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Noura Murad in Conversation with Leyya Mona Tawil
Noura Murad is a multi-disciplinary artist, dedicated researcher and the artistic director of acclaimed Leish Troupe. She lives, creates and teaches in Damascus, Syria. Noura and I first met in 2009 at the Beirut International Platform On Dance (BIPOD). The first thing I remember is that she offered me some really targeted feedback on my solo work at Monnot Theater – and she has held my attention, my curiosity and my heart ever since. We met twice in 2010, in Damascus and Amsterdam, while each on tour. It was at the Julidans Festival that year that I attended Noura’s work and was introduced to her Identities Project. These were watershed moments for me – my first communion with a fellow Syrian woman around the topics of art, aesthetics and cultural warfare.
Fast forward to this year. Our dear cohort Adham Hafez, co-curator behind the New York Live Arts – Live Ideas 2016: MENA Future alongside Tommy Kriegsmann, had the idea of a collaboration by proxy. He contacted Noura and set about a process that would bring her language and research into the lives of 5 dancers in New York City. Jen Rosenblit, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Miguel Angel Guzman, Ishmael Houston-Jones and I were the Proxy Girls. We took on the task in a one-night experiment that ultimately became a conversation about intimacy and perception. Noura attended that night via Skype, though technical hurdles prevented her from interacting live with the us or the audience. This interview serves as a follow up to Proxy Girls; as an outlet for Noura to speak about this collaboration and to further the discussion about proximity and understanding.
– Leyya Mona Tawil
Proxy Girls was produced as part of Live Ideas: MENA/Future – Cultural Transformations in the Middle East North Africa Region in Association with Movement Research, MAPP International Productions and Critical Partner, Culturebot, on the 21st of March, 2016.
22 May 2016
Leyya Tawil: Let’s just get right into it. Proxy Girls. How did the whole event come to be? Was it an idea of yours, or Adham’s?
Noura Murad: In fact it was Adham’s idea. We were in connection for months and he told me about the (NYLA Live Ideas) festival and he said Okay, if you don’t mind, let’s try this experience. It was really strange for me, it was the first time to work with such a distance with the dancers. It was weird. [laughter]
Because all artists know that when you work with body you need this energy connection. You need to be near the people, you need to touch them, to see them, to hear their voices, to feel them really, to know what you can do with them. And it was not possible in this experience. But I was very excited because I appreciate how Adham sees his own role – to distribute contemporary artwork, especially in this time. We agree that we are not agreed at all with the modes of transferring or distributing, especially regarding Syrian artists abroad. It’s sad, in fact. I mean, using the name of war and everything… media. We think that as artists we need to have another way to explain what we are living now, about violence, about anything we want to talk about, you know?
N: For me it was important to find somebody who thinks like this because there are a few people who see the image as we see it. Everybody, I believe, unfortunately, is using the circumstances, the terrible, terrible circumstances we are living in for art. For me it’s not acceptable. I cannot accept to be used by…whatever political or social or whatever…
N: I said to Adham, thank you very much because you are thinking like this, and yes I would love to try this project. I mean, explaining or trying to explain how we see the role of art in this time while we are living in war. It was important because I believe that voice is not heard until now. And we need to make it louder because everybody talks about death and destruction. But nobody talks about survival. It’s important to talk about that because all Syrian people who stay in Syria, they are survivors for five years, and they will stay being like this until the war will end. They need a voice to talk about them. So I thought that it’s an opportunity for me to do this because I believe it’s important and so I accepted. That’s all.
L: Yes. Before we go into what you saw that night, can you just say a little bit more about this idea of the message of survival? I’m hearing that your presence in Proxy Girls, your presence in the room and to get this project manifest, and your voice established outside of this sort of propaganda art…
L: …this is important and the message is, “I’m here, I’m surviving, let’s do something”? Like…”let’s dance”? What is the relationship of survival to your presence in this work?
N: I think, Leyya, that the role of art is not like that of media, and unfortunately there’s no boundary between arts and media nowadays. I mean when war started in Syria, all the artists outside, some of them inside, they started to use, if I can call it a ‘media perspective of things.’ You know?
N: Through their arts… And I don’t believe that is the role of arts. Art is giving hope to people, even if in peace times, because even with peace we all have problems. I mean we live in a world which is very fast, very commercial. It takes everything from us and gives us less than we want, especially in spiritual things. I believe that art—not only dance, I am talking about all art – its main role is to push the people up and to give them hope, give them a way to continue with their bad circumstances. I had to stop working during these past five years because I couldn’t do this at that time. The circumstances weren’t really helpful, because it was the beginning and we were in a shock.
