Taking steps to heal yourself in countries where dance is a necessity

Celebrated choreographer Nacera Belaza says a history of suffering in a culture can manifest itself in the way dancers approach their work, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Nacera Belaza brings a double bill to Cork's Firkin Crane and Dublin's O'Reilly Theatre.

“In countries where people suffer and have a rough life, they dance as a necessity instead of as an option.” Choreographer and dancer Nacera Belaza was born in Algeria and raised in France from the age of five.

“When you have this kind of history, this very hard background, you don’t practice art for the same reasons,” she says.

“It’s not a luxury; you need it, to heal yourself. I know people in Algeria who say: ‘I had to dance, or I would die.’”

Belaza is a self-taught dancer who founded Compagnie Nacera Belaza in 1989. Since then, she has worked with dancers all over the world, and been awarded the coveted French Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres for devising a unique and genre-less form of movement, both as a dancer and as a choreographer.

However, this is not a distinction she is particularly keen on. To Belaza, choreography and dance shouldn’t be regarded as separate disciplines, but of two ways of
approaching the same material.

“It used to be one thing and people made it two things,” she says. “I can’t work with dancers who are just looking at what they do; I work with dancers who take responsibility for the whole piece, just like a choreographer. I need them to be conscious about where they are and where they are going.”

Belaza is preparing to present two Irish performances of an ensemble work featuring three Irish dancers, as well as dancers from Algeria, Morocco, the Netherlands and France.

The outcome of a three-year relationship with Ríonach Ní Néill’s Galway-based Corp_Real company, Creation 2018: Première Impression is a double bill comprised of one solo piece performed by Belaza and an ensemble piece for her international dancers.

Having returned to Algeria in 2001, Belaza retains strong connections to the country and she says there are many links between Algerian culture and Irish culture that inform how her dancers work.

“Dance is a language that goes with the body and of course it has something to do with your culture and the way you talk,” she says.

Culture, she believes, has an impact on what she calls a dancer’s “inner dialogue”: The set of internal negotiations a dancer undergoes that informs how they move and the limits they reach in their bodies.

“People from some countries talk to themselves directly, with no compromise, no negotiation,” she says. “It’s not a rough way, it’s just direct. You really reach yourself. I have observed it happen in my work. I talk to myself this way to produce this work, and I look for this quality in the dancers I work with.”

As well as encountering this phenomenon in dancers from Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia and Algeria, Irish dancers she has worked with, she says, also have access to this direct inner dialogue.

The reason may have some basis in histories of suffering, oppression or colonisation, and her initial observation that dance becomes a necessity for cultures that have endured hardship.

She doesn’t feel the same about France, where she grew up and attended college. “In France, being an artist or a dancer is not a necessity,” she says. “It’s something you can do, or you can be a hairdresser instead, or whatever. It’s an option.”

For Belaza, whose work contains a primal power, informed by her self-taught background, remaining undefinable is a choice. Working with dancers with backgrounds in ballet, hip hop, contemporary and folk, she believes in dissolving boundaries, unlearning the constraints of individual dance disciplines: “You have to de-structure the habits of dancers to turn them into someone whose body is talking.”

“I really developed a very personal way of working,” she says. “When I look at a dancer, I look at the human, all my expectations, and not as a dancer and what he’s going to do with his body. I wanted to do classes like all the others, but my circumstances prevented me from doing so. Now I’m really glad.”

Compagnie Nacera Belaza’s double bill, Création 2018: première impression and L’infime takes place tomorrow at 8pm in the Firkin Crane, Cork, and next Wednesday at 8pm in the O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin.


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