Tunisian rising star preserves history through dance

Tunis – As the sound of drums grew louder, Rochdi Bel­gasmi, one of Tunisia’s most renowned dancers, took the stage in an out­fit that combined male and female garments, sparking surprise in the audience. On his head, Belgasmi carried coloured jars. He began dancing, telling the story of Ouled Jalaba. The show, which played in Tunis recently, told the story of Ouled Jalaba, a 1920s-era dancer who per­formed traditional dance routines while wearing women’s clothes. Belgasmi’s Ouled Jalaba asserts the dancer’s uniqueness and his show has gained critical acclaim. “When I look at my work, it is a return to childhood. It is a conjur­ing of childhood,” Belgasmi said.

From Zoufri (The Thug) to Wa Idha Assaytom (If You Disobey), Belgasmi fascinates and entangles audiences with choreography that celebrates a fusion of traditional dance and contemporary style. Belgasmi said dance was a jour­ney on which he embarked at an early age, as traditional dance style was a part of family gatherings. “I was a child when the whole family used to gather and start dancing,” Belgasmi said. “After graduating, I joined a thea­tre school because of a lack of in­stitutions offering a professional training in dance. I met many fa­mous choreographers and dancers in Tunis as part of my theatre train­ing.” He said it was not until January 2011 that he performed his first solo show, Trance. He said the revolu­tion at that time gave more freedom to arts.

Originally a contemporary danc­er, Belgasmi said he found inspira­tion in traditional dancing, which he said was overlooked and ne­glected by the government and so­ciety. Belgasmi said the government used traditional dance to promote tourism and many Tunisians said they felt alienated from that style as it became associated with post­cards sold to tourists. “The traditional form of dance was subject of injustice, especially in that it was commercialised by the state. Tunisians felt that tradi­tional dance was for tourists. At the same time, they could not relate to contemporary dance as the latter was considered alien to them,” Bel­gasmi said. “I tried to combine both styles to pay tribute to Tunisian patrimony and to develop and preserve this style of dancing. The question was which patrimony should we pro­mote? The one defined and recog­nised by the state or the one cel­ebrated by people?” In his quest to revive the Tuni­sian patrimony through dance, Bel­gasmi tackles taboos and contro­versial topics. “After the revolution, everyone was speaking and even shouting,” he said. “It was hard to understand what people were talking about. Dance, however, offers an oppor­tunity to express ideas subtly. You don’t need to shout. The body is eloquent enough to transmit the message.” Belgasmi explained: “Dance helps me express my ideas about society and life. Everything that is provocative, controversial interests me as it is an expression of life. For instance, in Wa Idha Assaytom, my inspiration was my childhood and my mother. I tried to give shape to my mother’s narrative about look­ing to the world through holes. It is, in a way, a revolt against the pa­triarchy that prevented my mother from experiencing life in the public sphere.” Recounting his mother’s life in a patriarchy, the show explores the relationship of women to the body and to society. Belgasmi takes on the role of his mother and him as a child in his choreography. Alter­nating between the roles, Belgasmi draws attention to the boundaries that society sets on women. “I used to be my mother’s com­panion in her journeys outside the house,” he said. “At the age of 4, I was the man of the house. My mother used to fear being on her own. The show is about her story and I danced like she would dance. “Through that show, I express my revolt against a society that stigma­tised women. Now, the same soci­ety considers a man who dances as a man who is not man enough.” Wa Idha Assaytom gained interna­tional acclaim and the show toured Europe and Africa. Belgasmi’s Ouled Jalaba recounts the history of Tuni­sia during the early 1920s through the character of Ouled Jalaba, breaking gender boundaries. “In Ouled Jalaba, I play the part of a woman to document a phe­nomenon that was popular during the ‘20s,” Belgasmi said. “It is about a dancer who used to dress like women and perform dance shows in public places. He was a juggler, an acrobat and a dancer. It is an op­portunity to remind people of how Tunisians used to tolerate differ­ences.” He added: “I was criticised but I always defend my art. This show is based on a research about the origins of certain traditional dance styles and our patrimony. In my show, I try to break the boundaries between genders.” Belgasmi was awarded the Olfa Rambourg Prize for Best Dance Cre­ation in 2016. He is working on his next show, which promises to be as provocative as the previous ones. Despite his success, Belgasmi ac­knowledges the hardships Tunisian dancers encounter. “Building a career in dance re­mains difficult in Tunisia,” he said. “It is hard but it is worth trying. It is important that young dancers work hard and keep their passion alive. Get inspired by your identity and be who you are. Be unique. The body has a language of its own and you need to share it with others through dance.”

Roua Khlifi