With the conversation between VJ Um Amel and Leyya Mona Tawil we end the activities of ArtTerritories, which will remain online as an archive of ideas around art in the Arab World.

Destroy11_photo by Ricardo Esway
Destroy// YBCA Grand Lobby.Photos by Ricardo Esway

Leyya Mona Tawil bursts through contemporary dance scene with her vision of culture, movement, and mapping bodies across public space and time. Her avante garde and experimental performances raise questions central to the Arab American experience. How do we place ourselves in space, and how can we envision ourselves in a social choreography made up of lots of personal narratives. Her work offers a legibility, a reference, a map for those of us traversing our globe today.

VJ Um Amel: Your work seems to burst through the boundaries of traditional, contemporary dance taking your work into public spaces and into movement-based discussions with audiences. What is the theoretical motivation behind this artist praxis?

Leyya Mona Tawil: My practices are motivated by future thinking, by curiosity, by the concept of Next. My work for the last few years is based on how and why decisions are made, in the context of a performance score, but metaphorically I am dealing with life practices. I always say that dance is my belief system, which is more mystical than theoretical. I would say that everything I do in the day feeds my fury and incites my craving for something new to happen. It results in plenty of destruction, abolishing nostalgia, circumventing vanity, resisting fear, loving the unknown, and depending on faith. One thing that keeps returning is the idea of hitting walls, and then tearing those walls down to see what is revealed. That is perhaps the heart of my praxis.

VJ Um Amel: Several of your performances have been shown internationally. For example your recent performance, Destroy, has been shown in St. Petersburg, San Francisco, Rome, Cairo, Oulu (just to name a few places) with local artists each time. How has the local specificity of different places and cultures informed and shaped the work?

Leyya: My take on location-based collaboration has evolved over time. The original impulse for travel came from wanting a cultural reflection outside of my familiar home cities. It was more than curiosity; it was a blood craving. Maybe it came from my ongoing disappointment in American art systems, feeling outsider on multiple levels here. The European dance discourse had been teasing me for a while, and contemporary dance practices had just gained footing in the Levant. I needed to engage with all that on an experiential level.

There is a vital conversation about what it means to do work in places like Beirut, Palestine, Syria – before we failed Syria, that is. As an insider/outsider in the Levant, I was very sensitive to what I was saying, how I was communicating, all the nonverbal information was amazing! How my work sits in a venue in Berlin is so different than how it sits in Cairo. That is real.

I understand the whole thing as an improvisation. When my feet hit the ground in a new place, my nervous system adapts, my sense of rhythm and air, what needs to be said, how to get from one place to another, etc. Collaborating with other artists in each city allows me an insider taste of their artistic electricity. I get to experience their home and we create stories together. This is a very different practice than touring work from city-to-city, as one can imagine. The collaborative work that came out of each interaction launched a whole new way of looking at research and presentation models.

Thus, Destroy// was born in 2012. The format for Destroy// allows the location to determine the outcome. Destroy// is taught the same exact way in each city – but the work/ritual that ensues speaks of how the place operates: what is the dance value system, music aesthetic, production interaction, local psyche, psychological landscapes, power struggles, subconscious policing systems, etc. All that plays out in how Destroy// is performed differently in each location. This, for me, is excruciatingly exciting.

VJ Um Amel: At the DIWAN arts conference hosted by the Arab American National Museum and the Arab Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco you have framed your choreography and dance as part of the Arab Avant Garde. How do you understand the movement? And how does your work relate to other Arab Avant Garde art?

Leyya: There is a complex, shape shifting conversation about what it is to be an experimental artist and also an Arab in the world today. It is as diverse as there are people. Experimental and contemporary artists of the Arab world and its Diaspora are placing ourselves in the conversation – willingly or unwittingly. A lot of contextualization from the outside (Arab programming by American and European presenters) is forcing me (and perhaps all of us) to articulate myself within the context, or to refuse the context, or the variations in between. The important part to acknowledge is individualization; we each have a take, and the collection of those activities and words become the movement. It’s the social choreography of how we place our practices in relation to each other worldwide.

