Fadi J. Khoury is a choreographer on a mission: to raise awareness in America about the richness of Arabic culture, while also introducing modern dance to the Arab tradition. Integrating the two is not an easy task to pull off, but others have succeeded in joining similarly disparate forms: Batsheva for example, often incorporates Israeli folk traditions in its contemporary pieces. Within the Lebanese context, Khoury follows in the footsteps of Omar Rajeh’s company Maqamat and the BIPOD Festival, which brings leading choreographers from around the world to Beirut every year while planting the seeds for future generations of Lebanese modern choreography. Khoury was born in Iraq where his father was the Artistic Director of the National Iraqi Ballet until his family emigrated to Lebanon in 1998 to escape war when he was just thirteen years old. Khoury’s peripatetic childhood then took him and his family to Nashville, Tennessee, this time as a result of the 2008 Lebanese conflict with Hezbollah. When speaking to audience members at intermission, he emphasized the difficulty of finding oneself twice an immigrant and of becoming a professional dancer and choreographer growing up in societies often hostile to the idea of dance as a legitimate career for men.
It has been a long road, but a felicitous one for Khoury whose work is intricate and sensitive to rhythm and line. On April 11, he presented two works at St. Paul’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church on West 22nd Street in Chelsea. Echoes finds inspiration in dabke, a traditional Bedouin dance from the Syrian and Lebanese mountains that combines both line and circle dancing. Iranian musician Shamou Mou composed the accompanying music, which includes powerful drums and percussions based on traditional Lebanese rhythms. Echoes begins with the sound of a howling cold wind. Khoury next appears on stage bare-chested wearing baggy Middle Eastern pants and places a cloth band around his head. Four male dancers then join in and interpret the dabke but streamlined, updated—more pulsating and exciting. In the traditional dabke the men hold arms tightly together and lunge forward and back, their chests immobile: we get a hint of that here as well. At one point the dancers all sink to the ground and begin to flail their arms upward like propellers; the section recalls traditional middle eastern dance movements, but they also seem to invoke deities, supplicants kneeling before some type of creator whom they want to honor—and maybe also fear. Four women then glide onstage, a foil to their male counterparts: clad in tight black body suits and white silk scarves, theirs is more of a belly dance-influenced movement. Khoury then pairs with one of the dancers for a remarkably brisk and graceful duet.
The arabesque, a curvilinear pattern, is a recurring presence in this piece: not only in the rounded, fluid movements of individual dancers, but also in the circular compositions they collectively form. The only weakness goes to storyline: if the audience had a specific reference or past dance to refer to that they knew in greater detail, the piece would have an even bigger impact. That we are watching a contemporary update to a folk dance seems evident, but here it’s unclear what the dance originally represented. Certain historians emphasize its role as a fertility rite; others point to its evolution as a symbol for the independence struggle by various nations in the region; while others still write that it originated as a group dance for family members who often awaited several days as a major repair was being made to their house or sleeping quarters.
After the intermission, Khoury presented a work-in-progress first developed in 2020 at a Kingsborough College residency in Brooklyn. A polymath, Khoury also studied visual arts: here, clad only in tight black short shorts, he alternates between dancing and painting a large canvas that faces the audience. The movements are brusque and erratic—he returns to dance then almost strikes the canvas with his brush: the painting created is abstract, and one would imagine changes with each iteration. Khoury also engages in a duet with a dancer Sarita Apel that includes elegant partnering and pirouettes. As Khoury himself noted in his introductory remarks, he is unsure where the piece may go. To my mind, it would have been nice to see it turn either to a more structured comment on creativity–perhaps even a developed love story—or to a more experimental work, with the paint and brush becoming almost weaponized, the canvas perhaps morphing Dorian Gray-like into some fantastical comment on the choreographic ego. FJK Dance company certainly has the talent and the creativity to push its already fascinating creations to the next level.