Battery Dance Company worked and performed here in 2012.
The company had to modify it’s costuming out of respect for Algerian culture by wearing full-length unitards under some of the garments. It was interesting to witness the audiences' reaction to other countries that performed at the festival. Some countries wore revealing clothing either in ignorance or disregard for the conservative norms.
It did not reflect on the jury deliberations and seemed not to be an issue with respect to the general audience. However, that was only a superficial reading of the audience reaction.
Additionally, the Ministry of Culture did not comment publicly about costuming or even the controversial subject matter of the performance.
Differences in Culture
Algeria is a male dominant culture, and as the only woman on the judging panel at The Algerian Contemporary Dance Festival, BDC Dancer Carmen was treated disrespectfully by some of her fellow judges. This caused another member of the panel to complain to the Ministry of Culture about the situation.
It is always exciting to develop sustainable connections from various programs. Equally as exciting is when these relationships evolve in new and interesting ways. Battery Dance and the Algeria program proved to be one such opportunity providing three years of continued partnerships taking different forms around the theme of cultural exchange and dance. Each venture has been sponsored by the U.S. State Department along with the Algerian Ministry of Culture, demonstrating the positive role that dance and the arts can have in maintaining diplomatic relations.
The initial tour of Battery Dance to Algiers occurred in February of 2010. Two veteran dancers and teaching artists, Robin Cantrell and Sean Scantlebury, spent one week working with the National Algerian Dance Company L’ONCI. The program included a Dancing to Connect residency with a performance of the resulting piece. The performance featured L’ONCI dancers along with Battery Repertoire performed by Robin and Sean. The success of that initial venture led to an additional full company program in October of 2010. The second tour involved three different Dancing to Connect residencies with the full L’ONCI troupe and performances in three outlying cities. It culminated in a final event at La Salle de Mougar Theater.
Shortly thereafter, two Algerian dancers visited Battery Dance and joined the company as supplementary dancers for the New York season in April of 2011. Most recently, the company was called back to Algiers to participate in the fourth annual Contemporary Dance Festival sponsored by their Ministry of Culture.
The Algerian Contemporary Dance Festival is a fantastic initiative to build the contemporary dance scene in Muslim North Africa. Given the cultural constraints of a conservative Muslim population, progressive dance forms have fallen behind in exchange for more traditional forms of folk dance. In addition to providing a forum for modern dance performance, the festival provides monetary incentives by offering a competitive component. The majority of participating companies competed for cash prizes ranging from 5000 Euro to 1000 Euro. Some of the represented countries included Cuba, Venezuela, Spain, Argentina, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and many companies from Algeria.
Battery Dance was a guest of the festival with a full company presentation and two company members functioning as judges of the competition.
Tadej Brdnik and Carmen Nicole Smith arrived in time for the opening ceremonies of the festival. They were two of five members of the jury panel that also included a Bulgarian dance teacher and two Algerian independent choreographers and teachers. Performances were given each day of the week long festival. After viewing each evening’s choreographies, the judges would discuss the performances over dinner. By the end of the week, the jury was responsible for ranking the three top companies and also submitting a special award to a choreographer whose work showed particular promise. The deliberation process was far from smooth and Carmen Nicole encountered some challenges as the only woman on the panel. The treatment towards Carmen by one judge in particular was so disrespectful that another judge complained to the Ministry of Culture. Given the male dominant culture, this was not a surprise. That said, there were marked changes in gender roles in the direction of equality- an overall a positive sign. And despite the challenges Carmen faced deliberating with some members of the jury, there were many fun moments as well. Mr. Kador (one of the judges) even provided her with a comedic serenade over one of the meals. Another time, the group enjoyed traditional Algerian fare with explanations provided by the Algerian judges. In the end, a decision was made with the first place prize given to Cuba, second place to Argentina, third to Tunisia and the special prize awarded to a young Algerian choreographer. The closing of the festival involved a lovely presentation of awards, a feast for all participants and traditional Algerian dance and music.
