Preserving history through dance

Provocative Tunisian choreographer to perform and run dance workshops

BEIRUT: A feminine figure twists her hips to the sound of a drum, three elegant, painted jars stacked and balanced on her head.
Her dress and the atmosphere are reminiscent of 1920s Tunisia, but the stage is modern, and the dancer is not a woman.
Tunisian dancer and choreographer Rochdi Belgasmi witnesses history through his art. His most recent piece, “Ouled Jellaba” (Jallaba Boys) will be staged at Hamra’s Metro al-Madina on Sept. 27. (A jal- laba is a type of robe.)
“Ouled Jellaba” is a homage to a “parallel and forgotten history” of his country, as well as figures from traditional Tunisian dance that have been rejected by society. “I want to show that this [history] is a part of us,” Belgasmi told The Daily Star, “and that this complexity enriches us, not the other way around.”
Conventionally, women didn’t perform in 1920s Tunisia, and some men stepped into the role of seduc- tress, donning women’s dress and performing in cafes. “Ouled Jellaba” were among these dancers and, as Belgasmi put it, were “removed from our country’s history because [they] danced as a woman, and unfortunately this image of a man transformed into a woman doesn’t sit well in Arab-Muslim societies.”
Belgasmi does not shy away from PREVIEW Belgasmi performs “Ouled Jellaba.” challenging what is acceptable in what he sees as contemporary society’s modesty and conservatism.
“I’m considered a provocative and transgressive artist,” Belgasmi explained, “and it’s true because the subjects and themes of my perform- ances are very linked to questions of gender, sexuality in Islam, the taboo body etc. I want to give the public a chance to see something different.”
By embodying this character, Belgasmi retraces Tunisian history in this period. His dance piece is a product of more than a year’s research and a four-month residency at Tunis’ El Hamra Theater. Subsequently, “Ouled Jellaba” received support from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and was awarded the 2016 Olfa Rambourg Prize for Art and Culture.
“My objective was to create a contemporary Tunisian style of dance derived from our forms of tra- ditional dance,” Belgasmi said. “‘Ouled Jellaba’ is the final result of these years of research.”
Belgasmi sees dance as a strong tool for safeguarding immaterial history and culture. “It must be said that our true problem in Tunisia today is a problem of memory. It is up to artists to recreate the history of this country and be witness to this era.” His research and the resulting creations are part of his contribution to a cultural revolution he sees occurring in his country. “Traditional music, dance, and words have a strong presence in my work, it’s to give a sense of the Tunisian and North African to my perform- ances, something we unfortunately see rarely in contemporary dance in Tunisia.”
A striking feature of “Ouled Jellaba” is the jars and tea sets balanced on his head as he dances. As Belgasmi explained, the image of headborne jars has a long tradition, linked to the practice of women balancing water jars on their heads as they carry them from the well.
“Tunisian dancers developed this and it became an acrobatic game to show off their talents,” he said. “I developed choreography around this to represent the weight of colonization in this era. In this way I give new meaning within an old form.” This is ultimately what Belgasmi wants to do with his choreography. “This is what I am doing with traditional dance. I’m not changing the dance or the steps, but I play with the meaning.”
Belgasmi also aims to preserve and share his country’s history through performance and instruc- tion. Having taught different dance styles for many years, he recently turned to traditional dance and rhythms and promotes Tunisian dance. “These days,” he said, “we need to export our culture as we have nothing else to export.”
In the three days leading up to his performance at Metro, Belgasmi will lead workshops aimed at dancers of all levels. “It’s an initiation into Tunisian dance which is very therapeutic as it’s based around the center core of the body.”
Over these three days, students and teacher will dance together, working on different rhythms and “discovering the dances codes, their sensual and even sexual aspects, as it is the dance of a seductress.”
In the last few years Belgasmi has dedicated his life to traditional dance and music, and through his courses and riveting performances, he hopes to share unknown stories from his country’s past, and promote Tunisian dance throughout the world.
Rochdi Belgasmi will lead dance work- shops Sept. 23-25. He will perform “Ouled Jellaba” on Sept. 27 at Metro al-Madina.

Susannah Walden