Choreographer Khalid Benghrib presents L’Haal at SPRING in Autumn, a whirlwind of dance and rhythmical ecstasy. Khalid was born into the Sufi dance tradition in Casablanca, Morocco and studied contemporary dance in La Rochelle, France. I spoke to him about intercultural dance and the creation process of L’Haal.
You combine traditional Sufi dance with contemporary dance. How did these different dance forms cross your path?
I was born into the Sufi tradition, a mystical Islamic belief that embraces the search for the divine through the arts. My two grandmothers were leading figures of lila ceremonies, long nightly rituals of invocation and trance. I clearly remember seeing my grandmothers dancing outside, in trance, open and free. When I was older, I went to study contemporary dance in Europe and it became like my second heritage. Yet, when I came back to Morocco I realized how incredible Sufi dance is. So, I started studying these traditions and tried refreshing my childhood memories of the lila ceremonies. I asked around, not only in my family circle but also in the professional circle and I tried to develop my research.
How do the traditional and the contemporary come together in your work?
For a long time, I have been afraid to share my work with the public. I was afraid of mixing lila with contemporary dance. What could I take from the tradition? How could I do it respectfully? I was afraid of opposition. Anyhow, I feel like I had to come back to the tradition in order to come back to myself. And since I have lived in many places, I am a citizen of the world, the mix of these dance forms already exists within me.
As a choreographer, I look at lila through the eyes of minimalist contemporary dance. When I look at people dancing in lila ceremonies, I recognize minimalist dance movements. For example, I once saw a woman who froze in the middle of a movement and kept on standing still. She only made two movements during the whole night and yet it was so interesting! It is through observations like this that I learned how to make a wide variety of creations with only just a few elements.
L’Haal is the first in a series of works that revolves around the color structures which shape lila ceremonies. Can you tell me about the series and the theme that connect them?
The lilas are structured around a series of spirits, each characterized by specific colors, odors, flavors, feelings, actions, and sounds. The ritual is about getting in connection with a different world through a transformation of all these senses. I waited 15 years to start with this big project. I did not want to make just one or two pieces, but a whole series. L’Haal is the first, it is about the color violet which indicates the state of transformation, the trance itself. Q-a is the second piece I made and it revolves around polychromy, the variety of colors. After that, I have so many new pieces in mind, a blue one, a red one, a yellow one...
"L’Haal is the phenomenon called transcendence. It is the attempt to connect with the spirits." Khalid Benghrib
I understand that the word Haal comes straight from the Sufi tradition. What does L’Haal mean exactly? Is it a hint to what the spectator might experience during the piece?
L’Haal is the phenomenon called transcendence. It is the attempt to connect with the spirits. In the Gnawa and Hamadcha tradition (i.e. two of the most important so-called ‘popular’ Sufi traditions in Morocco) we try not to exorcise the spirits, but instead become friends with them. To be in connection with different dimensions, to open up, and to give. When I think about what I want to share with the public, it is certainly not an idea or a concept. No, quite the opposite — I want to share the sensation of being connected.
When I look at the dancers I wonder if the choreography is set or if there is room for improvisation. How choreographically structured is the dance?
As a starting point, we organized lila ceremonies with the dancers—they would dance and sometimes get into a state of trance. We also did some improvisation exercises. As a choreographer, I react to the movements, the propositions the dancers make. From there I choose what to take, what not to take, and distill it into a choreography. So, what starts as an improvisation turns into a set choreography.
There are not only dancers on stage, but also percussionists, led by Gnawa-master and Guembri-player Hassan Bousou. How did the interplay between music and dance take place? Can you elaborate on your collaboration with Hassan?
Hasan’s grandfather used to do the music for my grandmother’s ceremonies. That is why I cannot imagine working with anyone else. Hasan is not only a very good musician but also a very good pedagogue. Some of the dancers come from hip hop, contemporary dance, breakdance, etc., and knew about Gnawa on an intellectual level, but they didn’t know the practice of it, the embodied knowledge. Hassan really helped them to be in dialogue with the music and to push their bodies into the trance. The music is fundamental as it drives the dancers into that state of trance plus the texts of the songs are thematically important. Within one month Hassan taught them to dance and sing at the same time. I am just so glad to work with him. Also because he is the kind of person that does not stay with what he knows, but is actively engaged in the creative process. He even started to dance himself!
Is L’Haal an invocation of a certain spirit or memory?
The connection with my child-life is very important. I want to share my childhood memories of the lilas and how I experienced them as magical. I want to share that story, but I won’t just tell it to you… I’ll show it to you.
During my childhood, the door to the lila ceremony was always open. So, if you want to come to this ritual, come. Whatever your beliefs, you are welcome. The door is open.
L'Haal can be seen during SPRING in Autumn in Stadsschouwburg Utrecht. Click here for more information.