Written by Vaida Wippermann & Beata Stankevic
Something significant happened in the dance scene of Dubai in recent weeks – the premiere of a triple bill contemporary dance performance. Three new works have been presented to the audience: “Sentience” by Elizabeth Stott, “1000 Feet” by Tomomi Aramaki and “The Fall” by Lana Fahmi. (More about it in our article Triple bill premiere).
Why is it significant? To start with, it is the first contemporary dance performance both produced and premiered in Dubai. Then, the performance was sold out almost within hours, which clearly indicates not only that presence contemporary dance audience in Dubai, but also its hunger. And the most important – from the point of view of contemporary dance history in Dubai – that it was both a premier and a choreographic debut of three female artists, all lead dancers at the Sima Dance Company.
We wanted to know more about the three women: why they moved to choreography, who has influenced them, what are their thoughts on contemporary dance, how they juggle work and motherhood? We sat down and had the conversation.
Rendezvous with Elizabeth Stott
Professionally trained ballet dancer and a dance instructor, a mother of Cora Lynn (5), Faye (7), Lillian (12), Elizabeth – or Elli – started dancing at the age of 8 and, as she says it, “never stopped”. She chose to study dance professionally and received a bachelor’s degree in dance with an emphasis on ballet. Elli has performed with the university ballet company Repertory Ballet Ensemble, and worked as a freelancer with Utah Regional Ballet. In 2012, she moved to the United Arab Emirates and worked as a dance instructor in Abu Dhabi. In 2019, she joined Sima Dance Company to perform in the performance ANSAF (choreographed by Alaa Krimed and commissioned by the Arts Center of the NYUAD). During her involvement in ANSAF production, Elli fell in love with the Sima’s community and became a part of it. Today she is the lead dancer in the company and a ballet dance instructor at Sima Performing Arts.
We asked what made her want to become a dancer: “I love moving my body and using it to express things that words don’t seem to be able to. When I’m dancing is when I feel I’m being the most honest”, was her answer.
It seems that dancing alone was not enough for self expression anymore – this March Elizabeth premiered her first choreographic work “Sentience”. For her, this performance represents bravery. With the difficult year that everyone has had and the lack of live art, it’s really tested everyone’s patience. Elizabeth feels that a lot of artists in the world, including herself, shouldn’t waste their time, they need to share their art now.
Elli feels lucky to have had many wonderful influences in her career: “I had some amazing professors in college who inspired me to continue working and I have been fortunate to travel and see a lot of live contemporary dance and ballet. Jiri Kylian, Hofesh Shector, Sidi Larbi, Crystal Pite, and Ohad Naharin are only a few of my favorites”.
The premier was exciting, scary and highly anticipated. Elli shares that she enjoyed every second of it and it’s exciting to still be in the show period. Is it an experience she would love to repeat? “Putting this show together has been so fulfilling and there is so much interest in attending these types of performances. I have so much to share, I already have started working towards the next show”, is her answer.
Generally, Elizabeth would love to see the contemporary dance world grow in Dubai. With such an amazing and thrilling art form she wishes that everyone could watch and feel what the dancers want to share. While it is not a common art form here in Dubai, she would like more people to know about it and support the professionals that live in this country.
We also spoke about being a mother and being a dancer, which is often perceived as a challenging combination. Has she ever felt that having children has brought a limitation to her career? “I don’t like to think of what it might have been like. I am a mother of 3. And this is my reality. I have no choice. I have to balance these parts of my life. I’m lucky to have a supportive husband and kids to keep our infrastructure going strong. And more than anything I feel like paying the artist in me attention makes me a better mom and a good example to my daughters. I deserve to seek out fulfillment and so do they”. We finished each conversation with the question ‘what is success for you’. For Elizabeth, it is in fulfillment. She elaborates: “I obviously would love for my work to resonate with other people, but I’m not out to become famous or rich. As long as I can dance and create and share it, I’ll consider it a success”.
Meeting Tomomi Aramaki
A dancer, a dance instructor, a choreographer, a mother of Baku (4), Tomomi comes from Japan and has lived in Dubai since 2017. Her passion for dancing started in Tokyo and led her to perform in different countries: she danced with Natural Dance Theater in Japan for over a decade, then moved her career to Singapore Arts Fission and finally joined SIMA Dance Company in Dubai.