N: And it wasn’t even possible for us to find any hope in that time, because it was the beginning of things. Now, after five years, and with all our survival experience, which I believe it’s the most important thing war gives us, the most important positive thing. Because we learn to understand life much more than before, to appreciate and to know the value of the moment we pass together, or with people we love, or we care about, or with our arts, art or our work, whatever. I couldn’t talk about hope if I have no way to find it myself.
N: I believe that this is our role. To turn all artists into activists—this is very much bothering me because last month I was in Lebanon, there’s a international dance festival in Lebanon and the label of the discussion was dance and activism, and I have a point about that because art is activism.
N: When you are talking about dancers in the Arab world you are talking about people who are fighting all their lives with their societies or their economical or political regimes. So why – because we have a war – we need to make all artists activists? It’s not our role. We are not activists. We are artists. Our role is to open up hope to people, to let them see light in the darkness, to let them believe that there’s something better come, to push them to start for themselves if they want to really to make a change. Unfortunately, nobody is doing this. Okay, yes, there are people who are doing this but we are a very small group in the middle of a sea of commercial media, artists who are trying to use the war to make their work. For me this is not possible to accept because I’m still living in my home, I’m losing my friends, I’m facing death every day. I cannot accept that somebody can use this to make something or a project or to make a point, because it’s not the time anymore. All of us made our point in 2011. We don’t need much more chances to do this.
N: Now we need a way to survival and I believe that’s the art, that’s the role of art in crisis or in wartimes.
L: That’s really clear. That’s beautiful. I could not agree more, honestly, in the separation of art’s role and activism. This is a really important point, actually… Oh great, we’re back. Can you hear me?
N: You can imagine how we wanted it, Adham and I, for Proxy Girls. Can you hear me Leyya?
L: Yes, we’re back. Well let’s go into Proxy before we get cut off again. So, tell me about that night for you, because, you know, we saw you through a laptop. As one of the performer/collaborators in it, I feel like we didn’t really get to… we had the written interaction with each other and with you, directed by you. Then the dancers came together and we had a really inspired conversation about proximity and about intimacy, and visibility. We had this conversation inspired by the prompts that you had emailed us. But we didn’t have that conversation with you, we had it with each other. But not with you. And that was very sad for me.
N: For me too, for me too.
L: Can you talk a little bit about the time, as we were preparing for the event, the performance, what were your ideas about it? How did you think it would go, and what was your experience of it in the moment?
N: First of all, when Thomas (Kriegsmann) and Adham sent me the whole idea of the festival and how they were thinking about the role of dance in societies and all these things, I was really, like, yeah! As I said before, since I started to work in 1999, my whole experience gave me a belief that when I become closer to myself, when I can explore intimacy and talk about it onstage, I can be much closer to the audience.
L: Yes. Absolutely.
N: Since that time I started to work with this method to explore with the performers, their own stories, and their own intimacy. And I believe that after all these years we are able to really make this point because sometimes when you are working on a new project you feel like, Okay, maybe I’m the only one who feel like this, maybe I am the only one who will have this experience. Maybe the people or the audience cannot really understand or feel what I’m talking about. And suddenly when you present your work you know that everybody is feeling the same, even if they have other stories, other details. You know what I mean?
N: Because finally, in the end of the day, we are talking about human beings, we are talking about people. We are the same. We have the same, if you want, dreams, even if it’s different. We have the same problems, even if it’s different. And with that, I decided that we (the Proxy Girls ensemble) will talk about intimacy, and I want them to talk about themselves.
N: Let’s not do it as a meeting between somebody who lives in Damascus and someone who lives in the USA – no. Each of us has a lot to say about himself, about how is we are facing the world in these hard times, which I believe is all over the world. From that we started with the question: what is the image of you that is not you. How does your society accept you and how they create an image which is not at all what you are? What do you feel that you are… And I believe it’s about all of us, you know what I mean?
L: Yes, yes.
N: And Adham agreed. To be honest, I didn’t think that it would go like this. I really wanted to have a meeting with you on Skype at least one time before the presentation because I wanted to hear your opinion about it. I wanted to hear this discussion you did together without me…
L: I know, exactly.
