Taous Khazem with Pedro Lander (left) during Saturday's workshop/performance at Bedlam Lowertown. (Photos by Sheila Regan)

Who says pharmacists can’t dance? Or professors, or poets? On Saturday at Bedlam Lowertown, a group of folks ranging from professional performers to amateur artists came together for a five-hour workshop and performance that explored Arab identity in today’s world.

Led by New York-based choreographer Leyya Tawil, the event was sponsored by the organization Mizna, which is devoted to promoting Arab-American culture in the Twin Cities. Tawil uses a process called score building in her work, employing the form of the Onegin stanza (or the Pushkin sonnet) as the structure for the performance.

Alexander Pushkin popularized the poetic form, using the rhyme scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG, in which the lower-case letters hold an additional unstressed syllable. As Tawil interprets it, the capital letters seem to represent sections that are more forceful/pronounced, while the lower case sections offer more reflective and internal movements.

Tawil, who is Arab American with Syrian and Palestinian heritage, used the form two years ago when she was doing a residency in St. Petersburg, and has incorporated it in her work since.

“I’ve kept the score pretty close, and I keep chewing on in it,” she says. “It’s this idea of knowing who you are on the inside, knowing how you’re perceived on the outside, knowing that there are other versions of you to come and also deeper versions of you that are still to come.”

Violinist Salah Fattah with Sagirah Shahid.

Violinist Salah Fattah with Sagirah Shahid.

The 20-minute performance, which included live music, dance, poetry and video, began with the wonderful violin playing of Salah Fattah, accompanying the fervent dancing of Pedro Lander. Soon they were joined by other performers improvising in an exuberant opening section.

The piece lacked any kind of narrative, and much of the time the text delivered through the video sections was drowned out by drumming.

However, one section of text stood out, which spoke of the “known knowns” that drag us into war, “the ultimate unknown.” The poem, written by R. Abusahan, referred to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.

R. Abusahan, the pen name of pharmacist Rabi'h Nahas, composed five haikus during the workshop for the performance. Twice during the final piece, all of the performers delivered one of these poems to an individual audience member, creating an intimate, one-on-one moment.

“I like playing into the expected roles of performer-audience agreements,” Tawil says. Rather than having the performers deliver the poems into a microphone or recited to the whole audience, she chose instead to stage them in a way that they were delivered in a compact, intimate space. “Depending on how many people are in earshot, a lot of people will receive the poem in this enclosed space,” she says.

Tawil isn’t so concerned with what the audience gets out of the performance. “I’m not here to entertain you. You can be here for me as much as I can be here for you,” she says. “If we create something together that we believe in, that will ripple out into the audience.

If we believe what we are doing, other people will believe what we are doing.”

That framework, in which the experience of the workshop participant/performer supersedes that of the people who have come to experience a performance, can be a bit of a hurdle for the observer to enter and experience, especially when you’re watching something that was put together in the space of five hours, without any editing process. Still, there was a sense Saturday of witnessing for the audience, without necessarily understanding.