Ancient Modernity #1 - starting from the space
I have to confess to having some misgivings at this early stage about the enormity of the project I am embarking on. Someone said during session 1 of the research workshop last night that they were curious as to how I was going to distill the culture of an entire city into dance. I had to respond with a smiling “me too!” I’m no stranger to starting with an idea and letting the process form itself, but this is ambitious even for me. Not least because I am a mere guest of the city in question… However, there is something addictively exciting about coming into the studio with people whose lives are different to mine, and hearing their stories. At the same time the project needn’t be about our differences, I’m also really interested in highlighting our mutual experiences and feelings.
The concept of a museum in itself seemed like a good place to start. My goal is to continue to develop my work on non-traditional theatre spaces. The Applause Project (2012/2013) was about questioning theatrical convention, and challenging audiences to move amongst the work, be closer to it, and have a more embodied experience. Museums were at the forefront in my mind after seeing Boris Charmatz’s work at the Tate modern and the rest of the artists whom he curated throughout the galleries. It seemed an interesting connection to make, given that our British Museum in London houses (/stole?) some of the most important Ancient Egyptian artifacts. The museum itself is for me a symbol of the period of British occupation in Egypt. As a child my first experience of Egypt was through the museum, and study in school of this ancient civilization. The Egyptians were some of the first people to bring art and culture- as we define it today- into being. Yet now, perhaps in part due to our brutal colonial history (among that of other nations), Funding and support for the arts here comes largely from European sources. Hence why I am lucky enough to be working here at all. The Egyptian Museum is also an iconic symbol with its own history and significance, as a building and also due to its contents- more on that after we visit next week.
Thus, I arrived at my goal- to create ‘a museum of modern Egyptian culture’. To go beyond the knowledge of Pharaohs and hieroglyphs gleaned in childhood, and of the revolution gifted by my socialist parents, and beyond stereotypes imposed by the anti-Muslim, fear soaked propaganda prevalent in my country. It will provide me with another challenge in my work to create an installation style performance, either promenade or durational I’m not sure yet, and also a personal challenge to learn and understand a different culture in more depth.
To begin my research I visited the British Museum. I found myself far less interested in the artifacts and history, but more so in the people and the architecture of the space. The way so many people move around each other without interaction- the focus is on the past. The way the space is organized to both show, and also protect the items on display, but also to maximize flow of the crowd. At one point, myself and an elderly gentlemen (Dutch or German I think, I seemed to be the only British person in the British Museum…) found ourselves intrigued by the same plaque describing fashion and style. We each read side by side before reaching a silent- and yet utterly mutual- decision to switch sides. It was a lovely moment in improvised movement, though he did not know that is what was happening! This is what we played with in our workshop last night. After a long check in (English and Arabic translations slowing us down a little), a sweaty class and a break, we began to improvise. First, walking in the space becoming fascinated by the details of the studio, then exaggerating our movements and highlighting the odd positions that outward focus can create. Then, in groups I asked everyone to hold one focus point, real or imagined, and move in a mutually agreed way to all study it in depth. We agreed that the quality of movement that came out of it was sensitive, fluid and respectful. A treat to watch! After improvising we set our dances into either set sequences or structured improvisations. It was wonderful to see everyone, professional dancers alongside actors and less experienced movers, making creative decisions and collaborating beautifully. I am so looking forward to tonight.
We finished with a discussion about Cairo (“sum up Cairo in 1 word”) a lot of words and phrases came out for us to explore. I was struck by a lot of negativity, but I knew it would be a mixture of feelings and discussion. What struck me the most was that the men were more negative while the women focused on positive things. I don’t think its particularly controversial to say that it’s much harder to be a woman here by far. We all seemed agreed on this. Is that why the women need to focus on the beauty of the place? To survive? A question to pose the ladies this evening…