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Khalid Benghrib Review

Cie2k_far: This so called life

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 11:19pm

Moroccan choreographer Khalid Benghrib’s work “THE SMALA B.B.” was part commentary on the absurdity of life, and part picture book collections of the starkly beautiful juxtaposed with the dark side of human nature. The evening’s work was a dance theater presentation by five men in (and out of) blue suits that made me feel like maybe I was dropping acid and seeing things. It is one of the opening performances in “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World”, taking place at the Kennedy Center. Benghrib’s aesthetic reflects his training in Morocco and France, and he has a way of holding your attention with details you wouldn’t consider interesting.

The performers are on stage when the audience enters and are engaged in various tasks from taping boxes to playing on a ladder. Eventually, after the usual announcement, the house lights dim and we see a set that looks like a large white nursery with bizarre toys and puzzles lying around. What looks like swimming pool straws hanging from the ceiling are actually vertically strung florescent lights. A 4-feet wide roll of paper, a roll of carpet, pieces of fabric, an overhead projector, an LCD projector, masking tape and a very sturdy red plastic crate are recognizable among the objects strewn around. The three walls of the stage are covered in white fabric drawing the objects and dancers on stage into sharp focus.

The movement is a mix of pedestrian, archetypal and purely physical. Repetition is a key aspect of Benghrib’s approach and we see how the same gesture shifts as he rearranges the context around a gesture or scene. It feels a bit like you are looking into various apartments in a surreal city from the window of a fast moving train. He takes a simple gesture like a handshake and transforms it into embraces, binds, and an intense duet emerges. And like an image reflected on the surface of a still lake, he breaks the scene at a whim.

A performer unspools the roll of paper in ever widening circles, and suddenly it is a wall: protecting, hiding and creating boundaries on the stage. In an instant the others come and tear sections of the paper wall away and suddenly you just see a blank desolate space. The paper is stuffed into the dancers’ shirts to create uber puffed up male chests, and they run and slam their stuffed chests in a primate-like ritual. The suit jackets are pulled overhead to create a head dress like effect, and the dancers play different games from stuffing each other in the red crate, to pushing people off the ladder that transforms into a playground slide, and even pants each other as they climb the ladder in typical playground fiascoes.

A light held by a performer directs our focus to a square patch of green carpet, an intriguing solo unfolds which alternates between images of a child at play on a lawn, and what seems like a man in a prison cell. Deft use of the light transforms the scene into an interrogation scene–visions of Abu Ghraib like images emerge, as the bodies are seen in various distorted angles and the paper stuffed inside their shirts is pulled out. The pieces of torn paper are gathered into one of their jackets and suddenly you see a man lying next to the shattered remains of a body in the jacket. It seems as if you see the journey of little boys “playing” at war, and then you see the absurdity of grown men “playing” at war. There is even a scene with live fireworks on stage that push the border between fun and possible torture.

A spoken/physical tic, and slapping of the bodies slowly combine to create an impromptu barbershop performance that is beautiful in its simplicity and goes back to being physical tics, kisses, flirting and cat calling. A hand held light shifts focus onto two bodies lying shirtless on the square patch of green carpeting and we see the image of dead bodies again as a gospel/folk song of going to the river to pray comes on. The two lying on the floor slowly reach up with their faces, like a drowned body breaking water, and each one has a flower in his mouth. The dancer holding the light conducts a slow dance of these blossoming faces. Abruptly, one of the dancers rises, removes the flower from his mouth and places it beside the still body beside him and the scene disintegrates.

I had to search hard to find a through line in the evening, but the absurdity of war, and the absurdity of life was clearly portrayed. Without ever preaching about anything, the movement and images make us suddenly realize that what we are laughing at is not very funny at all. Benghrib is deft at creating what he describes in the program notes: an image of “entering a fable or very messy fairy tales.” But the constant shifting of images, movement, and set creates a disorienting feel, and ultimately you leave with nothing to grasp on to. Often, the stage looks busy and risks getting close to being overdone. You wish there was some quiet in the busy canvas, somewhere to rest your eyes for a second. Perhaps that is his intent, but it also leaves you unsatisfied. But somewhere along the line, you feel like you have been plunged into the chaos, the sorrow and poignancy of what life must be like in the middle east. We get to leave at the end of the performance, how many people live this nightmare everyday of their lives?

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