Searching for Tarab

[…] While there was discomfort in finding tarab for the dancers and musicians, the filmmakers seem more at home in capturing its essence.

Jodie McNeilly explores the question of filming dance performances focussing on a feature film screened at Dance on Screen 2024.

Sandra Gysi and Ahmed Abdel Mohsen have made a film about the making of a dance. In the making of this dance – Tarab – choreographers Laurence Yadi and Nicolas Cantillon from the Geneva-based dance company 7273 are in search of the feeling and meaning of tarab, an Arabic word that belies reification and is elusive to their understanding. Their search begins in Cairo, two years after the popular uprising against Ḥosnī Mubārak. They look for the “groove”, immersed within the streets, and find a city in political transition, the Egyptian people still restless from revolution.

Taking tarab as a theme could appear as a dangerous case of cultural appropriation, despite the choreographers’ sensitivity and close association with local Cairo choreographer Karima Mansour. Yadi and Cantillon meet experts on tarab. They attempt to understand the melodic musical system of maqam, which spatially organises tone for improvisational rhythm possibilities in a combination of mini scales on a fretless string instrument called the oud. Maqam has an “in-between” or “quarter note” – imagine an extra key between each piano key. The note is a spatial tone that the choreographers emphasise in their system of moving «without bones» and that moves «every part of the body that doesn’t move». Yadi and Cantillon’s research informs their new piece, that is developed in Geneva, with a troupe of selected dancers. A transplant that proves more difficult than anticipated.

During rehearsals the dancers are interviewed. They admit their frustrations with being lost on a directionless wave. Western trained contemporary dancers learn by technique, concept, image and known energetic systems. Their individual admissions of the piece’s complexity and the opaqueness of the process emphasise the impossibility of engaging in a tradition that requires immersion and deep connections to cultural transmission. The first musician was also unable to fit the brief, fully transparent about the limits of his training and craft. The frame within which contemporary dance works are produced anywhere in the world (even Cairo) brings with it many constraints: raising funds, multiple development stages, tight time periods (since most dancers are precariat “bodies for hire”) and the need to sustain one’s “cultural capital” which only entrenches this logic. The fragility of subject in their project was arguably only exaggerated by these extraneous factors.    

Like many rehearsal room documentation processes in the making of theatre, the film manages to zero in on the crisis of Tarab’s making. We feel a tension, but do not necessarily see it. We hear testimonies from the collaborators (less from the choreographers on this point) about the potential for disaster, as the project nears opening and there is still no music. There is a choice to delicately weave this narration in, rather than provide stormy scenes between artists or dramatically hone in on the fear that any maker feels if the work is not quite there or, even worse, not there at all. Gysi and Mohsen’s methodology mimics the interstitial spaces from whence the dance eventually emerges; we are relieved that the “show [does] go on”!

Beyond the work within the work, of which the latter is concerned, the opening images of the film show multiple points of articulation between head and torso, wrist and forearm, pelvis and legs. These synovial inflections generate circular, swirling patterns and pathways directed by motion intensified at the joints. This opening vignette is highly aestheticised, a departure from what we find later in their process of making Tarab. Yadi and Camillion’s faces are devoid of feeling as bulldozers shower scoops of coal and sand, forming a powerful materiality. It’s not clear why these strong images are included, but they are evidently snippets of dance made for film and provide us some clear insight into 7273’s movement system.

While there was discomfort in finding tarab for the dancers and musicians, the filmmakers seem more at home in capturing its essence. Mohsen is Egyptian and injects archive footage in black and white where tarab is happening in a public space among bodies who live and breathe it. I was moved and wanted to move. For a moment, I felt like I understood the attraction of tarab beyond the transcendent energies of Sufi whirlers I see perform at my local market. Perhaps this speaks to the problem of representation and limits of performance more generally: how to stage a feeling; how to create an authentic atmosphere where people are joyful, experiencing something that Arnold van Gennep conceptualises as “communitas”. The film makers are astute to the dilution that layered representations in film confer, and the documentary keeps it real.

However, where shots of Cairo offered us an ethnographic window into tarab, the rehearsal room footage was lacking in perspective and images to match what we understood through the interviews. This is understandable though since it is not the film makers’ world. The granularity of the dancers spatio-temporal inhabitation of a rehearsal room failed to be captured in its elusiveness – much like tarab. The final performance (for obvious reasons held as a live event) did not transmit the culmination of effort or whatever feeling and connection was said to be generated, but the choice to be manifestly real in the documentation of these limited cases of live rehearsals and performance suggests no naivety on the filmmakers’ part, just an acceptance that some things are inaccessible.  

The irreducible tenacity of the choreographers combined with their deep faith is contagious. While the film was a joy to watch, I can’t help but desire to experience Tarab as a live audience member.


Searching for Tarab | Film | Sandra Gysi, Ahmed Abdel Mohsen | CH-EGY 2022 | 52’ | Dance on Screen 2024

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First published: May 13, 2024