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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 3, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Four Dancers, Four Walls

When Liliana Attar created Connections Dance Theater in Princeton in

1998, few could have guessed just how many connections this vibrant

dance artist and native of Argentina was preparing to create.

Her latest collaborative project, "Behind the Wall," will be presented

at Princeton University’s Murray Dodge Theater on Saturday and Sunday,

March 6 and 7.

"Behind the Wall" is a suite of four pieces created by four area

artists whose roots reach back to four corners of the world. Attar’s

collaborators are the Lebanese-born actress Samar El-Zein Hamati,

British-born playwright Sonya Aronowitz, and Amineh Mahallati, a

visual and plastic artist born in Shiraz, Iran, now living and

teaching in Princeton. And the quartet’s diversity is not just

national; the group also represents three major religions.

Performed by Attar and Hamati, "Behind the Wall" uses dance, movement,

music, and drama. It is intended to create a funny, satiric, and

moving commentary on the characteristics of walls. The program is the

product of the four women’s concerns, as individuals and as mothers,

about the nation at war.

"Walls speak to us of division and separation, of protection and

security, of war and peace," says Liliana Attar. "They have reinforced

the classic division between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ But many famous walls in

history have also cast the shadow of their own destruction. One of our

pieces, ‘The First Fried Barbarian at Hadrian’s Wall Restaurant,’ uses

comic satire to question those boundaries, in this case between

‘civilized’ people and ‘barbarians.’"

Attar was born and raised in Buenos Aires, where she received her

professional training at the National School of Dance. She has studied

modern dance, choreography, improvisation, and body expression and

theater for children and adults. She is also an adept teacher of

Israeli and Latin American folk dance.

"Our vision is to expose some of the cracks in those walls and to

challenge the audience to find ways to climb up and over the walls in

all of our lives," says Attar. She is emphatic in including the

information that the quartet’s innovative project has been supported

by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Sonya Aronowitz is a writer, journalist, and playwright who has

collaborated with Attar in the past. Her one-act plays "Peter’s Box"

and "Moving Forward" were presented by Connections in 2002.

Aronowitz’s first full-length play, "Death of the Sun," was included

in the National Showcase of New Plays, and her work has been produced

at Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse where she has worked with Passage

Theater’s State Street Project.

Aronowitz has written two new short works for "The Wall" – "The First

Fried Barbarian at Hadrian’s Wall Restaurant" and "Wallflowers."

"As a playwright you can spend years caught in readings and play

development," she says, "but these pieces have gone from the page to

the stage so quickly. That’s part of the excitement of working with

Liliana.

"Very early on we agreed that this was a piece was going to be about

walls and that we would look at walls in history. She then gave me

freedom to go out and create."

Aronowitz borrows imagery from across history – from Hadrian’s wall

and the Berlin wall – as symbols of the barriers to human interaction

and understanding. The metaphor strikes close to home, because

Aronowitz was born in the north of England, not far from Hadrian’s

Wall, built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian around 125 A.D.

Aronowitz was raised in the industrial city of Manchester and

emigrated to the U.S. when she was in her mid-20s. She settled in

Pennington in 1991, and now lives in Newtown with her two children.

"Hadrian’s Wall was constructed to keep the ‘barbarians’ out,"

explains Aronowitz, hearkening back to her first home. "Emperor

Hadrian decided that this was the northern boundary of ‘civilization’

and he didn’t push any farther north." The wall came to mark the

divide between England and Scotland.

Aronowitz is impressed with Attar’s ability to bring together diverse

participants to create performance events. "The key thing about

working with Liliana," she says, "is that she inspires courage in

other people. This is really physical theater and there’s a sense of

heightened or magical realism. You can take risks. Even as a writer

you can push a lot of boundaries. It’s very exciting."

"As a writer, it’s cold when I give it to her. It’s just words. Then

the artists work with those words, they warm them and bring them to

life in another dimension which is beyond traditional drama."

"I can’t say enough good about Liliana, her energy and creativity,

about the way she can bring together artists from such uncommon

backgrounds," she says.

