Culture

Danya Hammoud and the strict necessity of the gesture

Danya Hammoud and Sharif Sehnaoui perform "To Rest on a Slope," at The Crypt, St Joseph Church, Thursday. Photo by Tony Elieh

BEIRUT: Danya Hammoud starts to dance in a prone position. Quite still, she lies on her right side, facing the audience. Her left leg and arm are slightly elevated, suggesting the posture of a limp body plummeting to the earth.

Eventually, gradually, she shifts to lie face up. Then, as if in a painfully slow barrel roll, her form is adjusted to rest upon her stomach, arms and legs raised in what might be a depiction of drag. By degrees Hammoud returns to a face-up pose, back somewhat arched, the way it might in free-fall, expression indiscernible as her eyes stare into the audience.

Several minutes into the performance, musician Sharif Sehnaoui – who entered the room alongside Hammoud, and whose attention has been tightly focused on the dancer’s minimal movement throughout – commences the first segment of a highly modular electric guitar score.

This intermittent improvisation – during which he variously addresses the thing as a percussion instrument before taking it up to strike stark, abrasive chords – unfolds in parallel to the dancer’s movement, but it can’t be confused with accompaniment.

If a conventional dance score facilitates and enlivens movement, Sehnaoui’s playing sounds something like a warning, a threat.

“To Rest on a Slope,” as Hammoud’s tension-filled solo dance piece is titled, premiered at the Crypt of St. Joseph church Thursday evening before a capacity audience. The work is a collaboration between the dancer-choreographer and the veteran improv performer.

It’s a highly rigorous work. In her performance notes, Hammoud discusses her interrogation of “the strict necessity of the gesture.” The piece seeks to express the tension between “the body in search of rest” and the insistence that the form abide by social convention and pull itself erect.

Over the course of the work’s 40-odd minutes, Hammoud eventually does manage to prise her form free of its falling-body-like posture. Once erect, however, her movement doesn’t emulate cliches of grace and precision. During a pause in the abrupt, variable cacophony of Sehnaoui’s score, her body mimics a wave’s movement through an elastic surface. Later, as the work nears its end, this gesture is elaborated as a parody of grace and precision.

“To Rest on a Slope” has an air of Butoh about it. The contemporary Japanese form is said to have been devised in response to the force of nuclear weapons on the body, which the choreography seeks to reanimate. Hammoud’s work is responding to something more insidious.

“To Rest on a Slope” will be reiterated at the Crypt May 20 and 21 at 8:30 p.m.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 20, 2017, on page 16.

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