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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
"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
"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
"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
"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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