CARBONDALE, Colorado — This past April, during a residency at The Launchpad in Carbondale, Colorado, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater (YSDT) performed choreography from the initial stages of their newest work, “The Keeper.” Actor Khalifa Natour recited a monologue in Arabic, depicting the first time his character witnesses a John Deere tractor in his village. He mimicked the turning up of earth with his arms and yelled at the sky, his voice both frantic and in awe. Dancer Samaa Wakeem lay on the floor next to him, contorting her body in reaction to his words. Now, during the piece’s third iteration at a residency at Le Théâtre National de la Danse in Paris, “The Keeper” has evolved into a broader contemporary dance theater work, which will be performed on four tons of raw soil that’s been dispersed across the theater’s stage.
This is how YSDT works, relying on residency programs as one of the only opportunities when its performers — who are split between Palestine and New York — can obtain travel documents to come together. The company’s personal struggle with border politics and its innate connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deeply inform their work. “The Keeper” seeks to explore “humanity’s relationship to land as it relates to human survival, culture and identity, and as a source of political conflict.” While the piece addresses our universal link to a specific territory, it nonetheless evokes Palestine — a land through which so many cultures have passed and left their residue. Co-created by choreographer/director Samar Haddad King and playwright/director Amir Nizar Zuabi, “The Keeper” constructs the ground beneath our feet as an embedded source of collective memory and sense of place. The earth, our great keeper. The performers drag their toes through the soil, unearthing and burying both personal and collective stories in a call to identity and ownership.
The soil has its own way of being, King explains, despite how we may want it to act. “Its shape is constantly changing and the degrees to which it compacts and loosens varies depending on the amount of force, people, type of movement, climate of the room.” The notion of agency is an idea that YSDT’s choreography often addresses; soil’s metaphorical and physical properties showcase the parameters in which dancers can assert, or are denied, their own power. “The Keeper,” in particular, pivots to the performers’ personal decision-making and the internal conflicts they experience. They run back and forth with fixed intention, going nowhere. In one scene, Natour and five dancers perform a ‘hunt,’ crouched low in a primordial hunch. The line between hunter and hunted becomes blurred, however, as the sense of a looming oppressor is ever-present. The six look over their shoulders often, gaze vacillating between obstinate determination and an ingrained paranoia. At one moment they lurch forward to attack, at the next they collapse limply onto the ground. The YSDT dancers move like this often, tender yet aggressive; tenacious yet desperate. The body subverts itself, becoming both weapon and wound.
Founded in 2005 by King and fellow Fordham/Ailey graduate Zoe Rabinowitz, YSDT seeks to illustrate “themes that amplify the narratives of Arab women, immigrant communities, and folks who have not traditionally been seen on contemporary dance stages,” according to Rabinowitz. In 2010, when the US denied King’s Palestinian partner a fiancé visa, she relocated to Ramallah. King, an American citizen born to a Palestinian refugee mother, began directing her dancers remotely from the West Bank via Skype, film rehearsals and Vimeo uploads. “What started as a logistical necessity became a creative opportunity,” says Rabinowitz. King started working locally with young dancers who came from diverse training — from the traditional Palestinian dance known as debke to ballet, circus, theater, and hip hop. The backgrounds of these artists helped inform and broaden YSDT’s aesthetic, which was originally rooted in classical Western traditions.
The company worked remotely via videoconference for four years. “It was an arduous and inefficient process, translating a three-dimensional art form into a two-dimensional media,” says Rabinowitz. Since then, they’ve made the effort to rehearse primarily when the dancers from Palestine and New York can come together and work in-person. Still, however, the company’s programming is cancelled frequently due to the occupation, for reasons such as forced closures, strikes, safety issues, or the dancers being denied travel permits. This often involves half the company getting stranded in airports just hours before a performance, traveling to Jordan in order to fly, and performing in non-traditional spaces like warehouses, homes, and in the street. YSDT is the only company operating on both sides of the Green Line in Palestine and Israel, and it remains one of the only Arab female-led dance companies. King sums it up, “These are human issues. When you put a child gate to block a child from entering a forbidden place, they exert full determination to break through.”