“For many of us, it’s synonymous with war and strife. But for the artists, chefs, designers, architects and scholars who live there, Beirut will always be a place where ideas and beauty flourished…and flourish still.” Michael Specter, The New York Times
The burning questions that sent me flying across the Atlantic to Lebanon: How does contemporary dance hold relevance for societies in which a sense of urgency and imminent danger are part of everyday life? What is the drive to create and perform this kind of transgressive physicality in countries for which dancing this way, and especially in public, is considered immoral and virtually illegal? And how does choreography serve as a form of political resistance?
The 5th Arab Dance Platform (Moultaqa Leymoun) was a revelation. As the four-day opening of the Beruit International Platform of Dance (BIPOD), 22 choreographers and 6 presenters gathered together who were natives of Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq and joined by interested critics and curators from various parts of Europe. A day-long series of panel discussions on dance and activism took place during the platform. Visionary choreographer and festival founder Omar Rajeh and his Maqamat Dance Theatre have been tenaciously building infrastructure in Beirut since 2002 to foster a Pan-Arab contemporary dance resurgence, taking the form of: festivals, dance companies, networks, workshops, mentorships, studio and performance spaces. The festival mandate is a revolutionary manifesto: “Through introducing new ideas and concepts of dance and ‘the body’, the company anticipates a new phase of artistic and social productivity, creativity, modernization, and free expression.”
In Beirut I discovered a ravishing and also devastated city of emotional and architectural extremes. “You are welcome” with hand on heart is the cordial greeting. The city is 5,000 years old with archaeological traces of numerous empires, an earthquake, devastating wars and triumphant rebuilding in plain view at every turn. Preferring to discover new cities by walking, I quickly learned that moving throughout the city on foot was a precarious obstacle course through a slow tangle of disorderly traffic. New acquaintances concurred: “We don’t like to follow rules here!” My hipster traveler’s hostel Saifi Urban Gardens was a social hub in the local Latin Quarter, with its café-restaurant, savvy baristas and rowdy weekend celebrations. Everyone danced with radiant fervour. Shoulders lifted rhythmically, arms raised, bodies pulsing and undulating in unison. Dancing is cultural life-blood.
The choreography was frequently intense, even fierce. Imbued with a powerful sense of purpose and, of course, the search for identity. Defying censorship, never doubting its inherent authenticity. Rajeh set the tone himself at the onset with Beytna, a massive, utopic community banquet of a choreographic event, with a meal prepared onstage exhorting us to “Come and eat Lebanon!” while four dancers and musicians from as many continents and dance and music orientations were seeking an un/common language. Although the dance compositions that followed sometimes adopted more familiar Euro-American forms, most plunged us into a particularly “Arab World” aesthetics of the body-in-crisis-and-exhaltation, trance states, and an artistic excavation of earlier civilizations (notably Persian). To my mind, the emblematic work was unquestionably Bassam Abou Diab’s physical theatre guide to survival as he instructed us in “What can the body do when the bomb falls?” Answer: don’t resist, fall to the ground; collect power; think about your culture and identity. This dancing in dangerous times really transformed my thinking about the meaning of art.
 Specter, Michael. “The Eternal Magic of Beirut.” The New York Times, Style Magazine. May 2, 2016.