Is that direction your current research is taking your PhD?
Yes my PhD, which I finished last year, was basically examining how dance functions in traumatised communities, particularly post colonial and marginalised communities. One of the most problematic things when I’ve worked with dancers in these contexts is that they’d take their work abroad and it’d be assessed or evaluated by people watching from their ideals. Central to postmodernism, which is perhaps seen as the pinnacle of cultural ideals at the moment in the Western world, is the idea that everything should be deconstructed, that there’s no ultimate meta-narrative or absolute truth that can’t be questioned. Which is fine if that works for that social context, but if you try to apply that in a context like Palestine, it means that, ok, we’re going to question religion, we’re going to question notions of the community or a historical event like the Nakba. But, if questioning them is going to foster alienation and social doubt, and people don’t want to do that, why should they feel obliged to have to for the sake of postmodernism? If people aren’t actively seeking to cut themselves off from their own path, as they were in the West in the 19th century and early 20th century, why should they have to follow this other path of rebellion that is implicit within modernism and postmodernism? So, to cut a long story short, and to get away from too much theorising, my academic research at this point is trying to present clarity on the ideals of artistic output in these kinds of communities so that it can be recognised and respected and not disregarded and it doesn’t become demanding to them to conform further and further to Western or colonial notions of what is ‘good art’. If people feel that their art is undervalued, then they feel they have to conform to foreign forms of art and they ultimately just become dependent on artists to come in from abroad and they can’t feel a sense of local dignity.
So this is what’s taken you to New Zealand?
Well after I finished the PhD I was looking for an academic post to further this research. The universities in Palestine in the West Bank really didn’t have such a strong connection with dance as an academic discipline and I was quite attracted to this place in New Zealand because of its strong investment in Maori and some indigenous and pacific dance forms, and cultural research into that. I thought, ok, it has been through quite a turbulent process of cultural colonisation and such over the last couple of hundred years, so it’s a place I can continue to investigate these kind of ideals and look at how do Pacific Islanders, Aboriginal Australians and Maoris use dance in their communities to maintain some sense of cohesion and continuation.
You’ve moved from so many places. It must be extremely difficult to leave some of the special people behind. The stories go with you, but it must be really hard to just, keep going.
Yes, it is. I think especially in places like Palestine, having family and friends back there and seeing the news and seeing what’s going on and feeling, oh how can I be living in some sort of luxurious environment when people are like that? I think that was one of the reasons that I basically left the West for such a long period because I just felt a revulsion every time I walked through a supermarket with copious amounts of food and all this excess and obese people and realising things are so easy here. But having a family puts all of that into perspective and now, yes, I do get those pangs of guilt and thoughts of the people who aren’t here in this environment; but I feel like I’ve got a lot more duty now to provide a nurturing environment for my children so then they can go out into the world and do something useful later.
What do you do with all the stories over these years? I mean you’ve worked and lived in more than 65 countries. Where do they stay?
I’ve written a lot. I’ve published a lot of stories in different places. I have a chapter in a book coming out next month which is Human Rights, Dance and Social Justice – Dignity in Motion with Scarecrow Press. I’ve got a book coming out next year, which is called Raising Dust: A History of Dance and Social Justice in Palestine and that captures a lot of those stories from Palestine and the whole history of dance in Palestine. Other things I’ve published through different magazines and places and then a lot of writings I just keep here on my shelf and I think one day I’ll get around to putting them together … little snippets of dance from different places.
And is that why you’ve moved onto film? You’ve just finished a film that you made in Palestine with children there …
Yeah, well film has become a really important medium. I’ve made a few dance films now; a few in Palestine which we’ve then shown outside, because film is one of the best ways for communities to engage in artistic and creative expression.
They can do it relatively cheaply now through digital media. It can be seen all over the world through YouTube, or various film festivals, or on television and stuff so it has a much longer shelf life than your usual community dance project. This film that I’ve just made in Palestine will, hopefully, also do that. It’s a children’s feature length film; it’s over an hour long and it’s based on the story of the Lord of the Flies. It emerged from working with children in Ramallah for over eight months on a project, rehearsing with them every weekend.
How old are the kids that you have been working with?
All the kids in this film were 13 or under, most of them under 10. We devised the story together, worked on the script together and all the dialogue in the film was improvised so the acting in it is very naturalistic. It’s brilliant, it’s very engaging acting throughout and was premiered in Ramallah on … I think December 6 is the day we’ve got set for it.
And will you go back for that?
Yes, I’m going to be going to Ramallah that week for the premiere and then we will be taking it to festivals around the world and showing it in different places.
It sounds like, because you’ve had a family of your own now, you’re settling down somewhere?
Yeah, that’s a scary phrase, like they’ll put me into a nursing home. I’ve got a contract here for four years and then we’ll see where things take us. We’ve got two under the age of four at the moment, which is quite an exhausting period, so you kind of need some settlement. The good thing with the University of Auckland is that it’s very well resourced and it’s able to send me off to all sorts of different projects around the world. It’s flying me back to Palestine for the premiere. I think also the institution is very well regarded globally. It’s providing a forum in which I’m hoping I can amplify these ideas that I’ve had as a peripheral wanderer of the earth for the last couple of decades into perhaps shaking more of the core of the establishment or the way people perceive and understand and address social issues in the world.