I define my own Arabness and artistic experimentation as a journey towards a future scenario, because we all know that the present day and historic narratives aren’t working for us, as Arabs or artists, right? In this way, my act of Arabness is simultaneous with my act of art making. It’s another what comes next? question that doesn’t dissociate the culture of the person asking.

Getting back to the movement at large, I’ve been asking around, surveying how my comrades are thinking and dealing with their work and society of late. Some recurring ideas appear: we are all pressing against the dominant forms – with each artist developing a unique take on that through their work and life choices. Another idea: We recognize each other. However that commonality rears its head, it is unrelated to the plastic signifiers that police our culture from Euro-American gaze. Of course, we face this policing from inside our community as well, and we police ourselves. This is when it gets sensitive, I think. The Arab Avant Garde, I’m maybe realizing right now, is about a forward thinking approach to our identity narrative, not our art necessarily. Not to be funny, but the correct term might be Avant Arab Garde, damn! The commonality I mentioned is not about aesthetic or political solidarity. Rather its has to do with motivations, experiences and processes. The “Avant Arab Garde” a collection of artists that redefining creative practices in their respective fields – and also, however linked, pushing this conversation about Arab legibility and identification into new territory.

VJ Um Amel: The body as a site of political and institutional contestation is one that many scholars have debated. As a dancer, your relationship to body is extended even further as it becomes the tool with which you express. How, then, do the politics of the body play a role in your performances?

Leyya: We all know that the body is not neutral. And I never think of body as a tool. I don’t deal with body as a separate thing from the work. I can’t separate. But I also don’t exploit. Wait- yes I do. I exploit everything the human has to offer – the ideas, the anatomical systems, the metaphors, all its possibilities… So “the body” is not a tool – it is the source.

By no means would someone attend to my choreographed material and read it as activist or feminist or culturally commodifiable. No one is going to choose my work to forward an agenda – but if you zoom out and look at how the performers are represented and exposed, I think a scenario enfolds. There is a viciousness to what I attempt in my work. It’s not violent or dramatic, but I would say that it is definitely wrought with resistance and resilience. We the performers hold the power. We will fight for everyone. It’s a warrior thing.

If we use Atlas as an example: my first act in this work is to tumble back and forth across the stage until I cannot any longer. While in a state of physical discord, I attempt to perform choreographed material that journeys between crumbling under and bearing upward the “weight of the world.” The disorientation that my body endures by tumbling deflects the vain version of the same. Atlas feels deeply confrontational to itself and to those witnessing; I am a burden to myself and my audience. This is not narrated to the audience, but it is happening. Identity and representation are transferred from my interior to the exterior, and then offered to the audience to hold. This is where empathic and nervous systems are called to task. Everyone associates meaning according to his or her own plight. Or flight. I like flight.

Atlas_photo by Alex Escalente
Atlas.Photo by Alex Escalente

VJ Um Amel: The scores that you craft are like maps that you often collaborate with other artists. Can you explain the function of collaboration in the choreographies you have scripted?

Leyya: For the last three years I have been composing scores for dancers and musicians. To be clear, it is a single score that applies to all the performers. These are choice-based scores that are structured in time and through choreographed/physical/sonic material. The distinction and hierarchy between music and dance is obsolete. I relay these scores verbally, and everybody sets off on it. You would think that the individual choice making would result a bunch of unrelated solos – but the scores are articulated so specifically that the resulting work is a really interactive, interdisciplinary conversation. Each performer has a chance or choice to be herself, but to be herself within the microsociety of the ensemble.

The thing most interesting to me is how people deal with choices. It is complex and invigorating to experience musicians dealing music, and dancers dealing with dance, and musicians dealing with dance, and dancers dealing with music, infinite jest, etc. So my compositions basically set the stage for collaboration of this nature to ensue.

