Iron Tears (Domoo’ Hadid), a new production by the Cairo Opera House Modern Dance Company, founded by Walid Aouni in 1992, sees the pioneer of modern dance in Egypt tackling the renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid; the title is a pun on her second name, meaning “iron” in Arabic.
The game of tears is far from simple, however, since iron is also a vital medium in Hadid’s work and so becomes an important element of the choreography and scenography of the piece. Aouni wants to reflect on the iron shapes of Zaha as being forms of iron sadness. He attempts to create shapes and constructions that are both material and abstract, architectural and metaphoric, spatial and aesthetic. As he interweaves the emotional with the scenographic and the embodied, he moves onto a multi-layered metaphorical stage language, in which the key alphabet lies in the equivalence between architectural constructions, the body and sadness. The architectural constructs on stage become the shapes of emotions, the bodily movements too become part of the architectural constructs contributing flow and transformation towards the structural architecture of sadness. Both the live dancing body and the still architectural sticks fuse into a choreography where there is no more division between human and object, nor between dance and stage design. Iron Tears is definitely Aouni’s masterpiece.
Being a painter himself, Aouni is very close to the field of visual design. All his productions are marked by extremely powerful imagery. The former scenographer of the iconic Maurice Béjart has always been a choreographer working not only with the dancing body but the whole stage as well. Since his first productions at the Cairo Opera House, which I personally experienced as part of the founding ensemble, Aouni has conceived of movement as an intrinsic component of the visual world, a world composed via the human body, light design and set-material constructs. This vision is unique in itself as it produces a specific theatricality where the human body is dancing within a choreographic visual field as opposed to traditional choreography where the dancing body is “placed” next to stage props and set. In Iron Tears one can see how much the vision and signature of Aouni have grown into a unique choreo-scenography.
The dancers move in a very calculated manner, a mathematical distribution of the number of dancers, their spatial directions and the combinations of clusters they form on stage. While all dance choreographies are based on certain calculations, whether in relation to tempo, beat or repetition, Aouni’s choreography adopts geometrical calculations as an equivalent to Hadid’s architectural constructs. Geometry here builds on an architecture that is form and content together. Indeed the life of an architect cannot be otherwise portrayed, or reconstructed. The different shapes play dramaturgical roles, from the constructed borders to the sharp square lines to the entangled shapes and alienating blocks. Each shape refers to a phase of Hadid’s life. A woman who carries the name “iron” and who does work with iron would inspire force and strictness. In fact, Aouni manages to reverse the clichés related to powerful women – Margaret Thatcher being the Iron Lady, and so on – and guides us through the challenging journey of the architect without labelling. He traces her struggle as an Iraqi immigrant and how she fought racism and succeeded in building a career and a name of her own.
While her voice echoes a few times in the hall, the spectators can look around and watch the constructs of privilege which surrounds them within the Cairo Opera House. To look around and start perceiving the history and architecture of privilege that exist within a performing arts venue is to succeed in moving borders between the stage and the outer world, between the architecture of performance and the architecture of spectatorship. Aouni guides to a reflection on the constructs of racism and discrimination that Hadid confronted in her personal life, yet he also transforms those into choreographic and scenographic material. A genuine aspect of Aouni’s experience this time is how he fuses form and content, transforming political criticism into a choreographic endeavour.
Iron Tears is an invitation to re-visit dance choreography as a descendant of geometry and anatomy, an invitation to appreciate dance all over again as a science not only of the body, but of the world that has been constructed around the body, and with it, across history. Humanity has been building its architecture around the human body, and now the human body is dancing the architecture that resides within it and is produced by it. Dance and space construction are two facets of the same coin. A choreographer is an architect’s peer, the dancer is the builder, the manpower, inhabitant and destroyer. With a very small number clever props, Aouni creates houses, prisons, bridges and roads. Frames, flexible sticks, fabric and rays of sharp light construct a world where brilliance survives and thrives, and where cohabitation is a matter of embracing humanity rather than occupying space.
At the end of the piece, one is left with a profound sense of sadness. Is it the intrinsic sadness of the young Hadid who fled her homeland to become a migrant? Is it the sadness of a world that keeps destroying whatever brilliant constructs it has been building over the years? Or is it the sadness resulting from the fact that the divisions created by world politics have become the mental architecture of today?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.