x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dance shows solidarity with Gazans

Satellite feed links the West Bank troupe's 'Freedom Dance' with isolated Gaza in a show rich with potent symbols of Palestinian history.

Noora Baker is a choreographer with El Funoun and one of its principal dancers.
Noora Baker is a choreographer with El Funoun and one of its principal dancers.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Humanitarian supplies and journalists are barred by Israel from entering. But defiant visitors can still trickle in by sea, while smuggled goods arrive through tunnels underground. And in the latest effort to break the isolation of Gaza, Palestinian dancers from Ramallah performed live for Gazans, via satellite. Billed as a "Freedom Dance", 50 dancers from El Funoun, an award-winning Palestinian dance troupe, captivated two audiences, one in front of them at the Ramallah Cultural Palace, and one via a live satellite link in the Mathaf museum complex north of Gaza City, for an hour and a half on Thursday evening. "We are not able to go to Gaza," said Hana Awwad, 16, one of the younger generation of dancers, before the performance. "With this show we are doing what we can to show solidarity with the people of Gaza and that we reject and resent the siege." In Gaza, Jawdat Khoudari, the proprietor of the Mathaf complex, preferred to focus on the cultural significance of an event that brought Gazans and West Bankers together, if only for a night and by satellite. "We have to be connected to our brothers," he said. "Our culture belongs to us all as Palestinians, it is not for the West Bank alone or for Gaza." The performance was a mixture of modern interpretations of the traditional dabke dance and the original. Each dance told a story, whether a representation of traditional village life or a portrayal of Palestinian history. Thus, there was the dance of the keys, one of the more potent symbols of Palestinian identity, telling the story of the loss and dispossession of 1948 and the hope of return. There was the dance of lights, a ghostly tribute to Naji al Ali, the famous Palestinian cartoonist assassinated in London in 1987, and whose character, Handala, the perpetual witness, still grips the imagination of Palestinians. "We see dance as an important way to preserve and shape our identity," said Khalid Katamesh, director of El Funoun and a member of the troupe since its inception in 1979. "As Palestinians, our very identity has been under threat, and this is one way to resist." But El Funoun's take on dabke has brought both success and criticism. The troupe has toured the world, this year alone taking its performance to Holland, Germany, Syria and, next, Kuwait. Awarded several local prizes for its work in keeping alive a Palestinian tradition, El Funoun also produced a dance film, Emotional Rescue, that won the special prize in a film festival sponsored by al Jazeera in 2006. But Mr Katamesh admits that El Funoun's modern interpretations have made some uncomfortable. "Some people, mostly Palestinians abroad, prefer to keep dabke in a museum. They want it to remain as it was in the villages to be performed only at weddings. We see dabke as an art form that can develop and can be a contemporary Palestinian dance form." In spite of the opposition of traditionalists, El Funoun has over the years attracted a loyal and growing following. The troupe's modern approach appeals to the younger generations, said Noora Baker, choreographer and one of the troupe's principal dancers. "Often young people are not attracted to traditional dance. But we see the opposite, and we have a good base of young dancers." El Funoun runs programmes in some 20 schools and clubs around the West Bank and is especially active in villages and refugee camps. And with its approach to developing Palestinian dance, El Funoun has been able to adapt to the changing circumstances of Palestinian life. "Each generation is different," Ms Baker said. "It all depends on political changes." This adaptability has helped the troupe survive the turbulent times of the first and second intifadas, where dance was seen as an unacceptable mode of expression at times of national emergency, as well as flourish during the Oslo years in the 1990s, when the advent of the Palestinian Authority brought renewed energy and funding to cultural institutions. On Thursday, it helped El Funoun reach across Israeli barriers and Palestinian divisions. "The performance is a message that borders cannot stop us. It is an attempt at breaking the isolation of Gaza, whether as a result of the Israeli siege or Palestinian divisions," Mr Katamesh said. In Gaza it was warmly received. "It was very impressive," said Mazen Shakura, who works with an international non-governmental organisation in Gaza and attended the event at the Mathaf with his wife and two daughters. "People enjoyed it immensely, not only because of El Funoun, but because people here are subjected to closure. It was an opportunity for Gazans to feel connected to the rest of the world. It was like a form of psychotherapy." okarmi@thenational.ae