What’s Dance Got to Do With Genocide?

In a NYT review of French-Algerian choreographer Rachid Ouramdane’s Ordinary Witnesses, the reviewer asked: What has dance got to do with genocide or torture? 

In Ordinary Witnesses, which incorporates innovative uses of multimedia and video testimonies and moves from interviews with survivors of genocide and torture to dance and contortionist movements, there is an exploration of what it means to express the unrepresentable, an attempt to work out what can be done with traumatic memories. Rachid Ouramdane spoke about this in an interview at Columbia University’s Center for Oral History which I came across recently, in which he stressed that he was not focused so much on the particular histories of the various countries from which the people he interviewed originated, whether Brazil or Algeria, but rather the psychological implications of the shift from a period which you experience as devoid of humanity to attempt to return to humanity, and what the aftereffects of trauma are on the person.

The idea for the project began with Ouramdane’s learning that his own father had been tortured, something which he learned as an adult, and which drove him to think about what this long silence meant in his own family, and how it was possible to hide this history or to ignore it for so long. Coincidentally this was in 2007-8, at a time when George W. Bush was still in office and torture or to use the euphemism enhanced interrogation was being discussed as something potentially appropriate and even moral, something which provoked violent reactions from both himself and the people he was interviewing.

Another interesting inception point for the project which Ouramdane points out in the interview which illustrates the complexity of identities was an encounter with a Vietnamese man who identified Ouramdane as French and thus ex-colonial, rather than being a post-colonial subject as a second generation immigrant whose origins are Algerian – but of course, French-Algerians were also involved in Indochina, and so in a sense the Vietnamese man was right. A postcolonial ex-colonial is also possible.

As a segue from that illustration of the complexity of identity, let’s turn to Ouamdane’s World Fair, which  “explores our notions of nationhood and identity by examining the relationship between the body and power” and which has received less positive reviews than Ordinary Witnesses, described in the NYT review for example as “a collage of ideas that he never turns into a work of art.” 

Unlike Ordinary Witnesses, which has often been described using such words as visceral and engaging, World Fair has been faulted for being vague and unspecific about its theme:

At one point he performs with smears of black over his face, at another with smears of white. I suspect, as when he wears black-and-white tap shoes, that he is trying to make some point about race: but what? The show ends with a film of another solo, in which only Mr. Ouramdane’s head is seen, turning rhythmically through a series of successive angles but occasionally freezing halfway through a transition. His face is daubed in a jigsaw pattern of red, white and blue. Yes, the three colors of the leading imperialist nations: France, Britain and the United States.

Ordinary Witnesses perhaps because of its use of interviews and “real stories” gave the audience something to to unpack through the movement of bodies on stage, while World Fair’s attempt to answer questions about “the marks left by political history on the body”  seems to be seen as less successful for many, although it also responds to questions which are an integral part of the preoccupations of this artist and his genre-blurring, media-mixing productions.

The interview is well worth a watch, and contains excerpts from both the earlier solos show Far… and Ordinary Witnesses. 

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