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Of polar dreams and dangers
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 03 - 2007


Amal Choucri Catta is one with the ice
"Smell of Ice", Egyptian Modern Dance Theatre Company, director and choreographer Walid Aouni, Gumhouriya Theatre, 19-24 February, 8pm and Sayed Darwish Theatre, Alexandria, 26-27 February, 8pm.
The soaring sound hit centre-stage as the curtain rose on a backdrop of glaring white light. With "Smell of Ice", performed six nights at the opera's Gumhouriya Theatre, we were, once again, in Walid Aouni's world of "meditative and committed dance theatre". This time, audiences found themselves in the wide, white world of melting snow, in the fresh, damp mists of an Arctic dawn, or in the glistening watery abyss of a collapsing glacier. The chunks of ice, however, seemed to be turning into rivulets and gaping caves of water, while the performers on stage were lost in a frenzied dance to the elements.
In their white tops and dark trousers the 18 dancers were bemoaning the disasters of man-made pollution, grieving over known and unknown dangers the world is facing, while, nevertheless, pursuing their sinful deeds against nature. Their movements never stopped, and while they were gliding from one pole to the other, they seemed to be chanting a tale of ice. Colliding land masses and grinding glaciers had created the Pole's dramatic topography. They are larger than Europe or Australia, though they have no population of their own. Antarctica alone contains more than two-thirds of the world's fresh water, in the form of ice, while being the highest, coldest, most desolate place on the globe. Both Poles have, nevertheless, always been "a place that explorers' dreams are made of", attracting, in recent years, increasing international attention, and opening the way to adventurers and hunters eager to feast on the millions of seals and chinstrap penguins. In the Arctic, tourists have likewise turned into regular visitors: they come for skiing, mountain climbing and sightseeing.
Storm-swept and locked in ice, the Arctic Ocean defied scientists long after other seas had been explored. According to researchers, for nearly 50 years Russian and American intelligence agencies and military commands spent billions on collecting information about the Arctic Ocean, from the properties of seawater and the topography of the seafloor, to the seasonal patterns of Sea Ice. Today, the cooperation of the two world powers is yielding answers to profound questions about the Arctic and its relationship to the planet.
With some 2,500 islands, cliffs and rocky mountains, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is transcontinental in scale: each year, millions of seabirds and marine mammals return to these craggy shores to raise their young. Most of the refuge is gale-whipped wilderness, rarely glimpsed by humans. But the human impact have been profound, from the introduction of foxes and rats, to over-fishing and pollution from military bases and industrial plants. Furthermore, the breakup and dispersion of sea ice in recent years has made it difficult to a half million murres and kittiwakes to find prey, which resulted in the birds' failure to lay eggs. Harsh, rugged and remote, Alaska has nevertheless drawn hardy settlers for as long as humans have known about it. At least 12,000 years ago, when sea-levels were lower, North America's first wave of human immigrants found its way across a land bridge between Asia and Alaska.
Sent on an imperial expedition by the Russian Tsar, Captain Vitus Bering sighted Alaska in 1741. The promise of furs lured traders for more than a century: whalers arrived through the Bering Strait, while gold drew a new frenzy of fortune seekers. During World War II Japanese invaders prompted the US Army construction of the Alaska Highway, which later turned into the first tourist and trucking route from the South, while the North Slope Oil followed, bringing with it another human tide. And they keep on coming.
Today, many tourists visit the Poles to experience the Aurora Australis in the South and the Aurora Borealis in the North, representing the earth's grandest show of lights, when the entire dome of night sky is awash with colour, while cascades of yellow-green and blushes of crimson seem to fall from a darker point, high overhead, painting a vision of abstract art on velvet skies. On stage, Walid Aouni's choreography vividly evoked the Arctic and Antarctica's history. In previous performances he has often condemned injustice, terror, war and other human or social shortcomings and political disasters: the "Agatha" trilogy, "Underground", "Fairouz" are among his spectacles of this kind, while others, such as "Elephants Hide to Die", or "Between Dusk and Dawn" bore a message of peace, love and friendship. Aouni also gave us some spectacular shows, like "Sheherazad", "Samarkand", or "The Desert of Shadi Abdel-Salam": they were vivid and of richly varied colours, whereas works such as "Mahmoud Mukhtar", though quite brilliant, were somewhat pallid in tone. Such is the case with "Smell of Ice", symbolically covering vast snowy spaces, devoid of colour. There remained, however, a latent dream of green pastures, when each dancer came on stage covered in green and the cloaks were subsequently spread on the floor. The entire show was centred on melting ice turning into water, causing seas and rivers to rise, inundating an unlimited expanse of land.
On stage we were also given a vision of watery abysses, with dancers wrapped in blue, while white polar bears haunted the seemingly endless snowfields and two dead seals were hoisted to the ceiling. "Nature is life, water is life and ice melts cause a danger to earth," says Walid Aouni, adding that "we have turned into a white society without any smell, just like ice". In the end, the dancers appear carrying ice blocks, a block for each one is hashed to bits on stage with the purpose of saving it from melting. The endeavours are futile, for humans have dug their own graves, dancing to vivacious tunes and polluting the entire atmosphere. They walk on ice, which threatens to break any instant and to fall before the world can be saved.
On the Gumhouriya stage, the 18 dancers performed their chopping of ice blocks in a seemingly endless rhythm to the haunting beat of drums. It must be said that "Smell of Ice" was not created to amuse or to entertain the spectator, but to make him realise the dangers he is facing and to give him thoughts to ponder. We were therefore not given any colourful auroras: they would not have fitted the eloquently dramatic performance, which was based on a Moto Perpetuo of movement and dance. Music and lights likewise played an important part in the show: we were given instrumental and vocal pieces by Philipp Glass, David Byrne, Richard Pinhas, Arvo Paert, Jon Hassell and others, performing sound, op and jazz, as well song and church music. Though brilliantly performed and of high artistic value, "Smell of Ice" was not intended to make the audience happy. This time, Walid Aouni was keen on conveying his solemn message to the world. In the end, after they had chopped all their ice- blocks to bits, the lights turned low, the dancers stood up, bowed and walked into the wings. They did not wait for applause, nor for the usual ovations. Walid Aouni had brilliantly and courageously delivered his message. It was time to go. The audience left in a meditative mood: they will be thinking about ice for a long time.


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