“You love the people you are meeting” – A conversation between Bouchra Ouizgen, Yasmeen Godder and Annemie Vanackere

Annemie Vanackere
28.05.2024

“You love the people you are meeting.”

A conversation between Bouchra Ouizgen, Yasmeen Godder and Annemie Vanackere

Annemie Vanackere: Dear Bouchra, dear Yasmeen, I’m really grateful that we find a moment in these really hardship times to have a conversation together. I would like to start speaking about your work. Bouchra, finally, we will be able to present “Éléphant”, after two failed attempts due to Corona. And speaking of cultural techniques, what is a cultural technique and knowledge production for you and your work?

BouchraOuizguen: It’s an openness to photography, visual art, sculpture, poetry, and singing. My practice has its background in the Moroccan tradition, but also in nowadays popular culture. What I mean by popular is what is accessible to the middle or poorer class.
It all started with learning from my neighbors when I was young. Going to weddings and parties in my neighborhood was like going to performances that didn’t take place in a theatre. I was amazed by watching the simple neighbors that suddenly transforming and becoming performers. The richest to the poorest and also different generations came together and shared a space. There I started to practice and to imitate. This is my background. I didn’t have a long education in dance, I didn’t start by going to school. We learned from each other, with friends, without thinking about the right way to start. It was a great creative energy where everything was possible. My career started without any fear, without any hesitation.

AV: Yasmeen, you will show your work “Shout Aloud”, which you are working on as we speak. Your artistic language is often described as “highly detailed and complexly idiosyncratic, playful with a raw physicality”. How does your culture technique, if we can still take this concept, relate to others or other traditions?

Yasmeen Godder: There are many heritages that are present in me as I make work. I was born and grew up in Jerusalem. My grandparents on one side are from Syria and on the other side from Poland. When Bouchra speaks, I also think about the traditions that are present here, in social gatherings that are connected to the locality of the Middle East –weddings and belly dancing and folk dancing. But then there’s this whole other aspect of training and dance and starting to develop my own process that has been very consistent in my life. Hearing your question, I also thought about the mosh pit in New York City at CBGB’s that I’ve been to as a teenager. That’s another physical experience and heritage in my body.
In “Shout aloud”, which started to develop during Covid, I had the desire to return to these multiple identities and to these different needs of the body and to something very intuitive. Because there was this isolation, almost like a survival mode of how to get through this period using the body.
And alongside, I started to use an album of a famous singer called Dikla. Her background is Egyptian-Iraqi. Growing up with Arabic and classical Arabic music at home, she combines her love for Arabic music with electronic music and rock. In her womanhood and in her trust of her inner self, she managed to carry all of these different voices. Four years ago, I started the project with Nur Garabli who is a Palestinian choreographer and dancer working in Jaffa. We call it worskhops for Arab and Hebrew women who meet through dance. The feeling of sisterhood and the connective female energy is what holds this project together. The meetings were mixed between my techniques of embodiment and imagination and Nur’s teaching of Palestinian Dabke. Meeting in the studio and dancing together, we found an opportunity to connect apart from our local context that is often limiting interaction and dialogue between our communities. It became a kind of support group for us. The ensemble of women that I gathered afterwards, in order to make this work, is inspired by this need for a community of women to be with at these difficult times.

“You don’t have in mind any performance or cast or studio or concept. It’s just a meeting with someone you want to have in your life. That is how I’m starting all my projects.” Bouchra Ouizguen

AV: What I hear in your story is that you bring together people with their own cultural techniques of different cultures. I think in both of your work, it’s very important with whom you are working. And the idea of the encounter seems to be central. Bouchra, the people you have been working with for many years are people that are rooted in the region where you are from. How do you “find” them and why did you choose those people?

