Moroccan Absurb Dance

An insightful take on the Kennedy Center’s Arabesque dance performance from Cie2k_far.

From Morocco, Without Pants: Quite a Puzzle

 


Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009; Page C11

 

 

If your image of Casablanca has to do with narrow streets, fruit carts and spice vendors, or if — more romantically — you’re thinking gin joints and roulette wheels, “The Smala B.B.” won’t fit in.

But there was still something unmistakably arid and restless in the hour-long work performed Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater by the Moroccan troupe Cie2k_far Dance Company. Part of the center’s “Arabesque” festival, the work featured five men in identical suits, armed with a stepladder, a cardboard carton and a thick roll of brown paper, trying to give a sense of what life is like in the busy North African city that is wrestling with taboos and tensions. Confused yet? This work was riddled with the absurd and the clownish, but through it all was a pronounced sense of confinement and spiritual emptiness.

There were also repeated allusions to humiliation, as when one of the dancers stood on a low rung of the ladder and another reached up and pulled his pants down. The first dancer continued climbing, finally reaching the top, where he stood proudly enjoying the view, seemingly unaware that his trousers had settled around his ankles. Then he did notice, and looked ashamed, and it gave you a little sting in your gut to see self-confidence turn to embarrassment in an instant.

At various points other dancers dropped their drawers, or stripped off their shirts. (The impact of the disrobing is undoubtedly far sharper in North Africa than here.) Another motif involved being stuffed into the carton, bottom first and feet hanging overboard, so the stuffee looked as if he were riding around in a tiny bathtub. Yet even when they were pushing one another around, the dancers carried themselves with lightfooted grace and handled one another relatively gently, as if they were members of a brotherhood, a society of the surreal. An implied beating was carried out in a semi-dreamy way that made it seem abstract and horrible at the same time.

But for the most part, “The Smala B.B.” felt like a puzzle one had to struggle to solve. Phrased in starts and pauses, it had a fitful energy, and just past the evening’s halfway mark most of that energy left the theater. The five dancers were extremely appealing, but personality couldn’t hold this unwieldy array of mini-dramas together. A firmer structure or a consistent theme might have.

One of the strongest elements was the dancers’ use of props, and the best of these was a roll of paper, the kind schools use for bulletin boards. One dancer stood it on end and unfurled yards and yards of it, circling around so the paper caught air and resembled a rising desert wind or mounded dunes. At another point, the dancers tore off scraps and stuffed them into their shirts; later on the paper served as padding during a chest-bumping machismo display, or was extracted in shreds through an unzipped fly. (This ingenious visual brought up a lot of unpleasant thoughts.)

The music gave the strongest sense of spiritual searching, ranging from scratchy static to the bluegrass hymn “Down to the River to Pray,” to one dancer, with a fine tenor, singing snatches of James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).”

What does the name mean? Well, it’s complicated. “Smala,” I found out later from Artistic Director Khalid Benghrib backstage, comes from the name of a nomad who led followers through the Algerian desert. As for the company name, Cie is short for the French word for company. The “2k” refers to the “k” in Benghrib’s first name and a second “k” for kiwi, referring to his co-founder, New Zealander Loren Palmer. And “k_far” refers to an Arabic term meaning “damned of God,” which Benghrib says is what some religious groups in Morocco have called the troupe, especially when it dances without pants. Somehow, that’s the best part of the whole thing — knowing he’s out to provoke.

 

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