Alexandre Paulikevitch in “Elgah”: Watch me Move Resistance!

Nelida Nassar  12.22.2013

Dancer: Alexandre Paulikevitch
Music: Jawad Nawfal
Costumes Design: Krikor Jabotian
Set Design: Amal Saadé
Choreography: Éric Deniaud
Lighting Design: Mohammad Ali
Poster Design: Danielle Kattar
Video: Danielle Davie, Stephanie Nassar, Sandra Fatté and Ziad Chahoud

Alexandre Paulikevitch at The Sunflower (Dawar Al Shams) experimental theatre braves the Lebanese bureau of censorship in a daring, provocative, and visually arresting performance. Composed of three striking fragments, “Elgah” offers, in succession, visual art, happening, and dance. Fragment one begins as a dream in utter darkness, engulfed by Jawad Nawfal’s melodic music. Paulikevitch’s presence is slowly sensed: the silhouette of his muscular arms is gradually revealed through a transparent hanging veil. The dim lighting focuses on the harmoniously moving arms, fluttering and wavering as they pursue a mysterious sculptural form descending from the ceiling. They appear as a tableau vivant of black cut-paper silhouettes creating a dramatic effect not unlike that achieved by the Victorians who used this technique or by American artist Kara Walker’s silhouettes. They grab and pull at the sculptural form before falling completely into the ground. The arm movements also bring to mind the shadow theatre which originated in Indonesia and became a popular entertainment in Paris during the 18th and 19th century, particularly at the cabaret Le Chat Noir. This segment conveys mystery and poetry while violence is brewing in the background.

The ambiguity and inscrutability continues until the musical tempo accelerates. By now the stage is brighter, and Paulikevitch with his lion mane emerges fully cross-dressed in a champagne-colored sequined evening dress. He whirlwinds around the stage, pulling again at the sculptural figure, which may be a monumental tuft of hair or, conceivably, a fundamentalist’s beard. The dance stops. The artist starts to undress, and then, completely naked except for his string underwear, he trembles and quivers. White gloved hands grab at him from all sides, violating him and reminding us of the women raped in Tahrir Square. His body also bleeds profusely, and, in an unexpected twist of imagery it is the Christian Ecce Homo narrative that comes to mind. The scene closes with the gloved hands soaked in blood and the beard, too, now bleeding. Paulikevitch is in a trance and his body continues to shiver. Through ritual and gesture the happening unfolds with great violence and aggression. Paulikevitch sets out to explore the individual’s physical and mental limits – the pain and the sounds of the rapes, the double sounds from history and its replication is a nod to Marina Abramović’s happenings. The angry slogans mixed with the music are unfortunately difficult to hear and understand, was it on purpose or a technical glitch?

By now the artist has moved to the other edge of the stage to wipe his face. For several seconds, he continues this gesture, moving all over his body before slipping into a cerulean blue sequined dress all done in silence. This is a long and weak moment in the choreography that could be shortened to keep up the momentum and to avoid a whiff of narcissism. Paulikevitch stops and screams: Jawwad, let us get them, inviting Jawad Naufal to launch the music again joining him in his rebelliousness. Paulikevitch throws passionately himself into a baladi, a dance that he learned in Cairo from the best artist now working in that genre, Dina. The dance is at once graceful and lascivious, and it clearly expresses his defiance of the supporters of obscurantism, of the men who advocate war in the name of religion, and, more generally, his opposition to all acts of violence.

“Elgah” is Paulikevitch’s resistance manifesto in response to the Arab Spring. A man dances to exist, to express his anger, to decry the injustice inflicted on women and sexual minorities, all the while using his body as a visual backdrop and pushing beyond the normal boundaries of the dance genre. Delineated in three separate tableaux, “Elgah” holds the viewer in a conflicted and contestable space while exploring – with mixed success, it must be said – issues of violence, gender, sexuality, and identity. Is Paulikevich vain and conceited? Undoubtedly? However, this is the first attempt in the Middle East to create this kind of artistic hybridization, and as such it deserves great praise despite its fragmented and tentative results.

Jawad Naufal’s music is a marvel. Every note induces a hip flick, a pirouette, or an arm movement. Designer Mohamad Ali uses lighting ingeniously and dramatically, while costume designer Kriror Jakibian’s embroideries keenly echo and accentuate the dancer’s mane and the texture of the fundamentalist’s beard. Finally, the show’s overall impact is considerably strengthened by the contributions of the video artists Danielle Davie, Stephanie Nassar, Sandra Fatté, and Ziad Chahoud.

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