Backstage with

Clara Reiner, René Alejandro Huari Mateus, Omar Mohamad & Mohamad Tamem  

Viele Menschen stehen in tanzen in mehreren Kreisen miteinander und haben sich dabei gegenseitig die Arme um die Schultern gelegt.

In this edition of Backstage with, we talk to Clara Reiner and René Alejandro Hauri Mateus of local dancing as well as Bülbül Club’s Omar Mohamad and Mohamad Tamem. Both formats at tanzhaus nrw are dedicated to circle dances, albeit in different ways, as they each – and for fun – create specific spaces of community and for sharing dance.

local dancing was developed by Clara Reiner, René Alejandro Huari Mateus, Jacob Bussmann, and Frédéric De Carlo for IMPLANTIEREN 2022/23 Beziehungsweisen – ein Festival der geteilten Praktiken (IMPLANTIEREN 2022/23 Relations – A festival of shared practice) by ID_Frankfurt. The Düsseldorf edition of the project takes shape as part of the DANCING IN PUBLIC series by tanzhaus nrw. In addition to the date at the tanzhaus nrw Foyer, local dancing guests at Theatermuseum Düsseldorf, at Jugendkulturcafé Franzmann as well as at Niemandsland e.V.

At Bülbül Club, people regularly share and dance circle dances from West Asia and North Africa. The series, initiated and curated by Omar Mohamad, started in March of 2024 with the dabke dance style and is part of the Offenes Foyer (Open Foyer) programme at tanzhaus nrw.

What, to you, is special about circle dances? What are circle dances?

Omar Mohamad: Circle dances, to me, are exemplary for other dance cultures, another form of communal dance. They are not couple dances but rather group dances. To me, that is something that is not very present in a Western European context. There are few opportunities to engage in circle dances.

Clara Reiner: The dancers’ gaze at circle dances is directed inward, toward the other dancers. A group is formed that looks at itself. What is central for me is that there is no frontality to an audience. The group turns to itself. These are dances that are being danced by and for a community, featuring a very participatory form. And that is also one that shuffles those classic European stage perspective and geometry. The question of who is out front and who is in the back becomes redundant. Because the individual dancers’ positions or those of the ensemble keep shifting, a hierarchical structuring of space does not function as it does in so many other situations in which a space is structured by central perspective, wherein the frontal and the rear parts are assigned certain value. This comes into question by a form such as a circle. This form enables a different spatial dynamic, a different constellation.

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: A dancing circle formation creates a shared empty space in the centre for all dancers. This space can be entered at any time and allows spontaneous forward or backward movements and adjustments without significantly disrupting the flow of the dance. Yet the circle as a form must be maintained; this requires attentiveness and concentration.

Omar Mohamad: I think circle dances like dabke possess a vast integrational power because they are open to everyone, you can join in quickly and take part in the dance. The circle here is an open semicircle into which dancers can enter at any time. Everyone in society is invited – regardless of class, ethnic background, gender, religion, age, or residence. Dancers do not need special shoes or clothing, you dance as you are, hand in hand, let’s go!

Circle dances will not only be danced communally, but also usually in synchronicity. What potential does dancing in consonance unfold to you?

Mohamad Tamem: Dabke requires the same as well as simultaneous movements for everyone. The dancers create a sound in this together. Dabke roughly translates as ‘stomping on the ground with your feet’. This communality and simultaneousness leads to a very pleasant group harmony in which everyone gets the feeling of being part of one singular body. I think that releases wellbeing and a feeling of security. Within the dancing, circular rings, a grand energy emerges which transmits to everyone.

Clara Reiner: Dancing communally and in synchronicity provides an opportunity to create certain forms of nearness or intimacy.  It is a nearness that is held by an even movement and does not necessarily carry any personal affinity towards another person. To me, the potential in these dances has much to do with this form of being held by a choreography that enables people to dance without feeling creative pressure – which is swift to surface when improvisation or the invention of new steps are at stake. What also plays into this is the joy in repetition.

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: We also know synchronous movement from mass choreographies that are often employed for national and representational means and instrumentalise dance to display unity and harmony. Since the 1990s, there has been a significant popularisation of mass choreographies in Latin America, especially with dances such as the Colombian Zumba, where the focus is not only on the movement itself, but also on the promise of a healthy body through dance. This is an interesting phenomenon: performing the same movements with a large group of people frees people from inner contradictions and at the same time creates a sense of belonging. The personal differences and subjective aspects that make everyday life more complex temporarily fade into the background and participants can forget their ego for a little while, similar to a meditative experience.

Clara Reiner: In circle dances, you are very close to the other bodies. Depending on whether there is physical contact, whether people are holding each other’s hands or whether they embrace, the dancers feel the direction they need to go in via impulse. Therefore, there is a certain necessity to remain somewhat in unison. The synchronous movements also have a pragmatic side to them: We are a large group, dancing in this one room, and we need to coordinate. Most of the time, a group is not in perfect sync anyway, and this unstrict unity, those variations, that is very beautiful. The interruption and the chaos produce much hilarity.

Clara and René, you work as artists, as choreographers and performers in the independent performing arts. How did you arrive at developing an artistic format that puts the practice of dances to the foreground?

