Lebanese, Egyptian, Palestinian and Austrian dancers recently took the stage together in Beirut for a show that broke down barriers between cultures and nationalities. In “Every Last Breath”, a dance choreographed by Jens Bjerregaard of Denmark’s Mancopy dance company, performers depicted the Arab Spring through individual stories, evoking its uncertainty and newfound sense of freedom. Depicting the way that individuals in the Arab world have changed, it also evoked the way that the Arab world has begun to redefine itself and change Western perceptions of it.
The performing arts, including dance, music and theatre, are by nature communal. Whether performed in an auditorium or a village square, they bring people together. They not only connect performers and audience members, but can also help build understanding. Today, from Kabul to Beirut, directors and performers are using these art forms in new ways, both bridging divides within countries and between Muslim and Western communities.
For instance, the most prominent dance troupe in the Middle East, Caracalla Dance Theatre, uses a mixture of ballet, oriental dance and different forms of folk dance to create a sense of common ground between the Middle East and the West. Combining different styles in this way provides something familiar to audiences in both regions.
Because dance is an art form that exists in almost all cultures, many people can understand and relate to it. Similarly, both old and young can find ways to engage with it. Contemporary dance such as hip-hop, and contemporary music like rap, have gained traction among youth, particularly among Palestinians, where Arabic rap and hip hop music groups, such as DAM, have had success in the underground scene.
Israeli and Palestinian youth have also cooperated in artistic initiatives to promote peace with groups like Heartbeat, an NGO which seeks to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians and strengthen global youth voices working for peace through art. For instance, it has brought together Israeli, Palestinian, African and German youth to collectively create a hip-hop opera on refugee rights and asylum, and linked young Israeli and Palestinian musicians in multiple communities through a project called “The mic is stronger”, emphasising the power of music to bridge divides.
Though some people are critical of using art for peace-building, this cooperation has provided a way for both Israelis and Palestinians to express themselves peacefully and understand each other. Using music and dance provides a new way for these youth to share stories with each other and connect when it might otherwise not have been possible.
Theatre also provides a way to build understanding. Today, some directors and troupes are working along these lines, both within countries and between different ones. Nagy Souraty, a Lebanese actor and director, is known for including dialogue in Arabic, English and French in a single play in order to reflect the diversity of languages in Lebanon.
Theatre, he believes, can also transcend divisions between Muslim and Western communities, citing the example of an Afghan troupe that performed in Europe. “The play began simply on 11 September 2001, and ended in the present day, in which you could see the experience of the aftermath of 9/11 through [Afghan] eyes”, he said. The play encouraged a Western audience to see a specific event – 9/11 – through a new lens, something that might only be possible through drama, as it gives viewers a glimpse of realities besides their own.
Within Afghanistan, theatre is also transcending boundaries. Theatre there is in fact on the rise, despite opposition from some fundamentalist groups. It is a popular form of entertainment, particularly in villages. It is an inexpensive art form that can reach all classes in Afghanistan, as an audience doesn’t need to be literate to be able to understand a play and its message. Majid Ghiasi, director of the government-funded Kabul Theatre Company, says that "[a] message conveyed through drama or comedy is more easily absorbed" than one through another medium, such as a lecture.
In today’s world, which all too often seems full of division, we need more efforts like these to create connections and build understanding. An auditorium – or village square – has enormous potential to help accomplish that.
* Natasha Choufani is a blogger, actress and artist living in Beirut. You can follow her on Twitter @natashachoufani and visit her website: www.tomybeirut.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).