BO: In the late 90s, I started meeting the contemporary dance world from the French Institute in Morocco. For nearly ten years, I was working in a collective with only men. I was doing only small pieces, mainly solos. And when I wanted to make group pieces, I looked around and I didn’t find any women. I thought back to the rich meetings and diversity that was surrounding me earlier. I then found it again in nightclubs, in cabarets, in the real life. I didn’t know then if it was a choreography I was working on. I took a camera and said, maybe it’s a documentary. I took my bag, camera, microphone, and I went to a different region in Morocco. Meeting the artists who opened their house to me was an amazing school for me. I spent one month in the house of a diva from the 70s who had decided to disappear from the public attention. Everybody thought that she was dead. When I realized that she was alive I took out the camera and the microphone, and I was going to that school, which was her salon, for one month. She told me I should do something with that project I had in mind. It took me years before creating the first piece which was called “Madame Plaza”. You love the people you are meeting. You find that they have a sensitive vision of the world. You don’t have in mind any performance or cast or studio or concept. It’s just a live meeting, a love meeting with someone you want to have in your life. That is how I’m starting all my projects – from where I’m living. Maybe that’s also why I decided to live here. It is still possible to waste time on meeting people, to not speed and to not being productive. And all this slowness in the process, to hesitate, to let go, to come back, makes the projects the way I decided to make them. I’m not choosing dancers for residences and to just pass a very short time in their life. One performance is one hour, but all the process, all what we dedicate in the work, is much more time.

AV: This condensation of time is something that I feel when I see your work. And also, it’s embodied. It’s not somebody who’s representing something on stage. Yasmeen, how is this working for you?

“Working as a choreographer and developing creative relationships that are very deep, that are very exposed, that are very intimate, that are very vulnerable often, are part of my life.” Yasmeen Godder

YG: I did have my formal process of studying dance throughout my youth and later at New York University, starting to make work, and presenting my work in New York City right after. I think that the time in the studio is my life. There is not this separation of working and      life. Working as a choreographer and developing creative relationships that are very deep, that are very exposed, that are very intimate, that are very vulnerable often, are part of my life. From the first day of making work, I was always drawn to working with individuals and researching collaboratively and the performers being co-makers. But I think this understanding that ultimately, like Bouchra said, the performance, what we share with others, is only a small part of what we do together is something that became more and more present for me over the years, leading to a question such as: How do we shape that togetherness? A work that I’ve been making over the last ten years started with research around emotions and people living with Parkinson’s disease and the question why we gather, how we gather. And in that also developing ways to meet the audiences. That whole research project was very nonhierarchical. Practices from different performers that I’ve been working with for years were brought in, and that influenced the ways we invited audiences to enter. I think working with different populations and different age groups and people that have other ways of seeing, other ways of moving, and also working with people who are dealing with this degenerative disease, the studio becomes a utopia with freedom from societal limitations. What does it mean to have performative skills? What does it mean to exchange with people that you’d never met before? So, it’s not just about technique or if you’re good enough in what you’re doing. How do you develop these skills of opening up and sharing and being? Taking it a step further, this idea of transformation as you meet others, but going back to yourself and sharing your own practice. It’s interesting how the community projects that are part of my company have slowly influenced the work and who I’m working with and what kind of skills and what kind of exchange we have. I very much relate to what Bouchra said, but almost from the process of inside the dance medium and what I’m drawn to.

AV: We know that many choreographers change their location, for instance some choreographers from French speaking African countries who moved to France because the working conditions are much better. You decided to stay where you are. When I hear what you say, Bouchra, I cannot imagine that you would want to leave that environment where you are working in and the people, because it’s so strongly connected to your work. How does the work land in your local community or in the local dance scene? You mentioned when we spoke beforehand that the so-called contemporary dance scene in Morocco is still very male dominated. Could you talk a bit about how you connected to the local dance scene with the practice that you developed?

