Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 

 Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 
Social Garage - NYU. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 March 2023

Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 

 Yaa Samar! Dance Theater: The Palestine and New York-based company subverting audience expectations 

DUBAI: For the past few months, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater has been organizing a weekly online class for artists in Gaza. “Last week, it took us 52 minutes to get one group in Gaza a strong enough connection to start the class,” says Samar Haddad King, the company’s artistic and founding director, referencing the territory’s chronic electricity crisis. “You see the disappointment from the artists and the fatigue caused by just trying to do something small.” 

This is just one glitch among many. Haddad King, who is in Haifa when we talk, rattles off a series of stories related to the disruption and oppression caused by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank: People taking 16 hours to travel eight kilometers, delayed performances, missed shows, and artists hurrying dangerously through warmups.  

“Sometimes before these shows they go through severe trauma at the checkpoint, but I think there’s this ability to kind of push things down in order to accomplish something and then you deal with the repercussions,” she says. 

Zoe Rabinowitz by Chrissy Connors. (Supplied)

A transnational company based between New York and Palestine, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater puts a significant amount of time and effort into education and engagement programs, says Zoe Rabinowitz, the company’s executive director. But even developing and working with artists is a challenge. “One of our current teaching artists from Jerusalem is now in Denmark. This is a big thing,” she says. “Artists leave. It’s a very difficult place to live and work in and so we’re constantly investing in developing artists — and then that community shifts and changes. We’ve been lucky enough to work with a really solid core group of artists, but visas are not always approved to the US, we have to make last minute casting changes, and there have been years where up to 40 percent of our programming has been cancelled due to security issues, visa denials — the full gamut of things.” 

Can dance be anything but political in Palestine? Is dance a form of resistance? While the company’s work is not necessarily ideological, “there is something about raising your voice and our story being told, and maybe being told in a different way,” says Haddad King. “Just being seen, just screaming out, talking it out, dancing it out is political. We are politicized.” 

Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour in 'Last Ward' at NYUAD in February. (Supplied)

“I think doing contemporary work as a Palestinian-American company is a bit of a perspective shift for a lot of folks who, if you say ‘Palestinian,’ are expecting dabke or a more-cultural dance performance,” adds Rabinowitz. “So (by being) in this space that is melding a lot of different forms — we have folks that are dabke dancers, we have ballet dancers, we have hip-hop, we have circus, we have theater performers — we’re really making a hybrid form that’s dealing with contemporary themes, and it’s not life in the camp and the hardships of the Palestinian struggle. That’s not always at the forefront of a narrative. And that subverts the expectations sometimes of an audience, which I think is really important.” 

Formed in 2005, Yaa Samar! Dance Theater’s mission is to promote understanding through the arts. It does so through cross-cultural dialogue and social discourse, with its performers both formally trained and self-taught. By working with artists from across the Arab world, Asia and the US, all of whom are from a variety of dance and theatre backgrounds, the company has created this hybrid, global form of multimedia dance theatre that Rabinowitz talks about. 

Its most recent production is “Last Ward,” a performance that follows one man’s journey towards death in a hospital room. Written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, with choreography and music by Haddad King, the work had its Arab world premiere at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi in February and stars the Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour. As Natour’s character reflects on his life, relationships and connection to place, the ritual of doctor visits, family calls and nurses administering food and medicine transforms into an increasingly bizarre landscape of tragedy and humor. 

Wael Abu Jabal. (Supplied)

 “It’s interesting that Palestine is not in the show at all, and yet it’s an opportunity for people to see this man, who’s a Palestinian man, as a human,” says Rabinowitz. “And to really have compassion and empathy for his experience is a powerful thing.” 

“It’s perhaps our most political work because of that,” adds Haddad King. “We have more overt political themes in (works such as) ‘Against A Hard Surface,’ also created by Nizar and I. There are dancers bashing themselves against a wall and there’s a lot of nuance in that — a lot of story in that. But ‘Last Ward’ isn’t overtly political and yet it’s highly politicized because cancer can get everyone. There’s no wall.” 

The daughter of a Palestinian mother and American father, Haddad King grew up in Alabama before moving to New York and ultimately to Palestine, where she floats between cities and towns on both sides of the Green Line. “I feel like a constant Bedouin,” she says simply. To date, the company has created more than 30 original performances, including site-specific and durational, immersive works. Telling the stories of underrepresented communities and uplifting the voices of marginalized populations, the company’s work is inspired by personal histories – Haddad King’s included.  

Social Garage - NYU. (Supplied)

“When your name’s Samar and your name’s spelt as my name is in the deep south, there’s always a question attached to your name,” she says. “‘Oh, where are you from?’ So identity, from ever since I can remember, was a part of this constant question of where you are from. That obviously changed and morphed with age, with experience, with talking about where I’m from. Are you ‘from’ the place you grew up, or ‘from’ the place that your family was exiled from?”   

“The development of the company and the development of her voice as an artist has always been very linked to that identity and also a desire to tell stories rooted in that perspective,” adds Rabinowitz. “Because you could see a lack of that, in the US especially. Since Samar relocated (to Palestine) in 2010, it has been a real negotiation of ‘How do you have a transnational company, how do you straddle both places, how do you be from both places?’ So the company is sort of part of that negotiation as well.” 

The company is working on a new piece called “The Gathering,” which will premiere in New York next year, and Haddad King is writing a musical. The former is a participatory performance work inspired by her experience as a Palestinian of the diaspora. Part-staged work, part-improvisational score, the piece will utilize technology, storytelling, sound design and play to examine what brings people together in celebration, conflict, protest and sport. 

“It’s trying to break down the barriers between art and audience,” says Haddad King. “So that feels exciting — to keep trying to make art accessible. I would love to keep touring ‘Last Ward’ because I think it still has a big life and the message needs to get out there. But also doing work in public spaces and doing work that doesn’t require a certain level of technicality can get art to where art is not; can get it to people that don’t necessarily go to art. And that’s important. Just to give people an experience.”