The latest installment of the Center for the Art’s “Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan” program, “Fleur d’Orange” tackles the complexities of being a woman in contemporary Moroccan culture. More narrowly, the work draws from choreographer and performer Hend Benali’s experience growing up in Casablanca, Morocco, and training as a ballet dancer from a young age.
Coming from a culture where women aren’t allowed to dance publicly, Benali incorporates a large range of emotions—sorrow, frustration, happiness—into this astounding work.
Personally, I came to the performance interested in seeing how Benali’s dance training would translate into such a piece. While there were no definite ballet-like movements—Benali never employed the traditional turnout, for one—I was able to catch glimpses of a “porte de bras,” or elegant carriage of the arms. Regardless of whether or not she chose to harken back to her original training, Benali is, by no doubt, a tour de force. She was a sight to behold onstage, captivating the audience with every movement she mustered forth. She was a fireball of energy, sometimes exploding into seemingly frantic contortions and other times tempering this intensity and curling herself into a small ball.
Appearing onstage initially in a traditional Moroccan headdress and a long tulle skirt (not dissimilar from a Romantic tutu), Benali manipulated the fabric to create fascinating and captivating shapes. She began with the tulle draped over her head, hiding her face. She later tucked the parts of the skirt into waistline before going into a rousing belly dance. Later, she employed an enormous, long, white cloth, contorting and wrapping herself in it until she she essentially constructed a burqa. Benali used fabric both as a tool and as an intimate dance partner, often pouring her feelings of frustration and agitation into it.
However, Benali also knew when to employ minimalism, and she spent a good majority of the work’s length in a simple tank top and shorts. She luxuriated with time, showing herself putting her hair back; instead of this seeming like a waste of time, she made it a piece of its own, a singular moment. She later incorporated this theme of singularity in front of a video projection. There, she invited the audience to study and consider the poses she made. Benali isn’t shy with sharing her other talents as well; she often sang and hummed as she danced. She would create music herself, stamping a beat of her own.
Joining her onstage were fellow dancer and collaborator Souifane Karim and composer-musician Mochine Imraharn. Karim complemented Benali and had his own moments to shine. Incorporating elements of hip-hop, Karim also moved with deliberate precision. He manipulated his own body, moving a leg with an arm or vice versa, responding perfectly to Imraharn’s musical arrangements, using every beat to make his body seem to pop. Though not himself particularly kinetic, Imraharn used live instruments and recordings to create a fascinating atmosphere, further weaving contemporary and traditional Moroccan culture.
“Fleur d’Orange” asked viewers to consider what it is to dance and, more specifically, what it is to dance as a Moroccan woman. There is definitely joy in it, as demonstrated by the early belly dance. However, there is also pain and a feeling of defeat from having to hide this kind of joy. When Benali contorted, she seemed to contort with the need to move but without any outlet to do so. Karim emphasized this sense of restriction by demonstrating its opposite: He moved easily on stage with open activity. Benali’s multiple costumes illustrated the says in which she must grapple with several identities; she took popular images of women in burqas and women washing clothes and employed them to show the humanity of these unsung dancers.
Benali and her cast will continue to tour the United States with “Fleur d’Orange” thanks to the Center Stage program, which brings international dancers and musicians to perform in the United States.