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A Moroccan Tradition in Full Cry

By Claudia La Rocco, New York Times, 23.09.2010

When the lights rose on the large, voluptuous women arranged on low cushioned benches in Bouchra Ouizguen’s “Madame Plaza,” it was easy for the mind to go to art historical references: the Venus figurines, Manet’s “Olympia,” or even the recent sculptural dances of Maria Hassabi, who embodies centuries of suggestively positioned women.

But the context and history surrounding Ms. Ouizguen’s dance, which had its American premiere Wednesday night at the Florence Gould Hall, is a less familiar one to most New Yorkers: the Aïta cabaret tradition of singing and dancing in Morocco, where the choreographer and her three Aïta castmates are from. According to the program notes, the Aïtas belong to a “profound singing tradition” but can also occupy a disreputable social position with erotic overtones.

“Madame Plaza,” which was presented as part of the Crossing the Line festival of the French Institute Alliance Française l and Danspace Project’s latest curatorial Platform, Trajal Harrell’s beautifully named “certain difficulties, certain joy,” tapped into themes of both events — most obviously the festival’s exploration of otherness, but also the more ineluctable, primal elements of dance that Mr. Harrell seems interested in conjuring.

Ms. Ouizguen, who has training in Moroccan Oriental dance and contemporary French choreography, spent years researching Al Aïta and forming connections with her performers, Kabboura Aït Ben Hmad, Fatima El Hanna and Naïma Sahmoud. The time showed in their easy relationship onstage, as the women moved from evocative, earthy poses to more rambunctious tumbling passages for the ensemble and smaller sections addressing knotty layers of sexual politics and play. In the one passage that most explicitly tackled the social status of Aïtas, Ms. Ben Hmad, by far the most gripping mover, pulled white trousers and a suit jacket over her motley lounge wear (the women’s outfits suggested both the bedroom and a certain poverty) and played the oily male seducer to the coyly simpering Ms. El Hanna.

The three Aïtas’ powerful, harshly soulful voices threaded through all of this, as they offered guttural and soaring cries, softer crooning and urgent chants, arguing with one another and the universe. The feel of these songs was reminiscent of both Muslim calls to prayer and flamenco ballads of passion and longing.

Not surprisingly, the women (save for Ms. Ben Hmad) were more compelling singers than dancers, especially once they abandoned the first slow shifts in angle and weight, deliberate movements that suggested they were both up for grabs and in control of themselves as objects. Thalie Lurault’s lighting design, often spotlighting the performers from above on the shadowed stage, furthered this sense of display.

A childlike innocence ran through “Madame Plaza,” tangling with more ambiguous adult realities; the cushions (sometimes arranged as forts or used in roughhousing) suggested a sequestered (or ostracized) female world, though one acutely attuned to male desire. But many of Ms. Ouizguen’s choices felt predictable and overly theatrical, or perhaps lacking in a clarity of intent over both small choreographic points and larger questions of exoticism and cultural paradigms. It was as if having found her Aïtas, she hadn’t quite worked out how to adequately frame them, and then let them be.

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