Tunis celebrates dance ‘with dignity’

This edition hosted 225 participants with 37 shows divided into 15 Tunisian shows and 22 from other countries, including Syria, Lebanon, France and Germany.

Saturday 29/06/2019
Dancing to the beat. “Four Seasons” performed by The Ballet of the Opera of Tunis.(Carthage Dance Press)
Dancing to the beat. “Four Seasons” performed by The Ballet of the Opera of Tunis.(Carthage Dance Press)

TUNIS - With dancers from all over the world and spectacles held in theatres but also in the streets, Tunis celebrated the art of dance with the second edition of the Carthage Dance Festival.

Running June 14-20, the festival was directed by dancer and anthropologist Mariem Guellouz under the theme of “No Dance without Dignity.”

“The theme can be interpreted on two levels. First, the body is the tool of the dance art form. Respecting the body of any dancer and the body of any artist by providing the necessary material and emotional means is a must,” Guellouz explained.

“Second, from a general perspective, the body of the dancer is the reflection of society, of the political body, of the social body. Any attempt to subject citizens to violence or violations of individual freedoms will be an obstacle to creativity and freedom of artistic expression.”

For Guellouz, the value of the festival lies in it recognising dance as a serious profession.

“Dance is not only a hobby or form of entertainment or even a social practice. Dancing is a profession. Having the state recognise dance as a profession and as an artistic discipline like other art forms and having a festival funded by public sources is a milestone in the history of dance in Tunisia and the Arab world,” Guellouz said.

The festival was organised by the government-run City of Culture.

One of the objectives of the festival is to introduce the Tunisian public to the art of dance and choreography forms as well as to create a platform to accommodate and host dancers from different parts of the world.

This edition hosted 225 participants with 37 shows divided into 15 Tunisian shows and 22 from other countries, including Syria, Lebanon, France and Germany.

The festival also provided an opportunity to reflect on dance-related issues in the Arab world.

“Today, this festival can be a communication network between Arab artists and others. It is still unfortunate that some dancers were unable to participate. A dancer couldn’t leave Ramallah while other dancers from Syria couldn’t come,” Guellouz said.

She added: “Artists from the Arab world and Africa often face problems participating. They are even at times assaulted and humiliated. Without dignity of the body, there is no dance as an art. ”

Kicking off the events with Ousmane Sy’s “Queen Blood,” the festival emphasised a commitment to African roots and the dignity of the body, with dancers performing traditional African dance movements to the sound of modern music and Afro beats.

“The history of dance in Tunisia and in the Arab world is itself a long and rich festival,” Egyptian singer and dancer Donia Messaoudi said. “And having a festival dedicated to the art of dance is amazing as at times dance is not recognised as a form of art in the Arab world.”

“This festival is an opportunity to share the history of dance in our countries,” she added. “One of the statements of the festival is to celebrate the history of dance as a form of art. I think it is amazing that the festival recognises the status of the dancer as a professional artist. In Egypt, the legal status of a dancer is similar to that of a prostitute.”

As the body is the focal point of dance, panels and conferences focused on issues pertaining to the body, which has been perceived differently over time in the Arab world. Guellouz recounted comments she often hears on how oriental dancers are viewed as seductive to foreigners.

“Colonialism affected the image of the female dancer as they were often exhibited as a sexual object and it exposed (her) to a violent gaze,” Guellouz said. “The stereotypical image of female oriental dancers that we have today is a distorted cliche. In reality there are different forms and types of dance in the Arab world.”

“In Algeria, there is a form of dance that resembles a battle. Even the steps are meant to send messages against the coloniser like a secret code. Women are also portrayed as warriors and as part of nature. In Tunisia, there is a form of folkloric dance that imitates the movements of workers and farmers. There is femininity but it is not the only one in the dance of the Arab world.”

Messaoudi also commented how Egyptian dancers are perceived in their country, where she said the profession remains censored and subject to many degrading rules and regulations.

“There is a connection between prostitution and dancers,” Messaoudi said. “In Egypt the police and the government still intervene in the world of dancers. They issue the same authorisation for prostitutes and dancers. I am glad they have finally recognised dance as a profession in Tunisia.”

She added: “The body of dancers is continuously censored in Egypt, which affects the dances themselves. Since the body is censored and always covered, some steps of dancing are deemed provocative and are tamed in a way to be more docile. It disfigured the dances which are a part of the history and culture. Dance in Egypt was destroyed first by colonisation that only portrayed the seductive and feminine side and now by the government that feels obliged to censor everything.”

The shows treated the audience to a variety of artistic creations. The Ballet of the Opera of Tunis performed its latest creation, “Four Seasons,” in a public square at the entrance of the medina of Tunis, attracting hundreds of passers-by. Lebanese Bassem Abou Diab raised questions on the history of war in his country in his show “Under the Flesh,” using types of dancing movements to express his position from the war in the Arab world. Whether from the East or the West, the questions examined by dancers were revealed to be universally relevant.

“I was questioning what dance is good for and what it can do for the world,” American dancer Daniel Linehan explained. “The political situation is disappointing and was troubling me a lot and I was thinking of what I can do as a dancer for the world and these thoughts spinning in my head somehow became about my body wanting to spin these circles that imitate the spinning of thoughts.”

“I am excited that the festival is a platform for Tunisian dancers and choreographers and also for international. It is an opportunity to exchange cultures and skills too.”

For young and upcoming dancers, the shows are an opportunity to develop their skills and cultural expertise

“We are fortunate that there is a pole dedicated for dance arts in the Ministry of Culture that recognises dancers. The shows also showcase the expertise of Tunisian dancers,” Mohamed Islem Ghoul, a student and a choreographer, said.

“We have professional dancers and they know the basics of dance, which is important. What we need as a next step is an institute for arts of dance like we have a theatre school,” Kamel Ezzine, a theatre teacher and a choreographer, said.