and sometimes slips behind or between folds of heavy black drapery.

Through a minimalist, schematic approach to both self-presentation and movement, El Meddeb pursues not self-camouflage but revelation of a state of consciousness, sourced in women's experience, existing beyond gender. His bare feet and limbs, the casualness of his attire, eschew glamour but do not preclude regality. He allows the tangy, shimmering, low-rumbling music and the singer's dark, earthy voice to entrance him into stark, iconic postures and gestures. Despite difference in language, that voice and that music, both unsparing in passion and torment, reach right into the listener's chest.

"Under their feet, heaven" refers to the Islamic saying, "Paradise is found under the feet of mothers." Choreographed by the performer in collaboration with French dancemaker Thomas Lebrun, the solo presents a lens through which we are invited to see the condition and striving of women of the Arab world and Arab Spring. It is a dance of recognition, of honor, of celebratory ululation and encouragement to action--just as Umm Kulthum's bitter love song, the famous "Al-Atlal" ("The Ruins"), can be read as a sly indictment of any form of seduction and betrayal, from intimate dyad to oppressive societal hierarchy.
My heart, don't ask where the love has gone/It was only a mirage that collapsed....
Give me my freedom, release my hands/Indeed, I've given everything and have nothing.
We woke up, ah if only we did not awaken/Wakefulness ruined the dreams of slumber....
Perhaps one day our fates will cross/when our desire to meet is strong enough.
As El Meddeb's hour nears its end, he gradually sheds his meager clothing. Shorts off. A little later, bikini briefs off. Then, the t-shirt--tugged down in front and behind before it, too, gets pulled away. In themselves, these are acts of rebellion, modest only in the quiet, matter-of-fact manner of their execution. The dancer's broad back gleams at us under the lights before he draws a train of filmy, white fabric around his lower body and sinks into the floor. The singer's voice rises to crescendo, and the trance is done.

For more on El Meddeb, read this account of a journey of the senses in another work, I Dance & I Feed You, reported by Neil de la Flor in Miami for Knight Arts.

For information on remaining World Nomads Tunisia 2013 events and exhibits, click here.

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