Leyya Mona Tawil, Born Livonia, MI, 1975 / BDA University of Michigan, MFA Mills College, Oakland, CA
Mike Khoury, Born Mt Pleasant, MI, 1969 / BA(Econ) University of Michigan, MA Central Michigan University, MA Michigan State University / Lives in Northville, MI
On a sparse stage, a woman’s body rolls sideways, spinning about its central axis, ricocheting from one edge of the space to the other, back and forth, sometimes at alarming speeds and almost crashing into the audience, other times slowing down, exhausted. In comparison to the familiar, childlike, head-over-heels rolling, this movement seems alien and serious. The woman is clad in a stylishly cut, army-green, hooded raincoat and wears black boots that periodically land solidly but awkwardly on the floor, searching in vain for a physically sustainable way to continue the body’s rotation. Elsewhere on the stage, a black-clad musician holding a viola alternates between periods of repeated, siren-like glissandos and silence. There is a palpable push-and-pull between dancer and musician, but who is pushing and who is pulling is hard to say at any moment in this uncompromising performance.
After around fifteen minutes, the woman’s body is unable to continue and she stands, visibly disoriented, before moving, shakily, upstage to hold a classical pose, kneeling with head lowered and arms outstretched, palms upward, supporting the weight of the world. So ends the first section of Atlas (2016 – present) a collaboration between Leyya Mona Tawil and Mike Khoury created in response to the “hopelessness and helplessness” they felt after the 2014 Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which left approximately 1,500 trapped Palestinian civilians dead and the built environment shattered.
In conversation, Tawil confirms that the first part of the work requires her to reach a state where her body – exhausted – relies on the deeply embedded memory that comes from countless hours of practice to stagger through the intricate choreography of the remaining twenty minutes or so of the piece. Evidently, the artist is presenting her body as a surrogate for trauma, resilience, and necropolitics in the context of a situation of overwhelming violence, but this limit-experience also touches on a fundamental aspect of Tawil’s decades-long creative journey, one that she summarizes as: “how to destroy the material of dance by destroying the performer’s ego through disorientation, complexity, and exhaustion.”
Tawil’s extensive individual practice also includes numerous other productions, and an alter ego, Lime Rickey International, a free-spirited “refugee from the future” whose exile to the present is spent performing self-composed electropunk songs and engaging in futuristic folk dances. Khoury, meanwhile, is a long-time presence on the Detroit improvised music scene, often appearing in ensembles with his close friend Ben Hall (Essay’d #36) and other musical luminaries. His improvisational approach draws from his background in statistics and involves consciously modulating the correlation between his playing and that of the rest of the performers.
In 2018, Khoury received a Knight Arts Challenge award to create a significant new piece, Zombie Frequencies of the Palestinian Diaspora. The historical background to the work is provided by three successive waves of Palestinian exiles, starting with the Nakba generation, forced from their homes in 1948, continuing through the Palestinians who, feeling disillusioned and defeated, gave up hope and left post-1967, and reaching the present with the current migrant crisis. This final generation, as Khoury points out, includes members of the diaspora who are now several generations removed from their homeland, but are still seeking refuge.
Critical concepts for the work are trauma and possession. In preparation for her contribution, Tawil has researched how layers of trauma are stored in the body and subsequently display themselves as “glitches” between the mind’s signal and the body’s response. In mapping this neurophysiological phenomenon into her own body, Tawil practices sending her body a command to execute a movement and then immediately tries to cancel that movement.
Video documentation of an early performance of the piece shows Khoury utilizing electronics, plucked and bowed viola, and periods of silence to create a restrained, drone-influenced soundscape. Elsewhere on the stage, Tawil moves through deceptively fluid passages of, at times, highly spasmodic motion. Throughout the performance, there is a sense that, as the piece’s title implies, Tawil’s body, acting as a surrogate for the Palestinian Diaspora, is possessed by some external agency. In conversation about the work, Khoury broadly hints to the origin of these Zombie Frequencies, emphasizing the point that, “As Palestinians, the land doesn’t belong to us; we belong to the land.”
Steve Panton, February 2020