Review: Shubbak Festival

Barbara Newman finds fascinating choreography in a current London festival.

Shubbak means window in Arabic, which is why London’s biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture carries that name. Despite the continuous media attention on that troubled area of the modern world, most of us know nothing about its artistic activity.

Inspired by dabke, the exuberant folk dance seen mostly in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, ten Palestinian performers, many of them based in Ramallah, collaborated with three Belgian choreographers to create Badke, an 80-minute explosion of age-old circular and linear sequences, hip hop, modern dance, capoeira and circus techniques, which came to Queen Elizabeth Hall for a single night.

Stamping and clapping in complex rhythms, runnning crisp patterns at ground-skimming speed, joyously airborne in nonchalant flips or quaking as if possessed by spirits, these gifted artists threaded their deep-rooted traditions with moments of intense anger, fear and despair.

Badke ® DannyWillems

Badke ® DannyWillems

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By chance, I had just heard a Moroccan dancer declare on film, “Your body can say some words that you cannot say with your mouth.” Badke supplied the proof, introducing us to unfamiliar local dances and to the haunting music that accompanies them, and its high energy and higher spirits proved contagious. Exhilarated and exhausted at the end, like the dancers themselves, I longed to see the entire piece again as soon as they could catch their breath.

When the Arabs Used to Dance, by the Tunisian choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb, focused exclusively on the alluring entertainers featured in popular Arab cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s. The minute articulations of pelvis, torso, shoulders and head that combine in the style known as kheliji in the Gulf region pervade both domestic belly dancing and the exotic sequined version seen on the screen.

Here, four men wrapped themselves in those writhing, undulating moves, shaping them into a long impersonal display of provocative sensuality. Silent clips of the original black and white films gradually chased the performers from the stage at the Place, leaving us to watch only the glamorous figures whose character had briefly become their own.

Shubbak continues through 26 July with Into the Night, by the Algerian choreographer Nacera Belaza, at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, on 23 and 24 July. See for details.