Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

'Ansaf' at NYUAD: Behind the scenes of the Sima Dance Company's new show

Choreographer Alaa Krimed tells us about his first full-length show since 2012

Alaa Krimed is sitting behind a small white table facing the stage.

The choreographer clicks his fingers. “Really sharp, really sharp,” he says, imploring his dancers to give him more. “Focus, please, we have one rehearsal.”

The dancers go back to their starting positions and do it again. And again. And then one more time. Even when Krimed allows a scene to continue uninterrupted, he is chattering away throughout. “Back a little bit … come to the centre … closer.”

It is late on Saturday evening in the second week of August and we are in a dimly lit warehouse at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. In just under a fortnight, the Sima Dance Company will perform a new show called Ansaf at NYU Abu Dhabi as a prelude to the coming arts season. At this late stage, there is no margin for error. Every second of rehearsal time matters. So when Krimed feels that the dancers are rushing, his frustration boils over. “Why is everything [happening] like you want to finish early?” he shouts. “Take your time.”

A rehearsal of ‘Ansaf’, a new work performed by the Sima Dance Company. Reem Mohammed /  The National
A rehearsal of 'Ansaf', a new work by acclaimed Palestinian choreographer Alaa Krimed, co founder of Sima Dance Company. Reem Mohammed / The National

It is no great surprise to find Krimed in such an exacting mood. He has been waiting a long time to get stuck into something like this. Ansaf is the first full-length show choreographed by Krimed since Cellophane in 2012. He has been focusing on other, more commercial projects for the past few years, as well as choreographing short performances in collaboration with Abu Dhabi Art and Louvre Abu Dhabi. But it is only here, working with his dancers on a longer show, that Krimed truly feels in his element. ­“Finally,” he says, exhaling heavily. “Finally.”

What exactly is 'Ansaf' about?

For all Krimed’s admonishments, this three-hour rehearsal hints that Ansaf could be very special indeed. The 10 dancers, including Krimed’s wife and Sima Dance Company co-founder Lana Fahmi, move around the stage as if they are all powered by the same pulse, limbs shooting out in jagged symmetry. The original score – a mix of foreboding dubstep and spiky breakbeat – harasses them as they push and pull each other this way and that. The sections of Ansaf that I see veer recklessly from the shamanic (an effect enhanced by the billowing cream robes worn by the dancers) to something more hostile and uncompromising. It is, in short, contemporary dance at its most invigorating.

“It’s an aggressive show,” says Krimed, “a mix between violence and sadness. I don’t know how people will react – maybe they will connect with the performance, maybe not.

“[Contemporary dance] is an abstract language. People will feel something, even if they don’t understand the whole story. But I have tried my best to say what I want to say. The rest will be on the people.”

Rehearsal of 'Ansaf', a new work by acclaimed Palestinian choreographer Alaa Krimed, co founder of Sima Dance Company. This new work for a company of 10 dancers, set to an original score by the choreographer, is inspired by the writings of Canadian philosopher Alan Deneault about the challenge of mediocrity and its impact on language, ideas, art, culture, and economy. The piece explores the relationship of consumerism and populism with critical thinking and the role of excellence in serving the public good. Sima Dance Company was founded in Damascus, Syria in 2003.
Palestinian choreographer Alaa Krimed watches a rehearsal of 'Ansaf'. Reem Mohammed / The National

But what exactly is Krimed trying to say? It’s complicated. “Ansaf” means “half” or “average” in Arabic. This is a useful clue, since the show is about the prevalence of mediocre, or average, people flooding all aspects of life, from media and politics to the arts.

Krimed began working on Ansaf after reading a book by Canadian philosopher and academic Alain Deneault. Mediocracy: The Politics of the Extreme Centre is an attack on our service and tech-based economy and the homogenising effect it has had on society. Efficiency is now valued above all else. Independent thinking is discouraged.

'Mediocre people are controlling everything now'

As Deneault explained in an interview last year: “Powerful organisations want to make sure that today’s subjects, in their way of thinking, the development of their vocabulary, their technical abilities, their intimate desires, and even the expression of their being, will comply with standards presented as average, normal and natural. You must know how to behave, master certain fundamentals, respond appropriately to guidelines and protocols – but you must not go any further. You must not have an intense, autonomous, or radical interest in critical, political, moral or philosophical questions of any kind.”

The book breaks down everything we face as artists and then across [society]. You don’t see a lot of things with value. Things that are not bad but are also not good are placed in the highest level. You can see it everywhere. You watch 200 movies, you will find two good ones.”

Alaa Krimed

Krimed rails against this in Ansaf. “Mediocre people are controlling everything now,” he says. “People just want to survive, to make money.” And Krimed believes this is particularly true in the arts, where economic success is considered more desirable than creative integrity. “The book breaks down everything we face as artists and then across [society],” he says. “You don’t see a lot of things with value. Things that are not bad but are also not good are placed in the highest level. You can see it everywhere. You watch 200 movies, you will find two good ones.” Krimed argues that by placing what is mediocre on a pedestal, an example is set for the masses to follow. Thus mediocrity becomes endemic.

One scene from Ansaf, which the company goes over again and again during the rehearsal, features a dictator figure, seemingly blinded by power, who is both worshipped and reviled by his people. The political overtones are impossible to ignore. The shocks of erratic movement by the dancers, as they jostle to get near their idol, combined with the hyperventilating electronic music, creates an unmistakably dystopian feel.

“Politicians have the power to create mediocrity,” says Krimed, who was born in Syria to Palestinian parents. “Money plays a huge part in making them stronger and stronger, while bureaucracy is making life really hard [for citizens].”

The history of the Sima Dance Company

The Sima Dance Company was founded in 2003 in Damascus, while Krimed was studying at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts. He felt that dance in the region was not experimental enough. “He saw contemporary dance as a way of expression,” Fahmi told this newspaper in 2017. “[Krimed] and a few dancers simply wanted to do something different, at a time when the only common form of dance was traditional folklore and dabkeh, or classical ballet.”

The Sima Dance Company soon earned a reputation as one of the most exciting dance troupes in the Middle East, performing at the Damascus Opera House and opening the Damascus Film Festival. In 2012, however, after the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Krimed moved the Sima Dance Company to Beirut.

It was during this time that he decided to audition for the television show Arabs Got Talent, which the Sima Dance Company duly won, beating 11 other finalists and taking home a cheque for nearly Dh500,000. After the victory, one of the dancers said: “We now feel like we have a responsibility to fulfil. Our plan is to keep going, keep working and show people what we can do.”

We are yet to see the full production, of course, but all the indications are that Ansaf is impressive evidence the Sima Dance Company, which moved to Dubai in 2015 and now has 40 dancers, continues to take this responsibility seriously. Krimed certainly remains committed to elevating himself and his dancers above the mediocre. “I am alive again,” he says. “I am doing something with value.”

Ansaf is at NYU Abu Dhabi on Friday, August 23, and Saturday, August 24. More information and tickets are available at www.nyuad.nyu.edu

Updated: August 21, 2019 11:14 AM

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