For Tunisian dancers, the Cité de la Culture in Tunis has become a very expensive metaphor. This gigantic arts complex, a pre-2011 revolution project completed last year, houses — among other institutions — three theatres, three state-run dance companies and a new international festival, Carthage Dance. Yet the stately halls underneath its signature glass globe feel eerily unoccupied, without so much as a bar or café in sight. Last week, at the festival’s opening, visitors were greeted by leftover advertising boards for the Tunisian military.
It’s a paradox that Carthage Dance has had to navigate since its debut last year. This ambitious festival was modelled after successful marquee events, including the Carthage Film Festival, which started in 1966, and the Carthage Theatre Festival. With 28 Tunisian and international productions this year, Carthage Dance fills a gap as a large-scale showcase for Arab and African choreographers, who are under-represented on the world stage. Yet it has also crystallised tensions around officials’ scattershot approach to expanding professional dance in Tunisia.
At times, you could have mistaken the festival’s morning debates for group therapy sessions. On the second day, veteran Tunisian choreographer Nawel Skandrani suggested: “People gloat over the Tunisian cultural exception, but when you scratch the surface, you realise it’s a hollow shell.” Others saw progress; most lamented the lack of facilities, as well as the fact that the fees for publicly funded dance commissions have remained unchanged since 1986.
Yet there is a palpable hunger for dance in Tunisia, as some of Carthage Dance’s outdoors performances suggested. When amateur dancers taking part in Cyrinne Douss’s Filantes started swaying and spinning around the busy Bab el Bhar city gate, just outside the Medina, a crowd formed almost immediately. Children ran around the performers; street vendors stopped to film on their smartphones. Some of the cast’s women heard derogatory comments, Douss reported the next day, but they were greeted with warm applause.
“I think you can do anything in Tunisia these days, as long as you’re stubborn enough,” the 35-year-old choreographer explains. After starting her career in France, Douss returned home after the Jasmine Revolution that saw the fall of dictatorial president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, followed by a new democratic constitution. “There was a kind of monopoly before 2011, with very few artists who represented dance,” Douss says. “There’s greater diversity now, and I find social meaning in my work here.”
Carthage Dance director Mariem Guellouz agrees that new doors have opened for physical expression in the country. “Before the revolution, the state controlled people’s bodies through fear,” she says. “It’s not all rosy, but now there is a way to say, ‘I don’t accept this’.”
Guellouz, a Tunisia-born dancer and linguistics professor at the Université Paris Descartes in France, thought it was a prank when the minister of culture, Mohamed Zine El Abidine, called in 2017 to ask if she would lead a new festival. With complex government regulations and limited technical equipment, the logistics remain daunting.
Under the circumstances, the positioning of this “post-revolution festival”, as Guellouz calls it, has been fairly bold. This year’s theme was “No dance without physical dignity”, and at the opening ceremony, Guellouz declared dancers’ bodies to be a political metaphor. The programme brought together artists of Arab and African descent to foster dialogue in a country that combines both identities, sometimes uneasily.
It’s a worthy endeavour, although in practice a number of international productions came from artists based in Europe. Carthage Dance opened with Queen Blood, an unfocused if energetic work by the French hip-hop choreographer Ousmane Sy. Chantal Loïal brought her sensitive exploration of traditional dances from the French Caribbean islands, Cercle égal demi-cercle au carré, complete with a dance party for the audience afterwards.
One of the strongest offerings was a theatre production. Myriam Saduis’s affecting Final Cut wove together political and personal history: after her parents’ separation in France, Saduis’ Italian mother kept her from her Tunisian father, going so far as to have him deported. Saduis’s retelling of that story is unsentimental yet skilfully interlaced with literary references. Emotions ran high in the auditorium, where Saduis’ remaining Tunisian family was present.
Based on this sample, the new generation of Tunisian choreographers are looking for their own path within contemporary dance. A number of promising productions were too generic in their movement quality, from Thouraya Boughanmi’s Anémone couronnée to Kaïs Boularès’s Point noir. Selim Ben Sefia and Marwen Errouine’s duet Chawchra started with a striking image — two men wearing muzzles — but never quite found the narrative arc to match it.
In some ways, local artists are still grappling with outside expectations. As the director of Tunis’s El Teatro, Zeyneb Farhat, put it during one debate, foreign programmers still look for specific themes when programming Tunisian artists, from women’s condition in Arabic-speaking countries to terrorism and illegal immigration.
One way out is to confront these clichés head-on. In the witty Without Damage, Egypt’s Mohamed Fouad stopped to say that his performance was neither about human rights nor about white privilege. He paid volunteers to act as extras, including one who was called upon to kiss him, still a provocative gesture onstage in Tunisia. They leaned towards each other, then froze, while a message about “inappropriate content” played over the speakers.
A Tunisian-European collaboration took another path. In lieu of overt statements about colonialism, Massimo Gerardi’s Clash spun nuanced dialogue in which three Tunisians and one Czech performer went from hinting at their differences to finding common dance ground, from classical lines drawn on the floor to side-by-side duets.
It’s exactly what dance has to offer in tense social contexts. Attendance here was noticeably better than in 2018, and with decent investment, Carthage Dance may well drive the development of the country’s dance scene. If Tunisian artists’ impassioned contributions are any indication, they stand ready.