New ballet and choreography centre gives dancers long-awaited recognition in Tunisia

The Ballet and Choreographic Arts Pole, a newly created cultural institution dedicated to dance, is one of a kind in Tunisia.
Sunday 06/05/2018
A scene from Emilio Calcagno’s “Four Seasons.”  (The City of Culture of Tunis)
An often-forgotten discipline. A scene from Emilio Calcagno’s “Four Seasons.” (The City of Culture of Tunis)

TUNIS - Dressed in black, four female dancers took the stage and the theatre plunged into silence. Once the music began to play, the dancers performed a mesmerising dance that told of the women’s journey towards emancipation.

The performance represented women’s battle to gain freedom and was an allegory of the struggle of Tunisian dancers to gain recognition. The programme, titled “Bnet Wasla” by Franco-Tunisian choreographer Hela Fattoumi, was the opening dance of the inauguration of the Ballet and Choreographic Arts Pole of the City of Culture of Tunis.

The pole, a newly created cultural institution dedicated to dance, is one of a kind in Tunisia. A project in the making since 2017, the institution was hailed by art critics and artists as a much-awaited recognition of dancers and dance as a discipline in Tunisia. The pole was inaugurated March 29, the International Day of Dance.  

“This was a dream, an almost surreal dream that we managed to achieve with dedication, determination and hard work. It is not a strike of magic or a miracle but rather the fruit of our collective work. It required a lot of work to have this done,” said Nesrine Chaabouni, dancer and director of the Ballet and Choreographic Arts Pole.

The Ballet and Choreographic Arts Pole consists of a choreographic centre led by Tunisian choreographers Sihem Belkhodja and Nejib Ben Khalfallah and three ballets, including the Opera Ballet of Tunis, the New Tunisian Dance Ballet under the direction of Karim Touwayma and the National Troupe of Popular Arts.

“The City of Culture provides a platform for all motivated and interested Tunisian choreographers. Unfortunately, not many consider dance as an acclaimed form of art in our society. This project aims to work on promoting choreographic arts through workshops, training programmes and to host and promote the artistic dance performances across Tunisia,” Chaabouni said.

“One of the additions to the artistic scene in Tunisia is the New Tunisian Dance Ballet, which works on rewriting Tunisian dance repertoires using techniques of contemporary arts. Also, the Opera Ballet of Tunis will be working through residency with international and national choreographers. Finally, the choreographic arts centre will work on documenting the history of dance and Tunisian choreographers through films and books.”

In addition to making a documentary about Tunisian choreographers, a dance anthology titled “Panorama of Tunisian Dance” will be published to celebrate the history of dance in Tunisia with the participation of critic Philippe Virrielet.

“Dance brings about a feeling that no other artistic discipline can offer. This reflects on the specificity of dance as an artistic genre that works on the body which in turn expresses the freedom of the people and of the youth of Tunisia,” Virrielet said.

“This particular feeling makes publishing a dance anthology a historical moment for Tunisians and for the discipline of dance. It is a comprehensive project that sheds light on this often-forgotten discipline.”

One of the objectives of the Ballet and Choreographic Arts Pole is to revive Tunisian patrimony through adapting new techniques of contemporary choreographic arts. Touwayma attempts to explore this vision through the New Tunisian Dance Ballet, a project that explores the repertoire of Tunisian dances and reintroduces them through fresh lenses.

“This project is a rewriting of Tunisian dance and is meant to promote our traditional heritage with adapting the new techniques. Our goal is to have a Tunisian dance that is internationally recognised. The aim is to universalise the different types of Tunisian dances,” Touwayma said.

“This ballet relies on dancers from different interior regions as each dancer will bring his own insight and knowledge of the original dance that we are envisioning through contemporary techniques of dancing. Each dancer will be able to add the story of the political and social context that each regional dance has.”

During the inaugural ceremony, Touwayma presented a preview of his project through a performance that featured dancers from the regions of Siliana, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid among others. The show, “So Danced the Shepherd,” is an anthology of Tunisian traditional dances representing different regions of the country.

“It consists of individual performances originating from the traditional dances and incorporating the techniques of contemporary dance to free the movement of dancing and to embody still the spirit of that dance,” Touwayma said.

“The project pays homage to the young Tunisian shepherd who was killed by terrorists in the mountains. His memory lives through this performance.  It is a message in a way: We can fight extremism with dancing and art.”

The inauguration of the Ballet and Choreographic Arts Pole showed the fragility of the status of dancers and instability of the state of dance in Tunisia. Many dancers struggle to pursue their performance careers and retire at a young age.

“In the Arab world, dance is not recognised as an artistic discipline but in my generation, and the ones before me, dance is beginning to gain ground. It is still difficult to make a living being a dancer or a choreographer,” Touwayma said.

“We are the first ones to introduce contemporary art in the Arab world and Africa but it was marginalised afterward. There are no academic events for choreographers and followers of the scene to discuss this art.”

Chaabouni and Touwayma agreed that the discipline of dance needs to be reintroduced to the Tunisian and Arab audiences through different techniques. Touwayma said dancers and choreographers need to reconnect the audience with this form of art.

“The audience still has an issue accessing the body language. They are used to language and speech. Little by little, dance is becoming more open to the audience as the latter is trying to understand and use the language of this discipline,” Touwayma said.

“With this ballet, we are working on that starting from scratch. We need to explain to the audience and to educate them, and to have more and more conferences and academic events for the audience to be able to discuss techniques of dance with us and to understand the levels of dance.”

Chaabouni recalled minding that a dance show is a multidisciplinary performance that can be explored on many levels.

“The spectator should look at the dance performance as a living screen offering visual and colourful scenes. A choreographer combines movement, music, visual aspects,” Chaabouni said.