Jassem Hindi Dancing with Death

3 people doing contemporary dance Laundry of Legends II. Photo by Vanessa Fortin

The first thing I thought of when I heard the title of multidisciplinary artist Jassem Hindi’s newest work, Laundry of Legends II, is, I bet that’s based on the video game, and I fell straight into his trap.

He delighted at hearing this. Hindi is very fond of creating “traps.”

As it turns out, the title is much less (and in some ways, much more) complicated. It refers instead to legendary figures from mythology and poetic storytelling traditions. “It’s laundry in a washing machine,” Hindi explains, “And they’re all churning together. A big whirlpool of everything — birds meeting the desert meeting children meeting the woods meeting gods. It’s all in a tumble.”

This combination of everything together is Hindi’s specialty. Laundry of Legends II brings together dance, poetry, and a soundscape. Hindi says the work is inspired by the divine and semi-divine figures of pre-Islamic Iran, Sweden, and other places, the sorts found on pottery, in poetry, and in sculpture. Hindi animates them through the different parts of the production since “those figures have a capacity to host us and host our desires.”

But turning back to the concept of traps and misdirection, Hindi has been developing his techniques of working with sound, poetry, and choreography over several years, working in the tension between suffering and release, or what he calls “the tension between haunted and hospitality.” A curator commissioned him to make something between art and ritual around the theme of death. At the time, the war in Syria was raging and Hindi was reading the poem by Nazik Al Malaika, an Iraqi poet who was among the first to break with the classical Arab poetry’s forms in order to write in free verse. Hindi says, “I was reading this poem every day, like when your heart is broken and the lyrics make you cry. It was a catharsis. It rearranges your imagination. So for me, poems are this kind of pharmaka, a remedy and a poison.”

He further explains that poetry for him is more than ornamental. “Poetry has a function which is political — to practice our imagination. It can host our sorrows, but it can host all of who we are without having to articulate it in an orderly fashion. Doors open. And what I love about that is its room and capacity for misunderstanding.”

“We create traps for other people’s misunderstanding,” he says.

Hindi’s ultimate goal with Laundry of Legends II is to ready the audience to receive a poem, almost like a prologue. “The dancers warm you up and you practice sitting with others and that’s the way to be ready. Then you can read the poem by yourself.”

The show itself includes three components, a soundscape, the dancers, and the poems themselves. The soundscape includes pre-recorded voices reciting lines from three specific poems. Hindi then manipulates and adds to this sound, borrowing techniques from film. He describes the sound as “shaking in a nervous way,” and a way to “manipulate time in non-linear ways.” He elaborates, “Things are repeating and even though it seems like they’re about to happen, they’re not. Imagine throwing a heavy stone in the dark waters, and it’s sinking and the music is drowning as you go deeper and deeper. The range of lights that you see are hallucinations of light. There’s fragmentation in the sound, a lot of field recordings, a lot of evocation of landscapes.”

As for the three dancers, Hindi has worked with two of them before (Clara Furey and Simon Portigal) on multiple projects. Justin de Luna joined the company a little later. “There’s nothing without them,” Hindi says of his dancers. “They are everything to me. They really are.”

To develop the movement part of the piece, Hindi and his dancers began with authentic movement where there is a witness and a mover. After workshopping this for some time, Hindi went dancing alone in the woods of Norway where he lives, and developed childlike dances and folk dances that he “stabilized” into a piece. He returned to his team with a complete work and had his dancers add layers. Hindi describes the dance as “bone dancing” although he says the term doesn’t really mean anything. “They pay attention to skeleton and let waves of nervousness pass through. I tell them stories, read them poems, give them situations such as three children on the border of a forest at dusk.”

The poems are “death poems”, which means they function ritually as ways to address and handle loss and absence. “Death poems are a style of poetry. It’s how we use it. It really is this pharmakon. It talks about absence or evokes absence in us, but it’s also a healing device. It’s about the use of the poem.”

There are three poems that the work is shaped around, particularly the epic poem, Etel Adnan’s “the arab apocalypse.” The other two poems by Aase Berg and CA Conrad, serve as companions that come up through the choreography.

Hindi says his companionship with poetry is important to him. “Poems are worlds you would dive in and you would make whatever sense you wanted from them,” he says. “Poetry is often understood as something you read alone in a German romantic setting, but that’s not true in other place. In other places, it is something you do on the bus, sing, share with a friend, learn by heart without really understanding and slowly the meaning changes through time. Outside of Europe, please use poems in a different way.”

“Although,” he points out, “In Britain people don’t call it poetry, they call it singing. They do it to measure distance between two villages. You can sing it when you’re walking at night alone, and by the end, you’ll reach home.”

He also delights in how poetry uses subversive techniques of camouflage, misdirection, and trapping. “They’re not really pretty concepts,” he says. “I think that’s how they become companions. They’re opened, not assigned to any opposition. They break meaning and meaning is broken and that for me is good news.”

Hindi is excited to share his work with an audience. He says, “Performance is made to be seen and participated in, and so I really can not wait to have people there. After the dancers, or at the same time as the dancers, the audience is very important to me and that they feel part of it. It is done for them, not for me.”

Catch the world premiere of Jassem Hindi’s new work Laundry of Legends II at the MAI on May 18 – 20, 2023, 7:30 p.m. Details about tickets HERE.

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