“This idea of transformation as you meet others, but going back to yourself and sharing your own practice.” Yasmeen Godder

BO: All performers of my company are connected to the local dance scene, not only in Marrakesh. We will give a class in Essaouira next week with four performers. We will meet again with the company and also spend two days close to the sea, eating fish, walking, swimming, laughing, like children. This is what I love. The traveling, eating together and not actually being in a studio, but being part of their life. We go and meet the local scene since many years. The occasions to teach or to show performing arts are very small in Morocco. You have to create the occasions yourself. When I started doing performances, I had to build an audience. There was no local scene, there were no studios, no festivals, there was nothing. But we created a connection over time. Apart from the local dance scene, there are other opportunities. I’m still strongly connected to artists from the visual art, to comedians, filmmakers, painters in Morocco from north to south. I love that you don’t have to speak about your work, you can jump into the colleagues’ universe and it opens another perspective on what you do. Making a new performance, I still have to reinvent and improvise. I have no studio. I have to think about a space to work. Is it a dance space? Is it outdoors? Is it a hotel? Is it at my house?

AV: You don’t seem to get tired of that, Bouchra.

BO: I love it, actually. I don’t like comfort. This is what made me dance. Imagining and building the occasion is very creative. Going to France for studying was never my dream. I always wanted to build something here. No one was telling me how to do it, that meant a lot of freedom.

AV: I think Yasmeen’s situation is very different. For me, the Israel dance scene is very strong, but also quite macho. Maybe it has to do with the situation of the country that relates to the constant tension of war, to a kind of very male stance. As you are working with the concept of radical empathy, your position in the local dance scene is also quite unique. How do you see that for yourself?

“What do we teach young dancers today? If there isn’t any diversity in choreographers and dancers, we are cloning one kind of femininity and one kind of masculinity.” Bouchra Ouizguen

YG: My family does not live here. I arrived here because my partner came to work here and I followed him. And I tried to see if I could present my work in the Israeli context. I feel that Jaffa has become my home, because I really related to this place, to the special mix that exists here, which is also a complex mix. It’s not just an utopian life here in Jaffa, there’s aggression and complex historical questions. I couldn’t relate to areas where everybody had very similar backgrounds and values and the same religion. Over time, my connection to this place became stronger and stronger, mainly through sensorial impressions – its smells and tastes and sounds and the cars passing by on the street and the music that’s playing. Slowly I made a connection to my neighbors and the mothers, when I became a mother, building an Arabic-Hebrew kindergarten together and a school. All these things that are related to this locality were entering the way I perceived myself as a choreographer, as a dancer. I always ask myself: who am I speaking to? I travel a lot, so I have been presenting my work quite often in Europe or the US. I remember that some of my works weren’t really understood here. But when I arrived in the US, people were laughing their heads off. Over time, I made work that is very much in dialogue with where I’m at. I made a piece called “Demonstrate Restraint” which is about activism and the feeling of a voice being shut off and feeling this strange male embodiment. It is almost like carrying the very macho male subconscious of this country from a very young age without realizing and then asking: where is my body and what does it contain? Is it carrying a cultural sensation that doesn’t belong to me and that I want to take out of my body?

AV: The reason I wanted to bring the two of you together is your ideas of heritage. You’re digging and looking for heritages that were considered as minor heritages. And that’s what we are also interested in at HAU. In June last year our festival “¡Protagonistas!” focused on feminist movements in South America, which are directly addressing political change. In “Patterns for Life”, we are looking into feminist cultural techniques and practices that have been undervalued, but are essential for life in communities. Apart from both of you, we will present artists from Iran, Palestine, Tunis and from a Syrian-Berlin artist. Can you tell us about feminist movements in your countries that you are relating to?

YG: I am inspired by some feminist movements here, some of which are also related to the war. “Four Mothers” was an organization of women who helped the process of getting Israel’s army out of Lebanon. I admire their consistency and their commitment. More recently, there have been protests here for almost two years, almost every Saturday. And within it there’s a quite strong feminist movement called “Bonot Alternativa”. That means building an alternative. They walk through the protests in a red line. In the dance world here over the years, there has been more and more feminist voices and voices of women wanting to promote other women’s work. Ayala Frenkel, the artistic director of Kelim, a center for dance in Bat Yam, which is a small suburb outside of Tel Aviv, started a wonderful festival here called “נפגשות”, which means meeting. It’s coming from a feminist perspective of creating opportunities for different makers, ranging from well-known choreographers to grassroot women groups who meet. I am inspired by these initiatives and I feel that it gives us strength because we feel that we support each other. Me and Nur now also have a festival together. Slowly we try to support each other in our processes.