The scores offer a liberating container, but the psyche of each score has to be understood by all participants. I love that no one has to conform to something that is “mine.” If you look at the collaborations I do with musicians Mike Khoury, Mike Guarino and Dominic Cramp – artists who are constantly jumping off cliffs – you can see we build new structures, crumble them by choice and act at will. These collaborations are also intrinsically connected through a belief system of the work. We talk about the score itself, mostly its “why” questions – not “what” questions. No one knows what will happen until we are in it. However, because we are connected in the world at large, and we are willing to crack – the score becomes a way of negotiating the unknown… but together! So much better than alone… takes you out of your ego, right? Going back to praxis – that cliff that we jump off, the unknown of where each performance goes, is part of that future thinking practice.

VJ Um Amel: How does your experimental work speak with the public? Do you find the experimental nature of your work challenge public audiences? What techniques do you use to interrupt mainstream discourse on intertextual art, dance, movement, and space?

Leyya: I actually do not consider the audience in relation to meaning. I think of them spatially. For example. in Atlas, I know that whoever is there will likely feel worried. But I definitely do not attempt to design an experience for them, or to crack their heads or rock them out. My work is primarily presented on tour such that I don’t know who will show up for any given show or festival. I don’t know how my work is going to read, and I’m certainly not trying to prescribe it. Which doesn’t mean I’m not curious! Part of the process of Destroy// is to collect audience response afterwards. Like in other labs, I am gathering the information in order to compare and analyze it at a later time. Destroy// gathers a cultural record wherever it travels – collecting the audience response is part of the research. In laboratory terms, audience response is data collection, but it doesn’t change the “control.”

It is different when I perform in one of my home cities. Most of the audience is composed of my immediate community, made up of like’ish minded individuals who are also on some level involved in experimental arts – well… that’s just a recipe for a good conversation over drinks later. Vital conversation hopefully. But again – not making work with them in mind.

Yes – audiences that come upon my work sometimes/often find it challenging because its not familiar in tone or duration. Sometime they feel something but don’t know why. They triangulate meaning, or they don’t. Maybe I’ve planted a seed, or I’ve scared someone totally off. All good.

VJ Um Amel: You began as a dancer and grew into a choreographer who now threads your expression across music, performance, and dance. Can you speak about this growth and particular trajectory? What is coming next?

Leyya: I have never delineated between the “dancer” and “choreographer” – my dances all live inside me first, then are translated into choreographies or compositional scores. This has been my practice from the start. However I have taken issue lately with the term “dance” – as it has been completely taken over by the culture-manufacturing-machine called Entertainment. And really what I mean by that is subconscious oppression on a grand scale via media. So what the mainstream refers to as Dance today generally doesn’t contain my version of dance. We may as well call it Hockey – it’s that different. So I’ve been avoiding the word dance lately. I’m using the words performer and composer instead. I’m dissociating from the mainstream projections of dance altogether. But wow, I do love dancing. I believe in dancing. It’s how I understand the world.

What is next? More scores! My next work is called The Martyr, another location-based project. The Matryr score will be interpreted by performers, filmmakers, poets and installation artists. The artists will cross city borders as well, to ignite some intercity collaboration, if possible. I’m geeked for it…

VJ Um Amel: Do you have a favorite piece or experience? If so, what is it and why?

Leyya: This is difficult to say – but the experience that comes to mind is a performance Dominic Cramp and Mike Guarino at my home studio TAC: Temescal Art Center in Oakland. This performance birthed the ideas for Atlas actually. I had been working with Dom and Mike for years already, but it had been a long stretch since our last performance together. I didn’t score it – but we had a pointed conversation leading up to the show. It was August 2014 – Gaza was under massive attack by Israeli ground, air and chemical assault. The body count of dead Gazan children was rising hourly and images of wrapped bodies and torn villages blanketed our internets. How do we act, react, live with this reality? This is happening right now. The weight of helplessness. All of that. We talked about it, we stared at each other, we didn’t know exactly what would happen. Then when we began. The first thing that Mike played was a sample of kids voices counting upwards. I hit the ground and started rolling and didn’t stop; Dominic, with his dominating drone variations; Mike hitting survivalist hard. We all just cracked. We journeyed through different stages of confusion, warfare, nihilism. Whatever happened in that hour left me with a spiral of ideas that are still shaking me. Everything is in that.

Published August 19, 2015.