Dance: No exit

Don’t label Adi Boutrous the ‘Arab dancer’

Adi Boutrous the ‘Arab dancer’ (photo credit: GADI DAGON)
Adi Boutrous the ‘Arab dancer’
(photo credit: GADI DAGON)
At the beginning of Separately Trapped, dancer Avshalom Latucha asked choreographer and fellow performer Adi Boutrous if he is concerned that people will say that Boutrous is once again making a piece about being an Arab.
“I don’t know,” says Boutrous casually. “I don’t know if it’s forced upon me or if I’m drawn to the topic.”
The conversation, spoken softly between colleagues, is at the heart of Boutrous’s new work, which premiered this month as part of the 2015 Curtain Up Festival in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The 26-year-old dancer/choreographer hails from the south of Israel. Having finished high school, Boutrous moved to Tel Aviv to pursue dance, a passion he developed by watching break-dancers and hip-hop artists on the street and via the Internet.
Remnants of these beginnings, a sharp locking motion or masterful headstand, peep through his contemporary repertoire to this day.
Though he had little formal training, the local dance community quickly embraced him. Within weeks of completing his studies at the Maslool Professional Dance Program, Boutrous was snatched up by a host of independent choreographers, among them Dana Ruttenberg and Iris Erez.
Unlike many of his peers, who first focus on dancing and only later explore choreography, Boutrous’s development in the two areas happened concurrently.
In 2013, while engaged in several projects, he created What Really Makes Me Mad, a duet danced with his life partner Stav Struz. The work, which candidly exposed the difficulties of living as a mixed Arab-Jewish couple in central Israel, took audiences by storm, sweeping up the first prize in the Shades of Dance Choreography Competition.
With his sparkling green eyes and sharp sense of humor, Boutrous is at once charismatic and disarming.
As one of the few Arab contemporary dancers working in Tel Aviv, he stands for being different while blending in seamlessly with his young, hip peers. In the past several years, he has performed extensively throughout Israel and abroad, most notably in Hillel Kogan’s We Love Arabs, which is for the most part a biographic account of Kogan and Boutrous’s relationship as dancer and choreographer.
The tension Boutrous experiences between being a part of the cultural elite in this country as well as a rarity is the cause for turmoil and inspiration.
“It’s very sad for me to be ‘the Arab dancer,’” says Boutrous following a rehearsal of Separately Trapped. This year, two of the 15 choreographers of Curtain Up were Arab, an unprecedented ratio.
“There aren’t enough of us in this local scene,” he says. “I don’t feel that it’s my mission to prove anything, I don’t feel that I have to talk about politics because I’m Arab. It’s part of who I am, how I grew up. The things I talk about in the opening text are questions I ask all the time. If it’s forced on me, to make work that is about my identity, or if it’s coming from me, I don’t have an answer. I’m in a process and I hope to get there sometime.”
This was Boutrous’s first time presenting work in Curtain Up, a stepping-stone for any emerging choreographer.
The festival was initiated 26 years ago by the Culture and Sport Ministry’s Dance Department and has funneled talents such as Inbal Pinto and Yasmeen Godder from the fringe onto the main stage of Israeli dance.
From the start, Itzik Giuli, artistic director of Curtain Up, accompanied Boutrous and his gang.
“Working with Itzik was great,” Boutrous says. “Between us there is a very open dialogue. Itzik has the ability to have a very broad conversation on art; he has a lot of knowledge and references to draw on. That really helps me. From all of the things that he says and brings to us, we are able to weed out the things that resonate with me. I feel that Itzik was really reading my thoughts, finished my sentences. Every presentation, we had an idea that we were working towards and Itzik got it right away and helped us to get to where we wanted to go.”
Separately Trapped takes the idea of What Really Makes Me Mad a step further in every sense – aesthetically, socially and choreographically.
“In the duet, I speak to the audience and tell them about the problems of our relationship being mixed and how it bothers the public,” he explains. “Here, we are three performers who are looking at ourselves. There is a comment about the previous work in the beginning text. I think I managed to clarify and specify my choreographic tools with this work.”
The piece is performed without light cues or music, leaving props, text and movement the responsibility of conveying Boutrous’s message.
“I didn’t want to use any means to manipulate the audience.
I wanted to keep it very clean, very clear. The emotion in the piece comes from the content and not from external influences.
In this work I ask from the audience to sit and interact with what’s on stage,” he explains.
Following the opening scene, actress Ahu- va Keren joins Boutrous and Latucha.
Boutrous’s choice of Keren has great impact on the piece. For one, she is considerably older than the two men, giving the sense at times that she is a mother or guardian. Additionally, though she dances throughout the piece, it is clear that she is not a dancer.
“I met her when I went to study acting,” Boutrous says.
“She taught me private acting classes. I wanted to improve my tool kit as a performer, how to perform text and write it. I told her about Curtain Up and that I wanted to propose this idea. We had known each other for about six months at the time,” he explains.
“It was interesting to me to place a person who is not a dancer on stage,” he goes on. “I wanted to challenge myself and to challenge her. The things that she will do are different than we will. But everyone in the piece has a clear job. We all go into it knowing what we want and what we have to do.”
With Keren and Latucha, Boutrous was able to find a heap of common ground to stand – or dance – on.
“I was very interested in researching the idea of mizrahim [easterners],” he explains.
“It’s not by chance that we are three mizrahim on stage. I am Arab from the Middle East. So are Ahuva’s parents, as well as one of Avshalom’s parents,” he says. “We are all Middle Easterners, not just that we live here but that we are from here. That’s why I chose these two people to share the stage with me.”
Though the three function as a cohesive group, Separately Trapped deals with the walls each of them puts up around him or herself. Even within a team of three, there is an ever-present need to ostracize, to favor and dissociate.
“We have an obsession with categorizing ourselves in society,” Boutrous says. “If we categorize ourselves, we categorize others as different from us. This work deals with the tragedy of the potential of these categories.”