AV: Bouchra, how is it for you in Morocco?

“I couldn’t relate to areas where everybody had very similar backgrounds and values and the same religion.” Yasmeen Godder

BO: I grew up in a family with eight girls. And I’m the last one. I was always surrounded by women. They don’t call themselves feminists, but they were. When I was 18 years old, I took part in Morocco’s first march for women’s rights in Rabat. I had to travel from Marrakesh and take the bus to be there. Today, I’m surrounded by political friends who are working on how to change the rights for women. A lot has changed since the last 20 years. We still have work to do. But I feel a kind of freedom as a woman here that I don’t feel, for example, in Amsterdam. And I feel freedom in Amsterdam or in Berlin that I don’t feel in Morocco.

AV: Can you describe this other type of freedom?

BO: The representation of different ages, for example, of women on stage. When I started doing performances in Europe, I was very surprised to see only very young, beautiful bodies in shape, with muscles, but not other physicalities of women, no women of other ages. While, for example, in Morocco, I would see a representation of women in all ages from ten to 80 years and without a kind of physicality. So there are possibilities for women from different groups to meet, to exchange and to make changes. Still, I don’t find that in contemporary dance. I don’t see it. What do we teach young dancers today? If there isn’t any diversity in choreographers and dancers, we are cloning one kind of femininity and one kind of masculinity. There are only clichés about women and clichés about men. In the company, we discuss a lot of things. I like how Judith Butler, in “Precarious Life”, is seeing feminism. If feminism is saying that every life is equal, a woman’s life, a child’s life, an American life, an Afghan life, then I’m a feminist. But if it’s only a vision of woman’s rights without a perspective on equality, then it doesn’t correspond to me today.

AV: I fully agree with you, Bouchra. It’s almost a universalist approach of rights for not only humans but other beings on the planet. And at the same time we want to honor the reality of intersectional aspects. I think the word feminism can still be used to talk about all that, because it’s especially coming from feminist thinkers.

BO: Yes. It’s like having pain for the other one. “Avoir mal à l’autre”.

AV: This is relating to Yasmeen’s work with empathy. All these political leaders we have now should be forced to have workshops with you two. I think we would have a very different conception of what the job of a political leader is then. People who dance together cannot hate each other because the practice is a very different one. It’s about something else. It’s about seeing the pain of the other, about opening up.

YG: Maybe I can continue your thought about the workshop because I really found there’s something about looking inwardly, of connecting through the body, of building trust through the body, through different embodiment practices that holds some kind of key that I feel isn’t as present for people. And I’m very keen on finding opportunities to share and to transfer it almost like something that just goes through the nervous system from one person to the other. So, when I think about the workshops that I have – just a group of strangers meeting in a room going through something physical together, sweating, holding hands, singing – something happens to us, to the way that we connect and that later can also echo into other spaces, into our family, into what we bring home, into how we exchange with others on the street. And for me, that’s radical in the deepest sense, that something about ourselves, our physical selves has an impact. Also, it touches upon what is allowed and not allowed, what is okay to do and what is not. I think there’s many taboos about moving, about touching – of course a sensitivity about that is important, but they can also be magical keys to connecting and to relating and to healing.

BO: I think that it’s more interesting to build an alternative with children than doing a workshop with cynical adults with a lot of lost energy. Since last year, I’m working with young children from the mountains in Marrakesh, and I’m really amazed by seeing the joy and the hope in a child’s face. It is a small gesture. Still hoping. Still wishing. Despite all the craziness happening in this world. On some days, I lose that hope, but I want to see the world like that. So that we can continue to build a relation with others. For all young people coming from everywhere. From where Yasmeen is from, from where I am from, from Berlin. We have that responsibility.

AV: There is no better way to end our conversation. Thank you both!