In addition to their participation on the jury, Tadej and Carmen taught master classes to L’ONCI and at the major dance college in Algiers. Tadej focused on Graham based technique classes while Carmen taught a variety of contemporary techniques along with some Battery Dance Company repertoire. The classes occurred over four days and lasted two hours each day. L’ONCI also took the opportunity to discuss choreographic techniques. The two were invited to attend an open rehearsal of L’ONCI prior to the first day of the festival for advice on one of their new performance pieces. This placed Carmen and Tadej in a difficult position as judges of the competition, yet they managed to remain neutral and offer some comments about choreography in general as opposed to critiquing the L’ONCI competition piece directly. Needless to say, it was a delicate position to navigate especially when L’ONCI did not win any of the top rankings in the competition. The master classes also involved very important discussions about dance training in the U.S. and progressive definitions of dance. Algiers remains quite conservative in its approach to contemporary dance training and performance. It is highly probably that the contemporary dance scene will continue to shift with the ever-increasing spirit of openness in Algiers.
As previously mentioned, Battery Dance Company had multiple roles throughout the festival. Tadej and Carmen functioned as judges of the competition, master class teachers and also as guest performers. The other three members of Battery Dance Company along with Barry Steele, the company’s technical director, joined Carmen and Tadej to represent the U.S. The four spent only three days in Algiers arriving in the morning of day one and performed the following day and returned home to the U.S. The performance involved three different pieces comprising a forty-five minute program. Ambassador Henry S. Ensher attended the program with members of his family along with members of the Algerian cultural ministry. Along with the Ambassador was the Public Affairs Officer, Tashawna Bethea. It was anhonor to have them attend the performance and to be honored by the festival with flowers and special mentions.
The fact that there was such wide representation and respect for a diverse range of cultures was inspiring. Algieria is one of many North African countries widening the cultural circle and perspective towards contemporary dance. It will be fascinating to watch the dance scene develop it’s own unique identity bridging the Muslim world with current dance trends; a unique style is sure to emerge. Battery Dance hopes to continue its relationship with Algeria and build upon the strong friendship and exchange already in place.
Algeria - In July 2011: BDC's Production Designer Barry Steele's visited Algeria to train local technicians and to supervise lighting at two national festivals in Timgad and Djamila.
Battery Dance Company performed here as part of the 2010 African tour.
When the company arrived the Theatre Regional D'Annaba they feared they would have to dance on the old and gauged wooden stage floor. This would have been extremely problematic, had someone from the Alliance Francaise not appeared at the last minute. They brought with them a Marley Dance Floor that meant the dancers did not have to worry about splinters and possible accidents when performing.
Following Battery Dance Companies work in Algiers, the company left for the city of Annaba in the Eastern part of the country. It was hoped that the L’ONCI dancers would travel with BDC, to perform their new choreography for their fellow countrymen. However, the Ministry was unwilling to fund their transportation. BDC offered to pool their funds and cover the cost of a bus rental, and to share rooms in the hotel – but things don’t move that way in Algeria and the official answer was “thanks, but no thanks.”
Photos of Annaba on the internet are much more glorious than the city that Battery Dance Company visited, which looked as if it had been a French seaside resort and fish industry center many decades ago but had since fallen on hard times. The clock was already ticking when the company arrived in the morning with a full show to be staged that very same evening. The dancers were deposited at the hotel (grade C though advertised as 5*).
Ben, BDC's production director and BDC dancer Carmen made for the Theatre Régionale d’Annaba. What we found there caused fear in our hearts: a wooden stage floor deeply gauged from years of grand piano moving and/or productions of Aida. Not only that, but the lighting equipment and draperies were of a very old vintage and the technical crew didn't seem terribly motivated.
Someone turned up from the Alliance Francaise, despite the fact that it was a weekend and he was technically off duty. He brought with him a marley dance floor, ending the companies terror over the splintery surface. Hours of hard labor resulted in an amazingly polished show, attended by a full house and rewarded with a standing ovation.
The company was particularly astonished by the capacity attendance given the fact that Annaba was only added to BDC's itinerary a few days earlier and there had been no time to build up a p.r. campaign. Seemingly the large banner hoisted across the façade of the building had been adequate to bring in the crowds!
Battery Dance Company worked here in October 2010 as a part of its tour of Africa.
During the trip, two Battery Dance Company members were assaulted by two local youths. Fortunately, the two company members that were attacked managed to fend of the youths and perform later that evening. Perhaps this could have possibly been avoided if the company traveled in large groups.
The stage at Complexe Culturel was a strange semi-circle shape. This was something the dancers were not prepared for. The company managed to alter their performance to the stage- but it meant they had to completely change their performance program at the last minute. BDC managed to adapt the performance successfully in the little time they had.
