Refugees dance their way to freedom

A new trio dance performance evokes the trauma of refugees coming to Europe

Ahmad Joudeh, a Palestinian brought up in Syria danced in his bombed out neighbourhood and in the ancient theatre at Palmyra, where Isis carried out mass executions. Photograph: Michel Schnater

Ahmad Joudeh, a Palestinian brought up in Syria danced in his bombed out neighbourhood and in the ancient theatre at Palmyra, where Isis carried out mass executions. Photograph: Michel Schnater

 

Mithkal Alzghair wanted to create a reflection on the trauma of refugees coming into Europe, the effects of his own displacement from his home and family in Syria, and how communities can reconcile the past with an uncertain future. It’s a good job he’s a choreographer.

Dance might be ephemeral but it’s an almost perfect conduit for this plethora of issues. Not only can it express universal emotions and disregard language barriers, but the body is the perfect repository for unearthing emotions and psychic scars.

Alzghair moved to France in 2010 to study for a Masters degree in contemporary dance. After completion he had to renew his passport, but in the absence of an embassy he would have to return to Syria to obtain a new one. Returning would mean completing his military service, so he successfully applied for refugee status in France.

I realised that what I was expressing wasn’t just personal, it was communal

“This led me to question my heritage and territory and identity,” he says. “In particular, how does my body retain the social and political elements of my past life in Syria? And how can I make those realities visible to others?”

The answers came in a solo dance titled Displacement, which he created in early 2016, but as the number of Syrian refugees entering Europe increased he was forced to re-evaluate the piece.

“At this point I realised that what I was expressing wasn’t just personal, it was communal.” The solo became a trio and immediately took on a broader meaning of shared struggle.

“As an artist what interests me most is the human. Displacement isn’t just an attempt to be political. It’s expressing a reality. It was very necessary for me to create this piece.”

Displacement, created by Mithkal Alzghair, is a trio dance about shared struggle
Displacement, created by Mithkal Alzghair, is a trio dance about shared struggle

There can also be an imperative to perform. For some, dance is an important act of defiance and self-empowerment. Ahmad Joudeh, a Palestinian brought up in Syria, continued to dance and teach, in spite of intimidation and death threats from Isis.

A documentary by Dutch journalist Roozbeh Kaboly for the news programme Nieuwsuur, shows Joudeh defiantly dancing in his bombed out neighbourhood and, most poignantly, in the ancient theatre at Palmyra, where Isis carried out mass executions.

While I was dancing in a dangerous place I was feeling that I was dancing in a very big jail

Titled Dance or Die, the documentary has been re-broadcast internationally and brought Joudeh to the attention of Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, who invited him to train with the company.

Brandsen also set up a fund, Dance for Peace, for Joudeh and other talented dancers from war-torn countries to train in the Netherlands. In December, Joudeh danced a minor role in the company’s production of Coppélia and the footage in Dance or Die shows a new freedom in his dancing.

Trauma in the body

“While I was dancing in a dangerous place I was feeling that I was dancing in a very big jail,” he says, by phone from Amsterdam. “Now I’m free and I can express myself without any restrictions.”

It was important for him to shed any negative legacy from his life in Syria, so when he discovered that his estranged father was in a refugee camp in Berlin, he arranged to meet him. Joudeh’s dancing was a factor in his parents’ divorce, his father’s disapproval constantly vociferous and often violent.

“I went to forgive him,” he says. “It was difficult seeing him after 11 years, but now he is proud of me and happy, and we are good friends.” With daily classes in ballet, contemporary and hip-hop, and upcoming performances through the summer months, Joudeh is revelling in his new life.

“But the main feeling while I’m dancing is the same, whether in Amsterdam or Damascus, on the stage or in the street. I own myself when I dance, and that is why I dance.” It is also why he taught dance to children in Damascus, who were orphaned by the war. “Dance gave me the courage and the strong personality and I believe that is what they also need.”

Dance plays an increasing role in helping individuals overcome psychic wounds. Projects, such as Irish choreographer John Scott’s work with victims of torture, are backed up by studies that show that trauma is caused by the inability to physically and emotionally release blocked energies.

Trauma isn’t what happens to us, but what we hold inside afterwards. According to Peter Levine, author of In An Unspoken Voice, “most people think of trauma as a ‘mental’ problem, even as a ‘brain disorder.’ However, trauma is something that also happens in the body. The mental states associated with trauma are important, but they are secondary. The body initiates and the mind follows.”

Uniting cultures

Furthermore, bodies are similar regardless of language or culture and this universality has the power to unite cultures. Kerry-based choreographer Catherine Young created Welcoming the Stranger in response to a commission from The Casement Project as part of last year’s 1916 Centenary Programme. Bringing together local performers, migrants and refugees it celebrated cultural difference and the notion of welcoming and integrating strangers into communities. A repeat performance at Siamsa Tire on Culture Night led to an invitation to the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival in the West Bank in April.

“The performance had to be recast, since it was difficult for the refugees to travel, so four of us travelled out two weeks beforehand and worked with 19 local performers,” says Young. The usual political tensions were more charged since the performance took place during the week about 1,500 Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike in Israeli jails.

Catherine Young’s Welcoming the Stranger. Photograph: Mohammad Khawaja.
Catherine Young’s Welcoming the Stranger. Photograph: Mohammad Khawaja.

“The festival organisers said that level of solidarity gave great hope to the audience and I could certainly see a difference in the performance. There was more urgency in the movement and the Irish dancers had a real sense that they were not just dancing about something, but actively present in a real act of shared participation.

“In some small ways, travelling to the West Bank gave us an insight into the experience of refugees. Right up until the last minute, we were unsure whether we could enter the country or not. Some of the cast couldn’t go to Jerusalem and two others were turned away at the checkpoint. Being deprived of freedom of movement is a constant in the life of a refugee.”

Future manifestations of Welcoming the Stranger are planned, but in the meantime the group in Kerry meet every Saturday. The immediacy of dance continues to bind the disparate communities.

Dance’s ephemerality also mirrors how Alzghair and Joudeh – as well as refugees or others caught in conflict – are existing purely in the present. Alzghair states that he is “not looking for a past that no longer exists [or] to create a future without memories.” This state finds perfect expression in the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nature of dance.

Displacement is at the Peacock Theatre on May 26th and 27th as part of Dublin Dance Festival. dublindancefestival.ie.

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