by CHRIS ROGERS
As they entered a Winona theater last week for the dance performance “Za’atar,” audience members received an aromatic little gift: satchels of the show’s namesake spice mix — Lebanese za’atar, Syrian za’atar, Palestinian za’atar — each one with a unique riff on a shared tradition.
The riffs continued as three dancers — Leila Awadallah, Leyya Mona Tawil, and Winona’s own Sharon Mansur — presented a collection of solo performances and a trio piece. Mansur wanted to explore Arab American experiences and start conversations about them. “What happens if you bring three Arab-American women into the same frame?” Tawil asked. “The differences we can present are more important than the similarities in some ways,” she said.
Growing up in New England, Mansur looked different from her white classmates, but in a way that was hard for them to place and hard for her to explain. She came to somewhat dread the question, “What are you?”
“Where are you from?” people often asked Awadallah. When she explained she is from South Dakota, some would ask again, “No, really, where are you from?”
Mansur is Lebanese American, Awadallah is Palestinian American, and Tawil is Syrian-Palestinian American. Being Palestinian American is about constant resistance and trying to redefine narratives, Tawil said. Awadallah stated that some people ask where she is “really from” to put a label on her, a label that will change how they think about her. “I think we’re all very aware that when you say ‘Lebanon,’ ‘Palestine,’ and ‘Syria,’ it has a very specific tone in people’s minds,’” Awadallah said. Americans hear a lot of bad news coming from those places, but they are not getting the full picture, she continued. “Belly dancer or bomber — that’s what we get,” Awadallah stated. “I think getting to know a person for who they are right in front of you is important — not boxing them into an easy answer,” she added.
When the lights dimmed at Saint Mary’s University’s (SMU) Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts and the first performance began, Tawil manipulated a tangle of foot pedals and knobs to produce an uneasy, pulsing beat that underscored her movements. As she danced, some strange contraption converted every stomp of her black boots into a sonic explosion, and during the after-show talk, she likened the device and her journey across the stage to homeland and diaspora. Her stomps from the far side of the stage elicited a faint response from the place of the sound’s origin. “Can we actually create those ripples from far away?” Tawil asked.
Mansur’s dance was by turns disturbing, sweet, and everything in between. At one point, she seemed to devour a veil that had covered her face. At other points, she curled up in a womb-like half circle of cedar chips or cradled the veil like a babe. Mansur said poetry inspires her work. She used lines of poetry as prompts for her dance and took cues from the way the space in between words or movements can be full of anticipation. “I love that spot,” Mansur said. She described her work as a collage with no single meaning. “You’re bringing your perspectives to that, and whatever you get from that, it’s your view,” Mansur stated.
In the opening moments of Awadallah’s solo, she cut loose to a soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” chopped up with newscasts about the use of torture, crackdowns on Palestinian protests, and the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem. While a narrator stoked fears of terrorism, a hobbled Awadallah dragged herself across the floor. Awadallah said she sometimes constricts her movement to mimic the experience of confined people. “This is how I research empathizing with movement around borders that are blocked,” she stated.
Over the course of their lives, each of the three artists said they had journeys to understand what their heritage meant. “No one in my community talks about this,” Awadallah said of Palestine. “I needed to talk about Palestinian history,” she added. “Over the years, I’ve been asked, ‘Oh, you’re Arab. How does that play out in your work?’” Tawil said. “It’s just a part of my output in the way that my voice sounds like my voice sounds like,” she explained. Tawil just is herself. “That in and of itself resists the narratives,” she stated. Mansur explained that her father did not share much about Lebanon with her, but like many descendants of immigrants, Mansur had questions. Over time, she learned more and her family opened up. “I think it’s been healing for my family to reconnect with Lebanon and realize that it’s OK to be American and Arab.”
Before the three artists performed a final piece together, stagehands planted four sections of wall in front of the audience. The partitions blocked almost the entire stage from view. Through gaps in the walls, dancers flashed into sight for a moment — or a portion of their body came into view — only to disappear again. A woman in the front row craned her head to try to see around the barrier to the other side. It seemed like there was beautiful dancing going on behind the wall, but the audience only caught snippets of it.
SMU’s Page Theatre presented “Za’atar,” and won a Southeast Minnesota Arts Council (SEMAC) grant to support the project. It is part of a series of events in Winona that Mansur and the Page Theatre are producing called “The Cedar Tree Project.” Mansur will perform in the next installment, “Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree,” at the Page Theatre on April 24 and 25. More information is available at www.pagetheatre.org.