Where American and Tunisian Dance Meet

An Interview with Emily Schoen

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Emily Schoen is a dancer and choreographer in New York City, and the artistic director of Schoen Movement Company. This October, she orchestrated a residency in Tunis, Tunisia, teaching modern dance classes and setting a piece on members of both her own company and the local contemporary Tunisian scene. She shares a bit of her experience, as well as the value and necessity of international exchange.

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How did the Tunisian residency come about?

Last spring, I went on a DanceMotion USA tour with Keigwin + Company to three countries in Africa. We went to Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia. Tunisia was our last stop, and I just fell in love with it. It’s a beautiful country on the northern tip of Africa on the Mediterranean. To our surprise, there was a contemporary dance scene in the capital Tunis. Up until that point, we had seen primarily traditional African dance. It was exciting to speak a common dance language with another group of professionals.

I choreograph on my own company when I’m not dancing with Keigwin so, in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking of my next project. I thought Tunis might be a place I could come back with my own company and dive in deeper. I started talking to the US Embassy in Tunis. There’s a wonderful woman there, a foreign service officer, who helped me navigate the government grant scene. DanceMotion USA stepped in and was excited to hear about someone wanting to do a continuing collaboration following their tour. They supported the partnership with a local Tunisian group. American Dance Abroad came into the picture as well, so all these little pieces stepped in to make it happen alongside our private support base in New York.

How was the residency structured?

There’s a dance organization, Hayyou’Raqs, with the mission to provide professional level training to dancers in Tunisia where there otherwise is none. A lot of the Tunisian dancers have piecemealed together their training because there’s no university program for dance. There are some studios, but it’s not extensive. Hayyou’Raqs has a program, Tawassel, which is the specific training branch of their organization. The woman who runs that program, Cyrinne Douss, was my partner in making the residency happen.

During the residency, we taught a modern dance class for dancers in the Tunis community, since a lot of the them hadn’t had exposure to American modern dance. For the rest of the day, we rehearsed. We were comprised of three women from the US – myself and two of my company’s dancers – and four local men and one woman who I met through the Keigwin workshop, so a cast of eight. We built a new piece from the ground up and, on Saturday, October 14th, we had our performance.

The title of the piece was “Here We Are.” We attempted to capture what it means to engage with the present and show up to participate in community.

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Photo by Mohamad Salah

What’s the dance scene like in Tunisia?

In total, there are probably 30 to 50 professional dancers in the country. It’s small and totally freelance, since there’s not a lot of infrastructure for dance. A lot of the dancers end up making their own work, since there isn’t much work for them to be a part of if they’re not creating their own opportunities. There are a surprising number of European choreographers who come through Tunis, which is probably in part how the dancers have gotten to where they are artistically. For example, when I came through with the Keigwin workshop, I was surprised how well the dancers understood different movement creation games, and I suspect it’s because they’ve gotten exposure over the years.

Interestingly, many of the dancers in Tunisia come from a hip hop background. Hip hop is popular; many learn hip hop through videos or via the local scene. Through learning hip hop, they discover they like dancing, and from there they find their way into contemporary. That was true of all four men in my piece.

As far as ethnic dance forms, there are certain wedding dances and there’s probably more outside the city center, but I did not see traditional dance like there is throughout the rest of Africa.

The other thing I think is important to mention is the ratio of men to women. In Cote D’Ivoire and Ethiopia, the dance scene as almost all men. In Tunisia, because it’s a little more Westernized, it’s a little more balanced, but there are still more men who choose dance as a professional path.

What do you feel was the value of the exchange, both for your company and the Tunisians?

As a choreographer, I had to work in a different way. Since the men came from a hip hop background, which is very improvisational, they made dance up instinctively and in the moment. They were not used to set phrase work, which is my currency as a modern choreographer. I make pieces, not improv scores, though I may use an improv score to generate material. The first day, we had created a score, and I decided to fill in the score with choreography. It was still the same structure, but with set material. What had been successful up until that point suddenly fell flat. I realized this process was going to be different. I needed to make a set piece that used their improvisational skills, which was a new challenge choreographically.

For me and my dancers, the benefit was connecting to people from another part of the world in a deep way. We worked together, sweated together, lifted each other, and got frustrated together. We did essentially the same work we might do at home, but with people who grew up in a drastically different culture and face different challenges. And yet we lived and breathed the same air for two weeks.

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Photo by Mohamad Salah

I think the value was similar for them. The project had a lot of momentum and attention, in part because we had support from DanceMotion USA and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as from the US State Department. For the Tunisians, it was huge exposure. These are really talented movers who maybe never thought they’d be dancers, and they had an American audience and were part of an international broadcast performance. I think it was a big deal for them professionally.

Now that you’ve both participated in the Keigwin workshop and your own residency, what do you think is the larger value of international exchange?

It’s so important now, not just because what’s happening in our government, but because there’s a worldwide trend of separatism and national identity over human identity. It’s so healthy for individuals to be reminded that people everywhere are people. That’s the beginning and the end of the story. No one is hauling water on their head here in Tunisia, but they were in Cote d’Ivoire and Ethiopia. It looks so foreign, but when you get to know people, you realize we’re all looking for the same things in life: security, happiness, love.

Looking forward, how do you think the Tunisian residency will impact your future work?

The residency felt particularly timely – three American women working in a Muslim country with primarily men. It felt like something that is taboo in the states, and yet the partnership was so natural and easy. We went to a hip hop party with the dancers one night and got to see them in their element. At home, I would have probably spent the evening with my husband and two-year-old daughter but, because I was in Tunisia, I got to experience something totally new.

Because it felt so successful, I think it would be great to bring the collaboration back to the states. I have started speaking with presenters in New York and finding out if there are interested theaters that offer residency support and a performance series. It would be great to share our show on home soil, and I think people would love it. It would be different, something not happening anywhere else.

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Photo by Mohamad Salah

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To learn more,  visit www.schoenmovementcompany.com.

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