Citerne Beirut injects new life into performing arts
Beirut - “Beirut is a dynamic city with lots of cultural activities going on but still there isn’t really a specialised space for performing arts,” said Omar Rajeh, founder and artistic director of Citerne Beirut, summing up the idea behind creating a space dedicated to contemporary dance and theatre.
“There might be interesting spaces for the visual art, very few for cinema, less for music and theatre but almost non-existent for contemporary dance. Definitely, Beirut needs such a space like Citerne Beirut,” Rajeh said.
When he returned to Lebanon from London, where he studied dance and choreography, Rajeh founded Maqamat Dance Theatre in 2002 and launched the Beirut International Platform of Dance (BIPOD) festival two years later.
Citerne Beirut was inaugurated in April during BIPOD 2019. It was designed as a multipurpose space suited to dance, music and theatre.
“We need to build a whole infrastructure for contemporary dance,” Rajeh said. “Citerne Beirut is much more than a new music and cultural venue. It symbolises the next chapter of the country’s journey in the performing arts, showing us the way forward and inviting us to push boundaries.”
“It is also aimed to engage Beirut in the contemporary performing arts, whether dance or theatre, locally and internationally,” he added.
The venue is to serve as an introductory platform for rising artists to present their creations and talent with the support of Maqamat. With the space, lighting and sound equipment, marketing and administrative assistance provided, young artists get a chance to expose their work.
“Otherwise, it would be extremely difficult for them to present their work in Beirut individually because of high expense,” Rajeh said.
“We receive a lot of performance proposals by young artists with whom we are trying to work closely to design a monthly programme. We are here to support them on many levels, whether it is in rehearsals, co-producing their performances or even networking.”
At BIPOD festivals aspiring artists receive international exposure, which may advance their careers, Rajeh explained. “We had some 40 international festival directors attending the festival this year. They saw the work of these young artists and have invited some of them to present their work in their own festivals,” he said.
“We hope to create a kind of sustainability for the artists. One Lebanese artist will be performing in London soon. She was selected after the director of the festival saw her work last year.”
This year’s BIPOD began with the local premiere of Rajeh’s work “#minaret.” Inspired by the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, which was an iconic landmark of Syria’s largest city but now lies in ruins, the work had its international premiere at the 2018 Romaeuropa Festival and is now on a global tour.
Dancers participating in the 10-day festival were from Lebanon, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria, Switzerland, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
Rajeh said contemporary dance classes and intensive training are offered by Maqamat to young experienced artists to help them embark on a more professional career.
“We don’t work with beginners,” he said. “We select artists who already had some kind of training and experience. Some have started an international career and are touring everywhere such as choreographer Bassam Bou Diab and dancer Guy Nader, who has won many international prizes.”
Citerne Beirut’s modern and unusual metal construction, which looks like a cistern, was built and equipped with the large support of Saadallah and Loubna Khalil Foundation and contributions from foreign cultural centres and European embassies, including those of Norway and Germany.
“It is important to engage the government, individuals and people interested in investing in this country culturally but since our government has been in a coma for many years, we had to fill the gap and find solutions,” Rajeh said, stressing that it is the job of the government to help young artists and give them exposure.
During BIPOD 2019, Citerne Beirut hosted the eighth Moultaqa Leymoun, an initiative that has established itself as a platform for emerging and established Lebanese and Arab choreographers to meet with directors of international festivals. More than 18 choreographers and dancers from Lebanon, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Iran participated in this year’s edition.
The establishment of Citerne Beirut “is a dream not only for us but for all the artists in the country. To have an active and dynamic space where we can express our vision, ambitions and how we want performing arts to be,” Rajeh said.
“It is also meant to put Beirut on the international cultural map in terms of contemporary dance by opening more interest from international festival directors to come here.”