Eisa Jocson’s Princess. Photo © Jörg Baumann

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Oktoberdans, Bergen: Minorities Dance for a Majority Audience

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Disneyfied of female stereotypes fed to children globally. Eisa Jocson’s Princess. Photo © Jörg Baumann
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Yasen Vasilev
Two programs at Scandinavia's largest dance platform navigate the exclusivity of an ‘inclusive’ mindset

Oktoberdans (Bergen, Norway) is Scandinavia’s largest contemporary dance festival. It functions as a laboratory that brings together as many international acts as it co-produces local ones, while remaining curious about newcomers from the region and beyond. It also curates an extensive discursive programme – Positions – that aims to provide a theoretical base for experimental practices. The programme had several thematic focuses this year, among which I found two particularly powerful: Beirut Day & Night and Re:gender.

Beirut Day & Night presented different artistic approaches from the Middle East. These so-called ‘under-represented’ artists are often exoticised in Europe, expected either to criticise the oppressive political regimes they work and live in or to show off some partially endangered, interesting traditions. Opening with Everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East and were not too embarrassed to ask, an in-your-face non-politically correct performance-lecture by Abdel Rahem Alawji, the mirror was turned on Europeans – who ‘travel, meet, eat and discuss how art can help people who can’t travel, meet and eat’. Alawji calculates the amount of money the Norwegian consulate makes per month through visa fees before giving us a short overview of each country in the Middle East, concluding every time ‘everything’s fine, people are happy’. Sarcastic and angry, the show ends with Alawji announcing he’s looking for a Norwegian to marry for citizenship. Is any further comment needed?


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Sina Saberi from Iran
Corporeal dialogue between past and present: Sina Saberi from Iran. Photo © Kimia Rahgozar

Sina Saberi’s A basis for being asked how can we dance today in Iran after 40 years of banned dance: its development halted, its National Ballet dissolved and its artists forced to flee or go underground. This 40-year gap is a professional and personal identity crisis, rendering Persian dance empty for lack of reference points and connection to tradition. In order to continue one needs first to go back. Through archival footage from before the Islamic Republic, Saberi embodies the physical memory of dance and finds a totally different and unknown Iran that existed in the past – one where Persian dance deals with desire, pleasure and sex – and the concept of gender binary had not yet been borrowed from the West. This material is distributed in four chapters, forming a dialogue between the dancing body on stage and the dancing bodies from the past.


Daniel Mariblanca Sirmans in 71 Bodies.1 Dance
An ode to the trans experience: Daniel Mariblanca Sirmans in 71 Bodies.1 Dance. Photo © Ursula Kaufmann

71 Bodies.1 Dance, Daniel Mariblanca Sirmans’ ode to the trans experience, is a central moment of the festival’s Re:Gender programme. A huge project consisting of an installation, exhibition, extensive research, interviews, lecture and eventually a dance solo, it has been years in development. As a transgender person, Mariblanca has personal reasons to approach the topic, but his work goes beyond simple self-expression and/or representation. What is fascinating in his intuitive embodied externalisation of the memories of 71 meetings with trans people across Europe, is the way the movement opens up the possibility to think of the trans experience as peeling off layers of meaning imposed on our biological sex – a process that all of us can go through, no matter how we self-identify. Working with his own naked body and minimum light and music, Mariblanca structures a visceral, fragile piece that is more performance than dance.

There is no fixed choreography and the journey between the points he needs to reach is different in every showing. The slow breathing in the beginning is subtle and fascinating to watch, as it starts to reveal the ribs and re-shape the body. This unconscious automatic yet crucial bodily function is the bare essence of life, and is explored as a motivator for movement – inhale, exhale, female, male – these polar opposites between which the performer is constantly in flux. The harmonious breathing soon turns into jittery, shaky, twitching trance under strobe lights and loud noise before dropping the spectacle altogether and addressing the audience directly, in order to talk about the piece. These switches between extreme alienation and a deeply confessional tone reveal both a tension and an extreme urgency to share under a constant fear of sanction. Where the language fails, the body steps in and Daniel says this piece is an attempt to ‘caress the scar, or even heal it’.


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9 surgeries and 250 stitches later, ‘I wake up and it feels strange that I'm alive’: Juli Apponen

The scar is not a metaphor in Life is hard and then you die, in which Juli Apponnen chroniclеs a gender re-assignment surgery and its ensuing series of complications. Evaluated numerous times by psychiatric institutions which find ‘neutral mood, no anxiety, relatively feminine clothing’ and diagnosed with ‘gender identity disorder’, 9 surgeries and 250 stitches later, ‘I wake up and it feels strange that I’m alive’. This perfectly crafted non-linear narrative has recurring elements intercepting the fragmented stories of body transformations – astrological readings of the planet positions, a series of sex dreams, description of the deaths of childhood pets, demonstrations of cuts in the body with pen and paper. A traumatising account of an experience that left a person living half of her conscious life in pain, the text is delivered in cold blood with a stoic discipline, making it even more powerful and painful to watch and listen. This overabundance in shocking detail might be seen as a reaction to both the politicisation and the stigmatisation of gender and sexuality – all needs to be spoken out once and for all so that we can move on.

Princess by Filipino artist Eisa Jocson is the highlight of Re:gender. On a first level, cleverly using lines from Disney’s Snow White in combination with repetitive movements, organised in a precise and exhausting physical score, the piece reveals the absurdity and horrific stereotyping of female characters reproduced by the American movie industry and fed to children globally. On a second level, it comments on racism and colonial history: Filipino citizens are not allowed to work as main characters at Hong Kong’s Disneyland because of their skin colour. The piece involves deeply unsettling interactions with the predominantly white audience which makes it both intimidating and entertaining. A complete deconstruction of the fake, gendered world of animation that prepares kids to be passive consumers, the key here is to look at it not as an attempt to make Disney more ‘diverse’ or ‘inclusive’ towards non-white people but to scrap it altogether.

Both Beirut Day & Night and Re:gender should not be read through the lens of more inclusivity, tolerance and visibility for minorities, but as a wake-up call for the majority – all of us who are still clinging to harmful and limiting concepts and stereotypes and who are not participating in a meaningful way in our collective and personal lives. These performances do not aim to represent life and experience but want us to reconsider our own lives and experiences right here and now. 


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Oktoberdans, Bergen, Norway.
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This text is written as a part of the project Dance Critic Movement (Dansekritikerrørsla) with support from the Norwegian Arts Council

Theme: Exposures
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