N: But I think it was the problem of organizing the meeting. I didn’t really understand what the problem was. Of course we had the problem with connections because I don’t have electricity or an internet connection all the time. But at least I want to hear your voices. But Adham and I agreed about almost everything. How we can do this, or what we wanted to say from this experience. Or what we will expect. So, it was really helpful for me to have such a sensitive partner who was the real connection between me and you all in this. But, yeah, unfortunately we couldn’t do it as I wanted it to be. Because I wanted to meet you, I asked for a rehearsal before this performance. But it was, unfortunately, not possible. So we do it like we did it, together.
L: Right. Well, to tell you what actually did happen. We, the performers, got together in the theater and we did actually just start talking about our personal outlook because of your concept of ‘auto-portrait.’ We all began free-associating with our thoughts. It started with what we thought you meant, so we all had an interpretation of what you meant in the written directions. And then it unraveled into conversation about how we each place ourselves in the world or in the context of art making or in the context of presence and communication. I feel like it fed and it structured our choices in the improvisation. What happened in the act of performance actually held quite a bit of the content related to what we had been discussing earlier. It held the stories that came out in the conversation that we had about our own auto-portrait, the auto-portrait as seen from the inside and the outside. I know that at some point when we actually started dancing—wait, were you actually able to see the whole performance from your Skype perspective?
N: Yes. I believe that there are corners not visible, but I saw it and I think from what I saw I believe that, yes, I am agreeing with you. For me it was really personal, and it was important. That was the most important thing for me.
L: Mmm. Beautiful.
N: It was a really great tool to have such a group that has their own experience as performers because there were no clichés, no such dance movement as we know it, no copy pasting of something we all know, right? You know what I mean?
N: That was really important…and the level of listening between all of you onstage in this short improvisation. I believe it was really good, because you tried to take the improvisation as high as you could. I know how hard it is, even if you are working together. I don’t know if you worked together before or not, but it was obvious that your focus was on hearing each other, which was also very important for me.
L: Well it’s interesting that most of us in the room had not met before—there were a few that had worked together before—but out the five of us, I think there were three people that knew each other well and then there were two of us that were outside. So the newness of it actually contributed quite a bit to that idea of how you are read from the outside. We were dancing together, and I was dancing, personally I had never worked with any of the other artists before. I was reading them, and listening to them, and also communicating and putting out my own information through my body and my actions. I think this contributed quite a bit to the language of the evening. We didn’t have a past story. We had only the present story to contend with. I think that really worked for this concept.
N: Yes, that was the concept—because you don’t know each other it’s up to your involvement and focused listening to each other. You get the goal without even knowing that you are getting the goal, and that’s why it was really great for me. I was there looking, watching you, and I was like, all the time, what amazing listening they are trying to create between them as a group, it was amazing for me. That was important because that is the topic. if you want to express yourself to the others, and tell them who you really are, you need to listen to them and to know who they are. You know what I mean? That was very obvious for me in the performers. It was really great.
L: It was beautiful. The ironic thing is that even though I hadn’t met any of the Proxy dancers before that day – I knew you before. So I knew you, but they didn’t know you, they knew each other, but I didn’t know them. In a way, in the room – in the event- I felt closest to you, in so many ways.
N: Yes, I know. I feel it.
N: Adham and I were talking about you all the time because we were discussing for example an idea for something. I was always telling Adhem, yes, Leyya, she knows my work, she knows me, she understands what I’m talking about. So even with the preparation of the performance it was obvious for us that you are the second connection line between me. In the performance it was obvious because I was listening to you all as much as you were to each other on the stage, and I felt that you are much more closer to me than them. Yeah. I know what you are talking about.
L: It was really tangible. I could feel you in the room. I liked our duet. I didn’t know if you could see me because at one point – I call it “our duet” in my head – at one point I was just kneeling in front of the laptop and making eye contact with you.
L: I felt like – I am in your room, facing you, making eye contact with you and holding space with you right now. And I didn’t really know what was happening behind me but I knew that you could probably see me and probably see whatever the other dancers were doing behind me and probably some audience members too. It was this very tangible moment. I got very homesick for Syria actually.
N: Yeah, I know.
L: I felt it. Because I felt like I was in your room. I felt like I could smell the air there in that moment.
L: Let’s see. What were the questions that you had – had you been part of the Q&A afterwards? [laughter] Had you been able to ask questions in the moment, can you recall if you had any questions or comments? What would you have asked the audience or what would you have asked the performers at the time?
N: In fact I was very interested by the audience’s questions, when you had your discussions, and I couldn’t really hear the whole discussion too because it was a really bad connection. I wanted to listen to you. I don’t know, I don’t have real questions. I thought that you would have questions.
