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Movement Made for Listening

By Brian Seibertoct, New York Times, 01.10.2013


Bouchra Ouizguen Brings ‘Ha!’ to New York Live Arts

In the near darkness, it takes eyes awhile to adjust. Aural information dominates at first: rhythmic exhalations that sound human. As your pupils dilate, and the light very slowly brightens, four shapes, white and pulsing, grow discernible. The pace of the brightening doesn’t quicken, but recognition, when it comes, dawns instantly. The shapes are heads, bobbing like derricks. The blacknesses below the heads are bodies.

The four bodies, it becomes apparent, are women in tightfitting black fabric with white head scarves. This is the cast of “Ha!,” by the Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen. The hourlong work, performed on Friday at New York Live Arts as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, uses nothing more than the women, the sounds they make and Jean-Gabriel Valot’s crepuscular lighting.

As in Ms. Ouizguen’s “Madame Plaza,” seen in New York in 2010 and 2012, one of the women is not like the others. That is the slim one, the choreographer. The remaining three, Kabboura Ait Ben Hmad, Naima Sahmoud and Fatima el-Hanna, are singers in the Moroccan aita tradition. While “Madame Plaza” was largely about them and their social position, in “Ha!” they embody something other than their identities, conveying rituals they witnessed in villages near Marrakesh.

The head-bobbing with the exhalations — an expelling action, like a big sneeze — repeats to exhausting length. As unison fractures, the sound builds in complexity, resembling a chant or a work song, sometimes in call and response. Periodically, a voice drops out, and the beat flips around. The intensity heightens, along with pitch and volume, until the chanting subsides into tired grunts that draw laughter.

Gentle humor and a quiet camaraderie were also present, appealingly, in “Madame Plaza,” tied to an earthy sensuality with feminist overtones. In “Ha!,” the women’s rolling and thrusting pelvises seem to function as a release or a kind of healing. About halfway in, Ms. Hmad, whose strong presence would make her a leader even if she didn’t initiate behaviors, begins twisting her face in circles. The others respond by shaking their heads. Ms. Hmad gives out a low cackle, and the women disperse into individual gibbering.

Is this madness we’re beholding? Sufi mysticism? It’s hard to sense the unseen. This section is vague, diffuse, protracted. And the pattern of the whole work — the way each section swells before waning into stillness and silence as the women face us, as if for inspection — grows predictable.

Yet the ending finds a new note. Ms. Hmad kneels with her head to the floor, as if to pray. One by one, the others join her, but more ambiguously — one whispering a confidence, another resting her head on a third’s thigh. They could be sisters sleeping or gunned-down victims.

Ms. Hmad begins singing, her voice muffled by the ground and the flesh around her, and the others join her in this, too. The lights go out, but the singing continues, the soulful, guttural singing the aitas have been doing all their lives. To know that they exit, you only have to trust your ears.

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