Who had the biggest influence on your choreographic expression? My first contemporary dance teachers in Japan – Shinji Nakamura and Mako Kawano. They created my base, and my style is still following them. Then, in Singapore the choreographer Angela Liong gave me completely different ideas. In fact, all the choreographers and dancers I have worked with influenced me. But the strongest influence comes from Japan.
We sometimes hear contemporary dance is not easy to understand. What would you say about it? Why can’t it be simple? I like it, I feel something. It is enough for me. I would say that people should not be looking for a storyline in the performance.
Tomomi also says that contemporary dance is a well desired art form in Dubai, however she believes that without external support, such as government funding, it is very difficult to survive, perform and reach the audience.
Have you ever perceived becoming a mother as a limitation for you as a dancer? First, Tomomi tells that Sima Performing Arts have created a family friendly environment where dancers & choreographers can take their children to the studio while they work, and that they can grow up surrounded by music, dance and art. However, Tomomi admits that it is not a normal practice in a dance field. She gives an example of her friend in Japan who is a dancer and a mother, and finds it very challenging to balance the family and career, as she cannot take her children to the studio while practicing or performing. She adds: I am incredibly lucky to be a part of SIMA (Dance Company). Different from other places (like Europe or Japan) we have a community with other kids so I feel at ease leaving my son Baku with them while I am practicing. If he would have stayed at home and were waiting for me, maybe it would have been a different feeling, but now this became a normality.
Do you think that becoming a mother has changed you in any way? I believe that not only becoming a mother, but being part of SIMA has changed me. I am already 42 and my physical strength has started to change. However being here I feel I am still growing, learning new things. It’s an incredible discovery for me. I want to teach as much as I want to learn whether it’s from children or other dancers.
Do you think you would be the same dancer and choreographer today if you were not a mother? Everything that happened to me throughout my life has shaped me into who I am today, and motherhood is one of those elements. So I would say “no”.
Earlier in March you premiered your first choreography piece “1000 Feet”. What did you want to express with it? Dancing has always supported me in my life – no matter what was happening, dance always saved me. This is the one the theme of this piece. I may lose many things, but as long as I have my body, I don’t want to stop. Another theme of the performance is representing the dancing as a prayer to the ancestral gods to bless successfully harvested crops, and to wish for a bigger grain harvest.
Music plays a strong role in your new piece. What is it and why did you choose it? It’s Battle Drums by Rhythm Scott – all the pieces come from the same album. The first time I listened to it, it was exactly what I wanted – very strong and grounded. This music has inspired me to create this piece.
How was the premiere and how do you feel after it? I was very nervous and excited. It also felt like a small achievement. But I feel I have just started!
What is success for you? Dancing with the soul.
30 minutes with Lana Fahmi
A principal dancer and choreographer at Sima Dance Company, a co-founder of and dance instructor at Sima Performing Arts, a mother of Mila (2) and a wife of Alaa Krimed (a choreographer and founder of Sima Dance Company) – a slender young woman seems to wear all these hats effortlessly. In Dubai since 2015, Lana says that as a contemporary dancer she still feels “like a flower in the desert”, even if the situation for contemporary dance has improved over these 6 years. On March 19, she premiered her choreographic debut with a 30-min performance “The Fall”. In a shy manner, Lana says she is not a good speaker, but we end up having an exhilarating conversation.
On moving to choreography
Lana says that the transition from dancer to choreographer came out of the feeling of “now or never”. There was something inside of her that wanted to come out. “I felt that it was the time for me to step out of being a dancer and to explore other ways of expression”.
The biggest influence to her work is her partner Alaa Krimed. He has been her mentor and has taught her everything about performing and choreographing. However, if given the opportunity, Lana would like to work with many artists, such as Crystal Pite, Sharon Eyal, Hofesh Shechte or Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. “I also would love to work with my previous company members, who are unfortunately not in the same country: like Hoor Maas (dancer and choreographer living in Syria) and Hassan Nizzab (who tragically passed away in Beirut in 2018). I would love to have an opportunity to dance with them again”, adds she emotionally.