L: Yes, yes, well we did.
N: Yeah. I believe it was a strange experience for all of us. And it was necessary for me to hear from you directly after the show—what you felt about it and how you deal with it onstage, or what you wanted to do and you couldn’t do or what you expect from me, or you know? I wanted to know the real-time reaction, which is now very, very far away.
L: I know. It’s true. Talk about proximity. [laughter] Even our memories go into a distant land. Well, let’s bring it back to today. What are you working on now?
N: I’m preparing for a performance titled Survival. It’s, in fact, our old group. It’s our experience of these five years with acclimation.
I don’t know if it will be a little bit or much more different from other work we did before. It’s a very different experience. There are members of this group who live outside Syria. And there are other ones who left Syria two years ago. All the performers are staying here, so we tried to exchange our experience with acclimation, to talk about it on a larger level. Not only talking about how we are dealing with war or death or danger now. We want to talk about all the people, how they survive in bad circumstances or in difficult times. We wrote a subtext together and now we are working on the scenography and I am working with musicians to find the things we want to do. And hopefully we will start rehearsing the first of August for two months. We will be presenting the work in Damascus in early October I believe.
L: Skype is starting to get a bit choppy, but can you answer one more question for me?
N: Of course.
L: Thank you. I love the concept of an Arab body language. Because I think it’s a really clear and simple way of stating I think what a lot of us in the Arab world and diaspora are trying to get at in terms of a language of what we’re doing. We’re not all saying the same thing and we’re not all doing it in the same way but there’s an unspoken connection or an un-narrated connection between you and me and Adham and these other artists in the diaspora and in the region—how we’re working, the perspective from the inside and from the outside, and how we’re always bouncing between. An “Arab body language” seems to nail it. That’s my interpretation of what you might mean by that. So could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?
N: Yeah. In fact, this work started in 2006 when we started with Identities Project, a long-term project. It’s artistic and practical research about the capacity or the specificity of our bodies. I believe in the Arab region, especially the Levant, we have the same special heritage in the meaning of music, dance, folkloric things, ritual, details, all these things. And the point of my research is to find that language for the audience to feel and understand. Dance is still something new, not really acceptable for our audiences. They always want to understand a story. Dance is not always telling stories. When we started with Identities Project we needed to make people feel, not think. We needed to push them to open up. So, my choice was to work on social religious rituals of the Levant, and all the movement systems of this ritual. By ritual I mean marriage, funeral, you know, all these things that started a very long time ago but that have changed with time, with people, with new generations, with new times…. So its not strange for our audience at all. They do it everyday in their everyday life. You know what I mean?
N: For example, when you pray or when you get married or when you go to a funeral. We started with this, but the point was always to find it in ourselves, in our bodies. Find the reason, find the connection with the past and future and the present. Find the relationship with the space because it’s different than with others. It’s normal. The place you are living in gives you a different concept of rhythm, of time, of space, of colors, of smells, of everything. Unfortunately we did just two performances of the Identities Project, one in 2008 and the other in 2009 that you saw in Amsterdam. The third was supposed to be in 2011 when things started here and we had to wait until now. We are planning to do it next year if we could do the Survival performance. The main goal is to write a book about the system of our body, the concept of our body, which is in direct relationship with mind, and habits, and all Arab culture, religious, social, political, and economic, and artist heritage of Arab people or Arab artists or Arabness… you know what I mean.
N: We just decided to take another five years to finish it because it’s very long and very hard work, especially on the level of research. It’s not always possible to go to the places to see the people, to be on the ground. It takes time, and it takes a lot of teamwork but I believe we need to finish it because it’s very important.
N: It will break the image of global dance in audience’s minds. We are not trying to, how can I say it…make the folklore modern? We are not trying to put alternative ways of moving on the table. No, we are just trying to find our own body identity. Which is a reflection of how we think and see the life. It’s reflections of our culture, of Arabic culture.
L: Super important right now because everyone has control over our narrative but us. This is why it’s vital that we articulate these ideas.
N: As you said in Amsterdam, it’s not only work with the performers or with the teamwork, it’s also the relationship with the audience that is important. I believe Arab people, in general, react more than they act.
N: Yeah, Leyya. Most of them. I don’t want to make a generalization, because I understand each of us is individual and has our own way of living and seeing life. But in general, yeah, we are people of reaction. We don’t act really. We don’t act enough. It’s a part of our identity that we want to move; we want to change. The two performances we did, yeah, we had actions from people. I was so happy, because we could take a few small steps toward this. Let us stop just reacting; we need to act.
