News Column

A way of moving, a way of hearing

July 18, 2014

By Jim Quilty, The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

July 18--BEIRUT -- Convention has it that dance is something that happens when you hear music. In nightclub culture, this relationship is elevated to an absurdly fevered pitch -- with dancehall speakers thumping at such authoritarian volume that dancing is the only form of communication possible.

You'd imagine similar rules apply in professional dance. Then a performance like "Mother Tongue" undermines all assumptions about how sound and movement speak to each other.

The debut solo performance of Pierre Geagea -- who conceived, choreographed and performs the work -- will be staged Friday through Sunday at Theatre Monnot.

The 33-year Geagea has been dancing seriously since he was 12. He happens to have been born a deaf-mute and his choreography is informed by that fact -- the onstage movement being inspired by sign language.

"This is contemporary dance," director Nadim Deaibes says. "It's not blending sign language with contemporary dance. As our assistant choreographer Daniel Balabane insists, it is inspired by signing, but it's contemporary dance."

As is often the case with first works, Deaibes continues, whether solo performances or novels, the subject of "Mother Tongue" is autobiographical -- specifically the challenges the subject's deafness has posed to his ability to communicate with a world hinging on sound.

"That's what's happening on stage," the director says. "Pierre is [relating] his own story, his difficulties ... difficulties that [his movement expresses as] a very beautiful thing."

Deaibes, who served as Geagea's interpreter during this interview, goes on to underline that, as a deaf-mute, the performer is speaking directly to audience members from the deaf-mute community -- who share a daily struggle with the systemic stereotypes of a society that has not been educated to understand or empathize with the deaf.

"You have the worst thing possible," Deaibes says, "which is pity."

That said, he continues, Geagea is more than just deaf. He is a professional dancer, who aspires to found a dance school for deaf youngsters.

Geagea began to develop this performance about a year ago. A preliminary version of the work was staged at Beirut'sFrench Institute last month and it was during these rehearsals that he gathered Balabane, Deaibes and several other collaborators about him.

One of the features of the French Institute staging, Deaibes says, was its spontaneous, effervescent quality. Spontaneity is difficult to take on the road, however, and the Theatre Monnot rehearsals have trod the dangerous ground of trying to find a way to harness Geagea's effervescence so it can be reproduced.

It was with this goal in mind that live music was incorporated into the project. The French Institute version of the show, Deaibes says, was accompanied by "electronic music randomly chosen for the tempo and the general ambience."

For the Monnot shows, guitarists Sharif Sehnaoui and Tony Elieh -- two stalwarts of Beirut's experimental music scene -- were invited to score Geagea's choreography.

"The important thing is to [revive] the spontaneity of that first show," Deaibes says. "That relies on us being a coherent team ... This is what creates the spirit of spontaneity. All the focus goes on Pierre and for Pierre to feel the stage elements as he felt them before, to have this communication among all the elements -- music, set and lighting."

Sehnaoui says the experience of scoring "Mother Tongue" has been one of the more challenging and rewarding projects he's taken up.

"It's not something you get to do every day," he says, "especially for me, working not always with music but with sound and how people perceive sound and how sound has evolved throughout history from music to sound art to performance.

"So getting to work with Pierre -- ... who has a completely different experience of sound and of hearing -- is of course fascinating for me. I knew I would learn something.

"Since our first meeting it's been total discovery. The biggest positive surprise is how much sound is important to Pierre. It's not just important: It's essential, much more important than for someone who has normal hearing. It has almost another metaphysical status for him."

Sehnaoui and Elieh's task has been not simply to copy the previous score for live performance but to bring an element of original composition to the framework of Geagea's choreography.

"In the beginning we thought it would be very rigid because the dance is fixed," Sehnaoui recalls, but "over the long days of working, [Geagea] also modified parts of the choreography because new ideas emerged.

"In the end it became a very interactive process, because sound has a meaning for Pierre ... Every sound we played he would interpret it and get an idea and modify the choreography.

"After a few days it became a very interesting process of exchange. He intervenes everywhere. He wants to know why we're making this sound, and how this sound can adapt and relate to his dance -- much more than any dancer I've worked with.

"He has a kind of obsession with sound, with music, with frequencies, pulsations, dynamics. He hears them very clearly in [an utterly] different way.

"Pierre's auditory system splits frequencies, so that when you hear one sound, he sometimes can hear two sounds, which is really startling for me. The quality of sound he hears isn't what you hear. The frequencies he hears are in the sound; you would tend to hear one sound but for him they are dissected.

"'There are two sounds there,' he tells me, and I realize, 'Yes it's true. There are two sounds.'"

"Mother Tongue" will be staged at Theatre Monnot July 18-20 at 8 p.m.


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Source: Daily Star, The (Beirut, Lebanon)

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