One of the stops on BDC's 2010 Algerian Tour was the market town of El Eulma. Battery Dance Company was supposed to have performed in Sétif, a much larger and more cosmopolitan city. However the stage in Sétif was determined to be too small for the dancers needs. Unfortunately, when the company arrived in El Eulma (following a very long and truly dangerous bus ride) they discovered that the small stage of the rather grandly titled Complexe Culturel was shaped in a semi-circle with a low ceiling dotted with recessed multi-colored patio lights.
To complete the picture, there were swagged draperies and a photo of President Boutaflika against the curved back wall. The crew was more than willing to remove the draperies and photo, revealing an attractive trellised plaster wall (see photo below) Adaptability was BDC's mantra, and the dancers instantly switched the intended large-scale program for a series of solos, duets, a trio and one quintet, all of which could be accomplished on this cookie cutter stage.
During the afternoon, we suffered our only security mishap of the tour: Mira and Robin were assaulted by two teenage ruffians who knocked Mira off the sidewalk, onto the broken bricks of a back lot and attempted to steal her bags. Robin screamed bloody murder and both women used their best karate kicks to ward off their attackers, who laughed and ran away. Both women performed a few hours later and showed no lack of composure on stage.
BDC dancers were particularly touched by the audience in El Eulma. These were people who had never had the opportunity to see a modern dance performance before and who would have had no previous exposure to Americans. A group of high school students participating in an Embassy-sponsored English language program were thrilled to meet the dancers after the performance. The balance of the audience appeared to be merchants and others who were attracted by the novelty of a visit of a dance company from New York.
Battery Dance Company worked and performed here in 2010 before its tour of Africa. For Lessons Learned, Program Specifics and Narrative for Oran, see Algiers, Algeria.
Schedule Rest Time
When Sean and Robin Arrived at the theater in Oran, they had a lot more to worry about than their own performance.
They had to prepare the Dancing to Connect students for their performance in a new location, fulfill technical duties and prepare for their own performance. Fortunately, the dancers had taken the morning to rest so that they could put on a great show in Oran, later in the day.
On February 19th at 6:45 AM, Battery Dance Company left Algiers for Oran to prepare for their first performance later that same day!
They rested in the morning because the company knew that the rest of the day and evening would be a marathon. When BDC arrived at the theater, they had the unusual triple duties of preparing themselves for their own performance, preparing the Dancing to Connect students for theirs, AND being in full charge of the lighting and technical aspects. The theater had very few functioning lights and the lighting designer was a novice. He either ignored BDC's suggestions or simply didn't have the capacity to follow them. There was much conversation between him and his co-workers which the company couldn’t follow – and which didn't yield any recognizable results. A few times Robin had to raise her voice to get his attention. Trying to run the students’ pieces and simultaneously talk to the sound guy and lighting designer and trying to patch up holes in the floor off stage was not a happy job.
Overall the performance went well, the theater was packed and there was lots of applause. The students seemed really happy. After the show, they were clapping and singing and throwing the dancers up in the air. There was a wonderful feeling of everyone working together to do a fine job.
During the month of October, 2010, a team of 8 members of the Battery Dance Company engaged in a tour of Africa, criss-crossing the continent from Algeria to Kenya and Tanzania, from DRC to Namibia. The primary reason of the tour was to engage young Africans in a profound manner through the Dancing to Connect program, transferring knowledge and skills in the areas of choreography, team-building and self-empowerment through dance. Also important was the opportunity to perform BDC’s repertoire for audiences that would ordinarily lack access to the American form of modern dance.
Dance is a powerful vehicle of bonding across social and cultural borders in Africa. American artists are treated with respect, fascination and open-hearted hospitality.
Security issues are important to understand in each country. Walking down the street in garments that might be considered disrespectful can spell trouble. When in doubt, get a security briefing from the Embassy and cover up.
Internet connectivity is inconsistent; and so is access to reliable ATM’s.
Many theaters in Africa are not equipped with Western-standard lighting instruments and technical crews are often hard-pressed to support a full dance plot. Be ready to adapt and bring a resourceful production director with you.
Think ahead about ways in which you can follow-up, once your program is complete. The thirst for high quality dance instruction and performances is greater than a short visit can quench.
Bring plastic hangers, Woolite, Febreze and white tissue paper (to deal with damp costumes when you are on the run).
