Brett Abrams

Dance MidEast Sexual Politics

Filed By Brett Abrams | March 11, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: Arab history, Belgium, dancing boys, Kennedy Center, Middle East, Turkey

Washington's THR-photo-2.gifCity Paper blurbed: "Thierry Smits, Compagnie Thor's artistic director, swears there's no political or social edge to D'Orient, though it's hard to deny the bristling homoerotic undercurrent of the piece: If men discovered the beauty of the human form, they'd spend less time waging war against each other. The opening sequence--staged in a bathhouse--is completely, hopelessly sensual, as members of the all-male company writhe against one another within a hyper-masculine environment."

After living 18 years with Ira Tattelman, author of a graduate thesis and several articles on the architecture of bathhouses in New York City and the codes and uses developed therein, I anxiously awaited Tuesday's performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

The company rarely brings its explorations of the bonds between the mystic and the erotic, the sacred and corporealness to the United States. Wonder why, because the 500-person theater was filled last night.

This month the Kennedy Center features a series called Arabesque: A focus on the Arts of the Arab World that the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Saudi Aramco and others are funding. Art installations filling upstairs include the replication of a cinema in Egypt, a glass reflecting kaleidoscopic images, and a pseudo-planeterium showing the Arab world in the 8th to 15th centuries.

The Belgian company contributed this dance to the festival because it is based on impressions gained from trips to the Middle East Orient. Three factors informed their performance: the aesthetic dimension of the Sahara, the festivity of brotherhood and conviviality of the society, and the Hammams, a place of relaxation and liberty.

Eight shirtless men dressed in thin light, flowing white pants emerged from the wings and took seats across the stage. I was surprised that allhad white skin. Yet, today I discovered the company issed a call for experienced African-American dancers recently.

Slowly, the dancer in the center stretched his arms against his bare back. A second rose and slid behind the first and sat beside him, imitating the stretch. Soon the two wrapped around each other.

Slowly, others moved and mingled with one another. Hands touched and carassed. Eyes met others and walked off with their new found friends. More intermingling of torsos and laying on of hands followed.

As the dance moved through its three scenes while perhaps not an attempt at political analysis, the piece provides a compelling look at the behaviors inside a same-sex environment in a traditional partriarchal society in today's world.

Thor performs the piece again Wednesday in DC.

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Does anyone else find the name "Arabesque: Arts from the Arab World" really problematic? While I applaud the Kennedy Center's decision to highlight arts from a part of the world often despised or feared in the west, the title "arabesque" stinks of colonialism and cultural commoditization and appropriation. The term arabesque was frequently used in the Orientalism movement in the earlth 20th century, which appropriated and copied arts forms from the Middle and Far East. These exoticized images were voraciously consumed by western masses, curious about these strange mysterious lands. All of this feeds into the inherent feminization and thus inferiority of the east which developed in the modern west.

Oh, and to actually comment on your article... yeah the dance looks majorly homoerotic. There's some videos on youtube you can check out:

Am i the only one who has problems with a dutch choreographer taking a trip to "The Orient" and creating dance works in Brussels that features how lavishly exotic the people there are? Imperialism, evidently is still going strong.

When Martha Graham danced "Oklahoma" it didn't mean she was really portraying that state. If she was, she would have shit on the stage in front of the audience. Dance is about entertainment and fantasy, and if it has an intellectual edge, the culture vultures eat it up. Sorry I never visted the baths in Istanbul. I hear they were wilder than Everard in New York. It really was exciting, the steam, the sweating tiles, the hung stud walking in the steam, the power brokers of Wall Street on their knees groping and licking the stud, the newness of being gay sure was an eye opener for me. In the 50's of course.

Clearly you're not a dance buff, because
A) Martha Graham didn't choreograph Oklahoma... that was Agnes de Mille.
B) Dance is not only intellectual, it requires intellect to be able to be produced well.
C) You comment on the Turkish Baths being wanton hovels of gay sexual fantasia only proves your colonialist bent. The baths in turkey are a cultural artifact of Turkish culture, largely devoid of homosexuality. They are a holdover from the Roman culture of baths and were communal and largely non-sexual. I actually have many Turkish friends, FROM Turkey who constantly complain about how western gay male culture has appropriated this facet of turkish culture for their own ends. This is classic colonialist cultural appropriation. You sir have only proven yourself false.

You are right about Oklahoma, it was indeed Agnes DeMille. I get "Applachian Spring" mixed up with Oklahoma as Martha Graham had her dancers costumed in similar prarie costumes.
I knew Martha Graham through my late wife Evangeline who supported her dance company and encouraged her dancing career in New York. Before me, and Prince Zalstem-Zalessky, Evangeline was married to Leopold Stokowski, and he conducted the orchestra for Martha's dances. Martha credits my wife and Stokowski in her writings as being very important to the beginnings of her career. The last time I saw Martha was in the 1970's and Ron Portus (sp) was managing the company. I don't know what "colonial" kick you are on, but I am probably guilty. Our country did start off with thirteen colonies, and my ancestry were some of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I am not Turkish, just a gay albiet bisexual man that frequeted gay baths when I was in my 20's pre AIDS era. Your copy and paste Wikipedia history of Turkish Baths is interesting. Thanks.

Hmm... I will never understand the gall that white people have where they feel that they can willy nilly disregard the tremendous amounts of injustice and pain their people have caused others.

Your people run a multi-billion dollar drug cartel, effectively lobotomizing an entire generation of Chinese and I'm the one with a colonialist chip on my shoulder.

American settlers effectively commit genocide against the entire native population of North America, and it's the Native American who gets called all sorts of names for calling for reparations.

The West enslaves millions of Africans in a global trade of human slaves, all to inflate your economies with free labor, and it's Black people's problem when they bring up racism.

I'm sick and tired of westerners raping cultures that don't belong to them and running back to their obnoxiously bourgeois enclaves and bragging about what wonderful new cultural artifact they have decided to steal, bastardize, and butcher for their own pleasure.

Get your own damn culture. And I am beyond justified to call out cultural colonialism when i see it. Because what colonialism is, is theft. Brazen, unabashed theft.


I return artifacts to Native people, so you have the wrong person to throw that fireball at.

Hmmmm... I just got back from Istanbul, where I went to a Turkish bath, and within an hour I was cruised by 3 Turkish dudes to jack off. They turned off the lights in one section to keep other people out, and....

Not saying that they're all like that. Maybe I fell on the queer one, although one guy who was jacking off there did get caught by the owner of the place and got chewed out. So I don't think it was meant to be, um, that kind of bathhouse.

Thanks Brett for the interesting blog regarding the performance and I am sorry it got diverted away from dance into colonialism. I think Bill Perdue planted that seed on another blog not relevant to this one. I missed the performance but will look for it when it comes to California.

I agree on your points about the names. Certainly Orient and Arabesque reek of colonialism.

As for the Belgium dancer adapting his experiences into a dance, this I'm more forgiving about. However, I was very disappointed, even surprised, not to see Arab dancers. I expected to see them because of how multicultural European countries have gotten over the years, particularly with Turkish imigrants.

Several weeks ago I did get to see an all-male Moroccan dance company as part of the festival. Cie2K but have found out little about them so if you know anything let me know.

Two items:

There is room for both neighborhood Turkish baths and the ones that "advertise" as being gay friendly. I tried both while in Istanbul ten years ago and saw each had merits.

The Post dance critic gave the following review.