"A vibrant assertion of identity"
by Maddy Ryle for remotegoat on 16/05/10

Al Zaytouna's dabke-based performances are aimed at keeping the sprit of Palestinian culture alive, and spreading that message to a wider Western audience. So I should open with some notes from the programme of 'Between the Fleeting Words' that will help that audience understand what dabke is:

'Dabke is a traditional Arab folk dance found primarily across the Levant region in the Middle East…It is a joyful and defiant dance characterised by rhythmic stomping of the feet…Typically danced at festivals, harvest and weddings, this traditionally celebratory dance…has come to represent Palestinian identity and cultural resistance in Palestine and the diaspora.'

'Between the Fleeting Words' is a celebration of Mahmoud Darwish, the 'national poet' of Palestine and a hugely important figure in this 'cultural resistance'. The performance takes us through the dispossession of the Palestinian community, as seen through the eyes of a mother and her two children, using Darwish's poetry as a the 'soundtrack' to this recounting of Palestinian history.

Two years ago I reviewed Al Zaytouna's 'Ila Haifa' at the same venue. While full of verve and visually very interesting, the scope of that production was, I felt, overambitious, relying too much on acting skills which were far below the standard of the dancing. So I was pleased to see that with 'Between the Fleeting Words' a more symbolic and manageable piece - relying on music and dance with minimal dialogue - has paid dividends and resulted in a much more fluent performance.

Al Zaytouna is a child of collective passion and commitment, as well as an expression of identity in the process of being both asserted and created. The cast and production team come from all over the Middle East as well as the UK. In their merging of symbolic Palestinian folk dance with Western dance styles (at one point the young protagonist breaks out into a performance of Billy Jean), alongside the mix of languages, dress and multimedia, they connect powerfully with ideas about Palestinian identity in the modern world, especially the diaspora.

There are weaknesses in the production, especially for anyone not already somewhat familiar with Palestinian culture and history. Darwish's poems are read or played out in Arabic with the English translations projected onto screens on the stage. Some of the poems are quite long for this kind of treatment, and with other things going on onstage the words don't always get your full attention and lose some of their resonance. To do the verses justice it would have been better to have them scrolling rather then static, and to have cut down some of the longer pieces.

The dancing itself, though, is very evocative and performed with infectious enthusiasm. The music, performed on the traditional stringed oud and dabaka drum, was likewise rousing and at times very beautiful (in this sense echoing Darwish's poetry). The audience at the Greenwood Theatre were largely from an Arab background or, like myself, interested in Arab culture, and thus very receptive to the mood and messages of 'Between the Fleeting Words'.

How well it would resonate with someone completely unfamiliar with that story I'm not so sure; you'd certainly need the programme notes to help you get the most out of it. That said, I'd defy anyone not to feel the passion that fills the stage, or to enjoy the feast of music, dance and costume on display.

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