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.