Collaborator Samar Hamati also brings extensive experience in theater

to the collaborative project.

"Even though we come from different places, we can break this wall to

bring something beautiful, to bring art," says Hamati, in an interview

from her home in Princeton. Given the artists’ backgrounds, the sense

is not only of breaking down national and religious boundaries but

communicating across borders as well.

Born in 1962, in Beirut, Lebanon, Hamati is founder and artistic

director of Kinetic Theater, a company that specializes in mime and

mask and improvisational theater. Raised in a professional,

well-educated family at a time when Beirut was still a cosmopolitan,

secular city, Hamati began her performing career early, performing

first in theater and in television.

Civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, when Hamati was in her early

teens. A nation with a Christian majority, Lebanon has suffered a

series of violent ethnic and religious clashes and invasions that date

back centuries. Its brutal 16-year civil, which continued until 1992,

laid waste to Beirut, a cosmopolitan city celebrated earlier in the

20th century as "The Paris of the Middle East."

Nevertheless, at age 16, Hamati worked on a British-Lebanese

children’s television production, "Playground," a series of 300

programs that was broadcast in most of the Arab world during 1980s.

She earned her master’s degree in theater at the University of Lebanon

and spent two years in Paris studying with the French theater master

Jacques Lecoq.

"For me, growing up during a war, you don’t wish a war on anybody –

not even for your enemy," says Hamati. "There was a time when I

couldn’t go home, when I didn’t know whether my parents were safe or

not. I cannot believe there is one mother who has less pain [at the

loss of a child] than another mother. We both want security and we

both have fear."

In a more lighthearted tone, she points to the artificial division

between Princeton Borough and Princeton Township as an example of how

walls divide and estrange groups from one another, when cooperation

could benefit all.

Hamati studied in France for two years with famed theater artist

Jacques Lecoq. Founded in 1956, Lecoq taught gesture and movement

through melodrama, human comedy, tragedy, and clowning at the

International Theatre School. The school attracts actors, producers,

and stage designers, as well as architects, teachers, and authors.

Jacques Lecoq taught until the day before his death in 1999. His

students are myriad and include Julie Taymor, creator of "The Lion

King," studied with Lecoq for a year when she was 16. He was also

teacher to founders of Theatre de Complicite and of the renowned

Mummenschanz mime troupe.

"He is a master. doesn’t go with natural movement, and takes the

action of our natural life every single day. less puppet-like than

Marcel Marceau. Mime in theater. movement and dialogue.

Hamati arrived in New York in 1990, not yet fluent in English, and

started her performing career in the U.S. in a silent mime show. She

has taught workshops on the spiritual meaning behind each and every

movement of Middle Eastern dance. Most recently she wrote and

performed her own piece, "I’m a dot."

Hamati’s husband, Henri, is a mathematician and computer programmer

who commutes to New York. The couple moved to Princeton in 1996 to

raise their two sons, ages 11 and 8.

"This work by the four of us is about the possibilities we can create

together," she says with passion. "If people have more opportunities

to break the walls, they can know who we are. We’re different, but I

believe there’s always a better way." She says the work is not so much

political as it is "about getting people thinking a little bit more."

"As a spiritual person, I have come to believe there’s a reason for

everything. I love life and I appreciate every single part of it," she

says.

"Art and theater help people. They let us share the values and

principles that helped me to carry on and make choices. I feel our

duty is to make this society better. When I was young, my role as a

television host was to help others. I truly think art can open

people’s eyes."

"Although I’ve lived in Lebanon and in France, I’m American now," says

Hamati, adding that her cosmopolitan background can give rise to a

sense of divided loyalties. "I find myself defending each group," she

says. "Yet what I’ve learned in this beautiful country – despite the

apparent contradictions – is that this is the only place in the world

where somehow you feel accepted and have a chance. The message is that

people can get together and recognize that we are the same."

– Nicole Plett

Behind the Wall, Connections Dance Theater, Murray Dodge Theater,

Princeton University, 609-895-2981. $15; $10 students & seniors.

Saturday, March 6, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 7, at 3 p.m.


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