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Tunisia: Dance Show Performance Embraces Diversity to ‘Break Down Walls’

A performer on a wheelchair, another who is blind and a third with Down syndrome share the stage for a pioneering new dance show seeking to push the boundaries in Tunisia.

Choreographer Andrew Graham says “the show is not about disability at all” but rather a celebration of diversity and inclusion that also involves migrants and LGBTQ artists.

“The idea is to break down all the walls,” said Graham, 35, whose production “Lines” premiered this weekend and runs until October 8 at the Dream City Festival in Tunis.

The performance brings together 15 dancers from different segments of society in the north African country.

It offers an opportunity for “sharing and mutual aid”, said Gabonese dancer Cedric Mbourou, 29.

The performance comes at a difficult time for Tunisia, which recently saw a wave of racial violence mainly targeting migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Mbourou himself was forced to go into hiding after an anti-migrant speech by President Kais Saied set off a wave of attacks.

“We see people just dancing for an hour non-stop,” said Graham, a Franco-British dance artist and teacher based in Marseille with his company L’Autre Maison.

“And very quickly the onlooker becomes interested in the dance and not necessarily who they are but in what they actually do.”

– ‘A lot of energy’ –

Graham hopes that this “very ambitious” show can “travel around the world, in Europe, the Middle East and Africa”.

As the ensemble performs together, the audience is captivated by 16-year-old Rayen descending from his wheelchair onto the stage to perform his mesmerising dance number.

Graham conceived of “Lines” after directing workshops in Tunis in 2021 for L’Art Rue, the organiser of Dream City, and activities aimed at making art accessible to underprivileged children.

The choreographer said he also drew inspiration from the stories of his grandfather, a Sicilian from Tunisia, and from “this extremely mixed country that has blended many cultures”.

The show features rhythmic “hadra” chants from the Muslim Sufi tradition and electronic music beats.

On stage, the singer and dancer Iyed — who at just 13 years old studies at the prestigious music conservatory in Tunis, and who is visually impaired — is gently hoisted into the air by the other performers.

His mother Hakima Bessoud, 49, is proud to join her son as they live out a passion that she said was a “childhood dream”.

She left a tourism sector job in 2018 to accompany her son to the conservatory and said that, since rehearsals started for “Lines”, her life has been “turned upside down”.

“Before, I had the routine of a homemaker: children, the house,” she said. “Now, I have a lot of energy, and I rush to do everything to attend rehearsals.”

– ‘Readjust everything’ –

Bessoud, who says she hails from a conservative background, said she welcomed being around the show’s openly gay dancer and actor Ahmed Tayaa.

“I have no problem with differences,” she said. “We must accept everyone, even Iyed is different.”

Tayaa, meanwhile, said he was amazed to see his sister Nourhene, 21, who has Down syndrome, perform.

He marvelled at having “discovered the artist that is Nourhene”.

“We all have a disability,” he said. “The people who see the show will discover their disability on the inside.”

“Lines”, he said, is “a paradise for people with all kinds of differences”.

One of the show’s professional dancers, Sondos Belhassen, 55, hailed the experience as “unique for a dancer”, saying they had experienced “something wonderful”.

“I wonder what weight it will leave in their universe, what memories they’ll keep?”

She said the performance had forced her to “readjust everything”.

“We are forced to experiment,” she said about working with performers whose physique is not “typical of a dancer”.

“We have a free body that can do anything, even the unexpected.”