For Australian dancer and choreographer Lee Serle on his first visit to Beirut earlier this year for a workshop, a bomb going off before midnight on his first night was a surreal experience.
“I didn’t realize what was happening until I heard the bang – it was quite frightening,” he says. That experience of danger and uncertainty is one that will most likely affect my choreography going forward. In my solo work, the choreography is layered with subtle characterization or emotion, triggered by memory and experience… Its effect in my choreography would be much more ambiguous for an audience, but loaded with meaning for me.”
Serle travelled to Beirut at the invitation of Lebanese theatre-maker Maya Zbib, a fellow protégée in the Rolex Arts Initiative’s 2010–2011 cycle, for a week at the end of June to be an artist-in-residence at the 2014 season of Zoukak Sidewalks.
An offshoot of Zbib’s Zoukak Theatre Company, Sidewalks provides a space for international artists, local practitioners and students to debate ideas and give workshops and performances.
When Zbib and Serle first met in 2010 at a protégé gathering in New York, they connected instantly over a mutual interest in various aspects of performance. Their shared fascination with how to integrate the audience into the performance has been a discussion between them, one that resurfaced during Serle’s recent trip to Beirut.
“When I invite artists to Sidewalks, the starting point is not always the work they will present here, but rather an intuition about the relevance of what they are doing as artists and a connection with their process and ethos of working – with Lee this happened from the start,” says Zbib.
“It was incredibly valuable for me to perform Restrict in front of an audience that isn’t familiar with my work,” says Serle. “The context of Zoukak Sidewalks was ideal – it’s more open compared to when I perform in Melbourne [Australia] in front of an audience that knows me quite well.”
The intimate studio space lent well to the theme of the work, and the audience was captivated by Serle’s performance, as was Zbib: “His vulnerability and openness was highly affecting – he managed to find an interesting animalistic, insect-like quality to his movement which was fascinating.”
In the public discussion that followed the performance, Serle and Zbib exchanged ideas on how to develop the drama of the piece – Zbib’s specialty. “I encouraged him to explore and clarify the relationship with the audience. Whenever theatre is introduced into a dance piece, dramaturgy becomes important and questions like ‘what am I saying with this and why?’ need to be answered.”
In addition to his performance of Restrict, Serle also gave a workshop on constructing solo choreography. There were some 10 participants, with the challenge being the varying levels of dance experience among them – from beginners to professionals. A recurring topic for Serle, he focused on where to start when you have nothing to start with.
“It’s the million dollar question,” says Serle. “I start with one very simple gesture and then explore all the different possibilities and see where that takes me.”
This time it took him to Beirut, but he hopes that next time, it will bring Zbib and the Zoukak theatre company down under. “Maya and the Zoukak company have an open invitation to Melbourne, and I would love it if we could work something out for the future.”