Imagine a square-shaped stage. People sitting on the floor all around. With no introduction, around 20 diverse women stand grouped together at the edges. Slowly, one enters the stage, then two, sometimes 3 at a time. Sometimes a single woman again, and so on, until all are standing throughout, each of them facing different directions. All of the women are dressed in black with a white cloth wrapped around their hair. Suddenly, half of the group begins to rock forward while the other half erupts backwards in noise. They continue to move like this, backwards, forwards, alternating noises similar to crows. This continues for twenty minutes, before slowly sections of them stop moving, until only one woman remains chanting for several more minutes. Once all are stopped, they erupt into joy. Clapping, chanting, dancing, moving all around the stage. In total, about 30 minutes has passed. It feels so much longer.
That is what I witnessed on Sunday, September 10th this year as part of the Time-Based Arts Festival by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). Titled “Corbeaux” (which means “crows” in French), the performance was organized by Bouchra Ouizguen. At first, it was awful to experience. Within the first five minutes I wanted to leave, I wanted it to be over, I wanted to escape. At times the noises they collectively made were so loud it felt like being in a car as the alarm goes off. The slow start mixed with the unending cacophony was overwhelming.
But I stayed. My companion, friend and BACKWORDS co-founder, Jenny Chu, suggested I close my eyes. I tried that and focused on the noises. The way the 1, 2, 1, 2, repetition, unending, tormenting, almost created a current in the warehouse where the performance was being staged – like a whirlpool. I pictured the women like those bird toys, the ones where you tap their nose and they rock back and forth like a metronome. When I opened my eyes I focused on different women, the ones whose faces I could see, at least. Some were red in the face. Some were so calm it sent chills down my spine. One girl lost the white cloth on her hair and was whipping her brown hair back and forth with such ferocity I could only expect it hurt. She never stopped to pick up the cloth.
The anxiety in me over the display was not just about feeling a complete sensory overload, but a sense of worry that some of these women would exhaust themselves, maybe even faint. Several women were shaking once they had stopped. I kept expecting the noises to change, to create music, but instead the chants largely stayed the same. The same. The same. The same.
Yet, in that moment when the women began to dance, to clap, to make a similar noise they had been before, this feeling of joy emanated across their faces, across the crowd, and through me. The chants no longer felt harsh, claustrophobic. It was like watching women experience utter trauma and then emerge changed. Maybe even changed for the better? It was change.
Since the performance, I’ve been wracking my brain to decipher. To grasp what the fuck I just watched. It was like witnessing childbirth. It was like witnessing physical violence. It was both female power and subjugation. It was intimacy. It made me want to scream.
Before going, I had only skimmed the description, I’ll admit, and I’m a little grateful for that. Not knowing what I was in for enhanced the experience. On the event website, PICA says that the show by Ouizguen, a Moroccan dancer and choreographer, draws on:
Persian literature from the IXth and XIIth centuries, [her] interest lies in this era in which the figure of the madman or woman and their unshackled, wise outpourings had their place in the community. Memories of long nights of trance are summoned up via these moving figures, imbibed, since childhood with the “Isawa” and “Hmadcha” rituals of the Marrakech regions.
With that in mind, the challenge to mental health became clearer to me, but also perhaps uncomfortably romanticized being a little unhinged. Ouizguen is also quoted as saying, “I wanted to take over the streets and fill them with a horde of crows. Like an immediate act, a sound sculpture, raw and urgent, resounding infinitely.” A “sound sculpture” is a description I remeber reading of the event before attending, that made little sense before, but now I feel I understand. These women were/are monuments. Sound sculptures.
In trying to better understand “Corbeaux”, I came across a French culture website that summarizes well how the experience comes together before a performance:
In every town to which Corbeaux migrates, these performances will incorporate 20 local dancers/performers to work alongside the 9 Moroccan dancers from Bouchra's Compagnie O. The group of women is freed of the barriers of age, origin, and language, exchanging their personal histories in this shared commitment. They assemble to convey their feminine knowledge, bursting into the everyday spaces of the city and bowling the spectators over with their own cathartic rites before leaving them facing themselves once more.
Knowing that the women performing are both from Ouizguen’s company and local women only adds to that sense of female bond that emanated in their cries. “Cathartic” is also a great word choice for the experience – it feels both accurate and not enough.
These corbeaux. These crows (crones?). These women. This performance has engulfed my mind. It was intense, it was exhausting, it was unwelcoming, it was stark. Without the ending, I would feel differently. I would possibly resent it for seemingly trapping me, but having survived the whole act, it makes more sense. It raises more questions. I love that this expression of art has utterly moved me. There’s something wonderful in being reminded that art is not there to comfort us. It’s meant for so much more than that.
PS: The tour has been expanding – beginning to travel the globe. It will also be performed again in New York City at the end of the September. [ https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Bouchra-Ouizguens-CORBEAUX-to-Make-New-York-Debut-as-Part-of-2017-Crossing-the-Line-Festival-20170829 ] Check out the website for your own chance to bear witness to the “Corbeaux.”