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Arts & Culture

Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre bridges divides with movement

Christin Kay
Aspen Public Radio

Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre is made up of dancers from Palestine and the U.S.  The company uses contemporary dance to tell the stories of underrepresented communities. They’ve performed at universities, museums and U.N. refugee schools all over the world. They were in Carbondale for the past week for a residency with valley nonprofit, Dance Initiative.


The dancers from Yaa Samar were panting. Six of them prowled the floors of the Launchpad.  They were in the midst of becoming...a wolf pack.


Artistic director and founder Samar Haddad King watched carefully from the side. Then, she gave the dancers a challenge: To move completely in sync, without any cues.


And they did it; no words were exchanged. The whole group simply mirrored the watchful, stalking movements of a dancer King designated as alpha wolf.


It’s a rare occurrence for the members of Yaa Samar to be in the same room in any form, as a pack of wolves or otherwise.


King described the challenges of directing a company based on two continents, challenges that are exacerbated because she lives in Palestine, which doesn’t have reliable electricity or internet. “It would be in the middle of the night for me, because we’re, depending on the time change, six or seven hours ahead. They would be rehearsing and I would be directing from a computer screen.  And sometimes when we didn’t have internet, it would be a phone or text messages.”


But the group was determined to communicate, both with each other and with their audiences. The company looks at dance as a way to inspire cross-cultural dialogue.


Zoe Rabinowitz is the associate artistic director and a performer with the troupe. "The main desire is to communicate with an audience. That there’s a narrative, that there’s a story, that there’s a world that begs to be shared and wants to be seen and wants to show maybe the other side of a story that wants to be told about a certain type of person or people."


Peter Gilbert, the founder of Dance Initiative, scours the contemporary dance scene in places like New York and Chicago for artists who would be a good fit for a residency in Carbondale. He’s brought several companies here, but said this one is different. “This is the first time that there was this social and political overtone to the whole effort.”


While they’re in Carbondale, the troupe is working on a piece called "The Keeper." It’s centered on the human relationship with land and what it means to belong to a place. As Rabinowitz explained, this focus is particularly pertinent at a time of protest and violence along the Israeli-Palestinian border: "Land is a source of conflict; land is a place of home, of landing, of safety."


In Carbondale, the company was “researching.” In contemporary dance, that means they were forming a kind of physical vocabulary that will be used in a performance. King explained why being together for this residency was so integral. “Because we’re all in the same place. You can’t experiment like what we’re doing now via video conferencing, text message, phone message. It’s so hard to do anything over those platforms, especially create art.”


After Carbondale, Yaa Samar will go on to residencies in New York and Paris, which made Peter Gilbert chuckle. “Aren’t those three places you think of all the time?  Carbondale, New York, Paris?”


Those may seem like pretty diverse locations, but Yaa Samar is used to performing for a wide range of audiences. The company itself is made up of dancers from different backgrounds, not just American and Palestinian, but people who grew up rich and poor, and with different levels of education.    

Amir Nazar Zuabi, the troupe’s theater director, said this diversity is beautiful, but that the group came together organically. “It doesn’t feel stitched together, or a social project.  For me, Zoe is not a foreign American, she’s a brilliant dancer and that’s the way we’re working.  I’m an annoying Palestinian director and that’s the relationship.”


Rabinowitz agreed. She hoped the company sets an example for cooperation in a world full of conflict. And while contemporary dance is sometimes seen as difficult to interpret, she thinks this art form is actually the perfect way to bridge borders. “It literally is everywhere, you know, every culture, every people, everybody has a dance, and if you allow yourself to be open to it I think it’s one of the most universal forms of communication.”


And founder King saw the power of her troupe as this communication through movement and gesture, instead of words. "There is an honesty that connects with people...all over.”

On Friday night, Yaa Samar had the rare opportunity to perform as one, as a pack, bringing that connection to a Carbondale audience.