On contemporary dance performance
Lana believes the most important thing in contemporary dance performance is an emotional experience. She suggests to follow the emotions the work evokes rather than trying to intellectually understand what’s happening on the stage. Of course artists have a story and they know what they are trying to express, but how the other person is taking information is completely up to them. Contemporary dancing today is a very wide notion. There are so many styles, and whatever anybody can gather is the emotion and feeling. Lana explains that in her works she wants people to listen to her story and at the same time to see it from their own experience. She applies this to herself too – she does not watch a performance as a story or narrative. Instead, she follows the flow of the performance, its emotions or or whatever is up. Quite often, when she discusses the performance with the choreographers afterwards, she finds a completely different story.
On contemporary dance in Dubai
What does it mean to work in the field of contemporary dance in Dubai, which is not yet so grown here as in many other countries? Lana explains with a metaphor: “I feel like a flower in the desert, like a green oasis in the desert. It’s like being in conversation with people speaking different languages”. She adds that after six years being here she can see and feel the change, however, it is still a tiny amount of what contemporary dance really deserves to be.
Lana continues that “interestingly there is an audience for it. It’s not like it is artificially supported and there is no one to perform to”. On the contrary, there is an audience, there is hunger for this art, there are artists who want to perform, but there is no support. Therefore, urgent changes are required from the government and cultural institutions. Lana explains: “If it comes from them, if they support this kind of art it sets a good role model for everybody else to follow. For example if the schools start to put visual arts in their curriculum. Then it means it has value, then we should follow, then maybe we should attend the exhibition, and this is how I believe it develops. It comes from the government. If they acknowledge how important it is, it is a must to build a healthy community. If they support artists, venues and build theatres, then people will know that it is important, then they will learn, teach their kids, and they will actually see the effect. It should be as accessible as having food, it shouldn’t be only for a specific kind of elite people. It is also important that tickets would be affordable. When it’s affordable, more people can watch it. Everybody is winning.”
On Lana and Mila
Quite often dance artists are afraid of becoming mothers as in the dance world motherhood is perceived as a limitation to career. It has not been a case for Lana. Her daughter Mila has never been a limitation – on the contrary: being a mother made her stronger physically, mentally and emotionally. It also made her more open minded, mature and confident – both as a woman and a dancer. As Lana puts it “I felt like – if I did THAT (giving birth), then I will be able to do anything else”. She summarizes that “Mila helped me to create a better version of myself”.
When Mila was born, the family members and people who are not in the field of dance or art were sure that Lana would quit dancing and focus on her daughter. “So by itself it was a target for me to be a very good mother AND a very good dancer, and look at me now – a choreographer”. Mila was 40 days old when Lana went back to work at the studio, five months later she performed at the premier of ANSAF. “I am so proud of myself for doing that and I am so happy that I did not listen to people who told me I should stay at home”.
Lana continues that being a dancer, continuing training she sets an example for her daughter to pursue her dreams when she grows up. “And on top of all that, I don’t want her later on to know that because of her I stopped dancing. I want her to be proud of herself that she was able to enjoy her childhood with a mother who kept on working”. Lana makes sure that Mila is not missing out on anything important – her daughter is always around when Lana is working – either playing in the studio or exploring Alserkal Avenue. Lana is confident that when Mila grows up she will be as persistent on whatever she wants to be in her life as Lana is because of this example.
We finished with a classical question on the meaning of success. “Success is being happy in what I do. If I feel happy after the piece I would call it success”.
P.S. After the premier, we asked Lana how she felt. She said: “It was a great satisfaction. I was happy, it was already out there with the audience”. So it was obviously a personal success for her.
To close up
Contemporary dancing is a rich form of dance that still needs to find its footing in the Middle East. Three women, mothers, dancers and artists have undertaken this challenge despite – or maybe within – economic, social and cultural limitations. They do it out of the search for fulfilment and happiness. What they do is a very personal way of self-expression, and probably even without realizing that, they are making sure that contemporary dance of Dubai moves from today to tomorrow. Bigger, stronger, and with a louder feminine voice than before.