Budget for excess baggage. Airlines baggage policies are not dance company-friendly. It is essential to know exactly how much your company luggage weighs before you set off on your tour and to create an inventory of what’s in it. I have found it helpful to send the inventory of ahead of time to each host institution or Embassy along with a request for a letter detailing these items, including weight and description, and requesting assistance from the local airport and customs officials. Be prepared for lost luggage.
Engage the community in any/every way possible. Use all of your communication and teaching skills and think broadly and creatively about outreach. Our strongest suit was our Dancing to Connect program that brought us up close and fully teamed up with our African counterparts, and the fact that our final performances were shared with locals –our students and professionals.
Determine which countries require visas to be obtained before leaving the U.S. and which can be left until arrival at the airport. Create a timeline for the visa application process. As we found out, the more countries you visit on a tour, the more complex the procedure becomes
Battery Dance Company’s program in Algeria was the brainchild of the American Public Affairs Officers (PAO) and Foreign Service National (FSN) in Algiers. This creative and hard-working duo of U.S. Embassy PD staffers had been introduced to the BDC approach in February, 2010, through a 10-day program in Algiers and Oran with two of the Company’s teaching artists.
Building on the success of the earlier program, the Public Affairs Officer and Cultural Affairs Specialist worked with BDC’s artistic director Jonathan Hollander to devise a framework that would maximize the impact of the full company’s presence via Dancing to Connect (DtC) workshops and performances. An emphasis was placed on the importance of engaging young people and reaching out from the capital to under-served communities. The biggest impediment proved to be the Algerian Ministry of Culture, an agency that operates by the rule of “later”. In Algeria, the US Embassy cannot run any cultural programs without the Ministry’s consent. BDC’s programs involved very active collaboration with the national ballet company (L’ONCI), local dancers and theaters, thus making the Ministry’s participation all the more crucial. Even to get to the starting gate – obtaining visas for the Company – the Ministry’s approval had to be in place. Curve balls were flying in all directions during the weeks leading up to the program, despite the fact that initial meetings had yielded an enthusiastic response. There were at least three changes of cities, the last of which occurred even after the Company was en route!! To be fair, some of these changes were the result of security concerns on the part of the Embassy.
The DtC program in Algiers consisted of a week of training with three groups of dancers from L’ONCI – all day sessions with 2 BDC teaching artists working with 15 – 20 Algerian dancers from the age of 18 – 30. It was generally thought that the male dancers outshone the females in terms of athleticism, technique, performance quality and enthusiasm. But the buy-in was exceptional in almost all cases. Publicity and media coverage was excellent throughout the Algeria program including a lengthy interview on the national television show “Bonjour D’Algerie”.
After touring in Annaba and Eulma, BDC returned to Algiers and were reunited with the dancers from L’ONCI for a grand performance at the Salle el Mouggar. The return journey to Algiers from El Eulma warrants a full description -- everyone involved was imagining newspaper headlines reporting the tragic death of 8 dance company members and two USG officials in Algerian road accident. Ironically, the rationale for this road trip (in the wrong direction, away from Algiers, in order to fly to Algiers) was the concerns of the Security Officials at the US Embassy. This terrifying adventure involved a pre-dawn departure, fishtailing bus on slick roads, accompaniment by Algerian security vehicles that switched off every time a county line was crossed and who were far more hindrance than help, channeling the company via backstreets rather than highways. BDC arrived at the airport in Constantine with 10 minutes before their flight was scheduled to depart. Luckily or unluckily, depending upon how you look at it, the flight was cancelled. The FSN went into over-drive, re-booking us on another flight that in a crazy twist of fate, would make two stops, the first being Setif from which we had just driven. The pressure was extreme because the company had a performance that night in Algiers and had major technical rehearsals and brush-up to do with the local Algerian dancers. Instead of arriving at the theater at 9 a.m., they were almost two hours late.
How BDC's production director got the lights hung and focused and the show cued and ready to go at 7 pm is completely unfathomable. But he did, and the dancers were amazing. One BDC dancer was sick to his stomach and sweating profusely with fever, but he managed to he make it through the entire program with full energy before collapsing in a heap in the dressing room. The Ambassador attended the show and graciously addressed the full cast afterwards. His statement that, “cultural cooperation is the best cooperation possible”, and his warm, personal handshaking and congratulations afterwards made for the perfect cap on the evening and on the Algerian portion of the companies tour.