At the top of Mohamed Toukabri’s The Power (of) The Fragile, the choreographer and performer steps onstage with his mother, Latifa. Both are wearing dance sportswear – his is red, contrasting with his black hair, hers pale blue, almost an extension of her long grey hair.
She always wanted to be a dancer, Toukabri tells us. He points out things to his mother, explaining what they are. ‘Stage’. ‘Sound system’. He explains it all, alternating between Tunisian, French and English. The sphere then expands: ‘Danse conceptuelle’. He demonstrates. ‘Danse expressioniste’. ‘The fourth wall’.
‘C’est magnifique,’ she replies.
It’s very sweet, and the piece works best when Toukabri lets this tenderness shine through. In a nod to Maurice Béjart’s Rite of Spring for instance, Latifa’s vulnerability in taking her son’s lead practically drives the dance. In another, they perform a slow pas de deux, weighty limbs covering each other’s eyes as a recurring motif, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the delicateness with which Toukabri carries his mother’s body.
The work begins to falter, however, when it loses this vulnerability and ventures into more conventional dance-theatre territory. In a central monologue by Latifa that is the heart of the show, she tells us her story. As Toukabri moves around her, in a fluid, whirlwind blend of contemporary and break dance, occasionally pausing to rest his head on her knees, she tells us how, due to harsh EU immigration laws, she couldn’t see her son for a decade. On a conceptual level, we understand and empathise with this hardship, but the story is told in such general terms, and with so little specificity, that it doesn’t allow us to feel how they – Mohamed and Latifa – lived, and consequently the show’s central theme of exile falls a bit flat.
But it’s testament to the work’s character and that of its performers that we care in the first place. It made me want to know them more; it made me want to know my mother more.