Three Syrian dancers are using the stage to show the challenges - and possibilities - of cultural integration
For three male performers from Damascus, dancing is what they know best. Through raw and powerful performances in Germany, they are helping show the diversity of people within the rich culture of their homeland, rather than just the media images of refugees and war.
The Syrian dancers share their individual stories through a dance performance titled “Come As you Are (Photo courtesy of Bernhard Musil) ”
“I was performing in Berlin and someone asked me, how does it feel to be a male dancer from Syria?" said 33-year-old dancer Amr Karkout. "I said it feels totally normal because there are more than 100 Syrian dancers. It’s not like we are living in tents in the middle of the desert,".
I was performing in Berlin and someone asked me, how does it feel to be a male dancer from Syria? I said it feels totally normal because there are more than 100 Syrian dancers
- Amr Karkout, Syrian dancer
"We also have universities and different styles of dance. Of course it is different from Berlin, but it is also dancing. This can help to break the stereotype of immigrants or refugees from the Middle East," he added.
The three friends - Karkout, Medhat Aldaabal and Moufak Aldoabl - used to be colleagues in Syria. They mostly performed ballet in their homeland before they fled the Syrian war, which has left around half a million people dead. They reunited in Berlin over the last couple of years.
Over the last few months, the trio have taken to the stage of prominent theatres in Germany, to reveal the difficulties they’ve faced while adapting to life as refugees in the capital city of Berlin.
“The stage is like a platform where you can just express who are you and what you are feeling," Karkout told Middle East Eye.
After a successful run of shows in Berlin and the eastern city of Leipzig over the past three months, they are set to return to the stage again in the capital in early December.
“This has all been part of the process to feel settled,” adds Aldaabal. "To be able to perform what’s inside you freely, to have this opportunity to say everything that you want through dancing, has been magic.”
Sharing emotions on stage
In August, the trio presented their first show at the capital's DOCK 11 Theatre, one of Berlin’s most popular dance theatres located in the trendy district of Prenzlaur Berg, sharing their experience with the audience.
The trio's performance also reveals the challenges they have been facing in Berlin - from struggling with the language, to trying to fit into a city that doesn’t always seem welcoming (screengrab)
The performers integrated spoken-word monologues in their routine - personal, open and moving accounts of who they are, what they have experienced and their hopes for the future.
To be able to perform what’s inside you freely, to have this opportunity to say everything that you want through dancing, has been magic
- Moufak Aldoabl, Syrian dancer
The audience learns that Karkout, who despite teaching at the Higher Institute of Drama and Art in Damascus, wasn’t taken seriously as a dancer by his family, who instead wanted him to pursue a more "respectable" career like law. “An organism can adapt to a new place, as much as an organism can survive extreme conditions," he says.
"I feel as if I have stones all over my body. I’m working on letting go,” he adds, before breaking into an intense solo sequence.
Their performance also reveals the challenges they have been facing in Berlin - from struggling with the language, to trying to fit into a city that doesn’t always seem welcoming and trying to find a landlord who is willing to rent to a refugee.
Aldaabal, 30, speaks of a recent knee injury he got while dancing. He also sheds light on the reality that he is facing.
I thought dance is the universal language [and] that people in Berlin will understand me and accept me as I am
-Medhat Aldaabal, Syrian dancer
“I feel so much limitation in my body. Limitations, limitations, limitations: job centre, Finanzamt (the financial authority in Germany), Volkshochschule (German language school) and my father is in a life-threatening position with the Assad regime," he says during the performance.
“I thought dance is the universal language [and] that people in Berlin will understand me and accept me as I am."
He adds that he is learning how to breathe again, and like his new city, which rebuilt itself to "one of the best cities" in Europe, he just needs more time.
Moufak Aldoabl studied studied mostly ballet, contemporary and jazz dancing in Syrian (Photo courtesy of Bernhard Musil)
On his part, 24-year-old Aldoabl shares how in Syria he studied mostly ballet, contemporary and jazz dancing. Now that he is in Berlin, he says, “I’m exploring new styles, learning so much, improvising, observing."
“I’m living in an artistic dream," he adds.
I’m living in an artistic dream
- Moufak Aldoabl, Syrian dancer
For Aldaabal, the performance is about the development of his physical identity. “When I graduated, one of my dance teachers said to me that if you have any small feeling that is annoying you, and makes you feel uncomfortable, just take it to the stage and you can release it [while performing]. Other people may feel better after talking, other people do other things to feel good, but dance is our way," he says.
'Come as you are'
The production, entitled Come As You Are, was founded and produced by Berlin-based dance choreographer Nir De Volff/Total Brutal. Over the past 10 years, De Volff has been developing a method of dance called Use-Abuse, described as a "harmonised coordination between the body and the emotional system of dancers, actors and performers". It is designed to offer a "new dimension for movements and exploration of the body".
The show itself is a political act, for the people who want to come and show support [to the refugees]
- Nir De Volff, dance choreographer
At the height of the refugee crisis in Berlin in 2015, De Volff recognised how dance could be used to help the migrants deal with the emotional and physical stress their bodies may have gone through during their harrowing trip to Germany.
De Volff set up a dance group for free at DOCK 11’s sister studio Eden. He didn’t teach any specific type of choreography, but led a variety of physical exercises from his Use-Abuse method, including dancing techniques, accompanied with images.
In September of that year Aldoabl arrived, followed nearly two years later by Karkout, who arrived in the city in February. With De Volff’s encouragement and guidance, the group put together the production of Come As You Are.
“The show corresponds with the political resistance and support for refugees and immigrants," De Volff says. “It doesn’t go directly into politics, we don’t talk politics on stage, but the show itself is a political act, for the people who want to come and show support."
Breaking down borders
Since most of their 50-minute dancing routine was improvised, the trio say that the style of "Use-Abuse" dancing was completely different from the "homogenic, pre-choreographed sequences based around ballet", that they had done before.
"We have a lot of memories from living in Syria but the show was about what we experienced in Berlin once we arrived here, and looking at the differences between dance in our culture to European culture," says Karkout.
Come As You Are is for people to see who is entering here - to see them not as a media placard - but to get to know them as people
- Nir De Volff, dance choreographer
The power of such openness is resonating with audiences. The trio is expected to perform in three more shows starting from 5 December at the Dock 11 theatre.
Florian Hoffmeier, a psychiatry resident physician, attending one of their shows, told MEE: ““They changed their life and their way of living, and for me it created a lot of respect and humbleness to realise that there are people who have jumped across cultures and are sharing the difficulties and emotions with us on stage.”
De Volff explains that the idea of Come As You Are is "for people to see who is entering here - to see them not as a media placard - but to get to know them as people.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.