N: It’s so true.
L: Well, Noura, thank you so much for all of this articulation and all of this work that you are doing. Thank you for being so strong for everyone. Honestly.
N: Believe me – people, and this is a little bit strange, but I feel with my friends who left, who were forced to leave, and are living now far away from Syria, when I talk to them sometimes I am waiting to have positive energy and hope from them. But I feel instead that they need this from me.
N: It’s true, you are in the middle of the thing you don’t have but hope to catch in your hands and your legs and your teeth and all your body because is the only way to survive. And it’s a strange, I don’t know if it’s strange, but I believe it’s a choice. War forced us to see light in the darkness because it’s so dark. So, to be able to survive you need to believe that there is a light and you need to see it and you need to go for it and to push all the people around you to it. You need to change things in yourself. This is the hardest step because when you discover that the change starts from yourself. This is very long and hard trip.
N: It’s the hardest you could choose, to work on yourself. To discover your weak points, your problems, your weakness, everything that doesn’t help you to survive or make connections with others and to be strong. Strength, it’s a result, it’s not the point. The point is to believe that there is a choice to change yourself, at least. Because the change we all want, I don’t believe I will see it. It will take a very long time.
L: I know…
N: I’m trying to say out loud, stop talking about Syrians as victims or as heroes. No. We are humans. We are living circumstances that make us have other choices, different choices, as all the people who experienced war in their lives, as all people who experienced bad times. All the things you pay in these wartimes: your friends, your happiness, everything you think that matters, that you didn’t notice before. That’s why I want to come back to work, and that’s why everybody has a right to talk about what’s happening here in his own way. But there is a part of it nobody is talking about and I want to open this door and make people see it because this is the only way to give hope for us and for them. Nobody is giving us hope, everybody is talking about us as like it will never end, and it’s a disaster. It is! It is a disaster! But if we think like this here, we can die in our homes. We need to believe that something good will come and we need to make it. We need to go forward and I want the world to know this because we are not the only ones. Syria is full of people like us and nobody knows about them. Nobody wants to believe that they exist. For that I wanted to talk about it and I accepted the Proxy Girls project just to make people believe that this exists. It’s not a dream. No, no, it’s a reality. That death is a reality. But life is inside of Syria, it also a reality. It’s a time to talk about it and show it to the world.
L: Wow. My god. Thank you.
Noura Murad was delegated to France on a practical course dedicated to physical theater and its teaching methods whereby she joined parallel courses of the techniques of dancing and movement design in 1998. Noura received a training course on cultural management by Culture Resource in 2010, Damascus. She worked as a co-teacher in the department of acting, and as a teacher of Body Expression at the Higher Institute of Dramatic arts until 2000 – 2003.
She established the Leish Troupe as the first physical theater troupe in Syria; and has been its Artistic Director it since 1999. The first performance of the troupe entitled ‘After All This Time’ won the best Scenography prize in the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theater 2000. Since 2001, she has been supervising and organizing workshops in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Dubai- and has also participated in many conferences in the region and abroad. For two successive years, Noura was appointed as a member in the jury of the Philadelphia Festival for University Theater 2005-2006. In 2009 she co-organized the 1st Damascus Contemporary Dance Platform.
In 2013, Noura returned to the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts as a teacher of Theatre Movement (Department of Acting) and Physical Theatre (Department of Dance). She was head of the Dance Department at the institute and was the dramatic supervisor of fourth-year students’ graduation projects in 2014 and 2015. Currently, she is teaching Contemporary Performing Arts (Theatrical Design Department). Noura has also played many roles in theater, television, radio and cinema.
Leyya Mona Tawil is an artist working with dance and music practices. She is the artistic director of DANCE ELIXIR and TAC: Temescal Arts Center. Tawil is a Syrian-Palestinian-American engaged in the world as such. Her performance scores have been presented in 16 countries, including ongoing collaborations in Berlin, Detroit, and St. Petersburg-Russia. She is known for location-based projects, the most prominent example being Destroy// – which is in its fourth year of touring. She has discussed her work with author Linda Weintraub for Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence and with Lizzie Simon for the Wall Street Journal and American Theater Magazine. Presentation highlights include New York Live Arts/Live Ideas (NYC), Dock11 (Berlin), MOCAD (Detroit), BIPOD9 (Beirut), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (SF), TransDance15 (Cairo), Museum of Nonconformist Art (St. Petersburg) and the Syrian National Opera House in Damascus. www.danceElixirLIVE.org