Contemporary dance at Townhouse: The close gaze

Contemporary dance at Townhouse: The close gaze

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Thu, 01/03/2012 - 13:22

Karima Mansour and Daria Gusberti’s multimedia dance performance, “Whilst closely gazing at the soup...” is not to be missed. The piece, which had its Cairo premiere Wednesday night at the Townhouse Gallery’s Rawabet Theater, is a viscerally satisfying, thoroughly entertaining exploration of the philosophical paradox of relativism: given a multiplicity of perspectives, is real communication possible? Does objective truth exist? 

The performance is a duet between Mansour and Gusberti, who are also the piece’s choreographers. Mansour is one of Egypt’s best and most experienced choreographers, while Gusberti is based in Bern, Switzerland, where the piece had its world premiere on 10 February.

With such weighty themes, it would be easy to imagine such a performance be heavy or overly abstract, but Mansour and Gusberti have approached the ideas with creativity, playfulness, and the magician’s sleight of hand. The effect is mesmerizing and fun to watch, a good pick for those who are new to watching dance on stage as well as those already engaged in Egypt’s contemporary dance scene.

The piece begins with a brightening light, slowly bringing into focus a wrinkled sheet, balled up on the front corner of the stage. As the image becomes clearer, you realize that this rock-like shape is not a static prop; it is the performer. As the shape moves across the stage, it transforms from an ordinary sheet, to liquid, to mountains, the simplified outlines of heads, shoulders and backs, and back again. When Mansour finally emerges from the shape as a distinct human form, the intensity of focus and richness of detail in her movements is riveting.

The performance continues to explore the themes of perspective and identity through the use of illusion, projections, multiple angles and false mirroring: the two performers at times mirror each other’s movements but with variations that range between subtle and overt. This is a piece that has been well thought-out; the props and effects involved are used in a variety of creative ways. One gets the sense that Gusberti and Mansour spent quite a lot of time in the studio experimenting and playing with their props, and picked the phrases that were the most evocative and resonant to use in the performance. If so, their work paid off.

Toward the middle of the piece, the dramatic tension of the performance slackens a bit. Some of the transitions feel like filler, standard contemporary dance fare that doesn’t fit the aesthetics of the piece and that the performers don’t really seem to believe in. In a couple instances, it’s not entirely clear whether their movements are meant to be synchronized, or whether their slight variation in rhythm while executing the same sequence of motions is an intentional, further play on the technique of mimicry with modification or simply an off moment.

However, these small lapses are quickly recovered and more than made up for as the piece progresses and delves into ever more intriguing visual and audial territory. Mahmoud Refat’s soundscape is constantly engaging, juxtaposing recognizable sounds from the natural world with the metallic sounds of man-made objects, the kinds of sounds that take you to a specific place or mood, and sometimes that make you wonder exactly where you are. At times the sound is so engrossing that the movement has to slow down to allow you to take it in. Maia Gusberti’s video segments are well crafted, and work well as a third partner in Karima and Daria’s duet.

In Wednesday night’s performance, Mansour and Gusberti seemed to strengthen their dramatic footing as the night went on, commanding progressively more attention as they built up to the finale. Ultimately, the piece does not provide any clear answers, but rather asks the audience to take a long, hard look, and then flips the question, asking, What now? What will you make of it?

“Whilst closely gazing at the soup...” will continue playing in Cairo at Rawabet Theater on 1 and 2 March at 8 pm. Admission is free.