Clara Reiner: Practising together has conceptually emerged from my involvement with circle dances. Otherwise it wouldn't make sense to me when it comes to this form of dance. We had no interest in bringing circle dances onto a stage and in front of an audience. We were intrigued precisely by incorporating this aspect of participation into this art project. local dancing was developed in the context of an independent scene festival in Hesse called IMPLANTIEREN. The 2022/23 edition of the festival in Frankfurt am Main, Offenbach am Main, Wiesbaden and the surrounding area was very special as it was about practices, and it was central that visitors would be able to participate. It impacts people when they go through and experience dances, not by watching them, but by dancing them together.

Potential participants, cooperation partners and colleagues regularly come up to me to ask, in the run-up to the local dancing events in Düsseldorf, whether it is possible to just come, sit, and watch at the events…

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: Yes, that is very interesting! It is obviously related to a fear of simply dancing. We also heard the following often: ‘I would like to come, but just to watch at first.’ This has to do with guests reserving their right to decide whether or not to participate. It is unfortunately connected to shame to show one’s own body in motion. Our project is about participation. We recognise it as a practice akin to sports or meditation. The repetition of those dances as a practice opens up divergent perspectives onto the choreographic and social aspects as well as on group dynamics.

Clara Reiner: And it is, like we said, exactly about not having any audience. Everyone joins in and tries it out without being watched by outsiders.

You developed new circle dances as part of local dancing. Why do we need new circle dances – and for whom?

Clara Reiner: We initially set out from the concept of folk dances. Those are dance forms that are participatory, not necessarily intended for an audience, and which carry choreographies that represent shared knowledge. It is, in actual fact, impossible to talk about folk dance per se because there are so many different variations and traditions. It is a completely unwieldy field with varying references. Some of them are problematic – in German-speaking countries, for example, to nationalism. Many of these dances are designed as couple dances, very heteronormative and binary in their shapes, which boast certain sets of movements for women and men, respectively – men take big steps and women take small ones. The local dancing project encompasses the aspiration to have traditional dances that are not oriented towards those heteronormative values and ideas but propose something different.

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: The question of local reference was very important to us from the beginning. The material that people start with is in itself a question of locality. Should we dedicate ourselves to dances from Hesse, where we all currently reside? Or should we rather start the research with dances from our hometowns and the environment in which we were born? But what, in turn, would it mean to conduct this research in Hesse? So for us, locality was closely linked to the aspect of cultural appropriation.

Clara Reiner: Folk dances are very often connected to specific locales. There is this dance that originated in a certain valley. And the dance is similar in the next valley, yet it features its own peculiarities and has a different name. These are geographically evolved dances. Just like René described it, our questions were, whose dances do we dance? Who is permitted to dance which dance? It became clear relatively early in the process that we would be dancing our own dances. But those are very interesting questions that are intertwined with these dance forms of folk dance. We attempt to broach this issue, but not by reworking existing dances but by inventing our own, insofar as that is feasible.

How did you work on these new dances that you share in local dancing?

Clara Reiner: René, Jacob, Fred, and I invented the dances together. They are, as mentioned, not reworkings or variations of existing dances, even if there might be similarities, because those dances often resemble each other. Every single one of our dances features a different origin story. A method we employed is instant tradition. There we toyed with the idea that folk dances develop over a very long period, changing with time, mostly devoid of any clear authorship. With instant tradition, we attempted to execute those processes in the time available to us. This was like a game; we all choreographed a sequence, individually, handing them down among us so the next person could carry on the work. Each time a dance was passed on, it changed. In this way, we imitated a development that usually takes place over generations within a short space of time.

Music played an important role. Jacob composed proprietary music for the dances, and the dances occasionally changed with the composition, and vice versa. That was an interplay. What also played an important role was dancing with others – meaning more than just the four of us. The dances developed and grew further through this.

Live keyboard or piano music creates a distinct atmosphere at local dancing. I felt it was somewhat luxurious when I participated and danced with you, as something precious, a fine effort that is undertaken.

Clara Reiner: We wanted live music to be included from the very beginning, also based on the knowledge that there is a tight connection between music and dance in this field. It is often unclear what preceded the other – there is a vast mutual influence exerted in any case. While we dance, Jacob may be able to react to the mood, to the group. This imbues a form of vibrancy. Because Jacob is so well-acquainted with the dances, he can gauge the needs of the dancers at a given moment, or provide impulses.

Omar and Tamem, what role does music play in Bülbül Club?

Omar Mohamad: At Bülbül Club, a DJ person spins tracks. Popular music is frequently covered, transposed to play a bit faster, just to make it more exciting, and livelier. A musician with a large drum is very often present at circle dances. We could not make that happen at the first event, unfortunately, but I am still trying. For drumming releases even more energy into the room. The heart is literally pounding along with the drum.

Mohamad Tamem: Dabke is accompanied by popular music and simple rhythms. The melodies often originate in rural contexts. This kind of music is very popular. It is connected to the cultures of farmers and workers, based on a simple, truthful social heritage.

I would like to return to the aspect of locality. How do you perceive what is local? In what way are your dances and the events you host locally tied?

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: I think the dances become local at the particular places in the moment we transport the dances, when we convey them in a new way, and they shape the new place as well. Many dances change through the encounter with new bodies and groups that dance them and these transformations affect not only the dances themselves, but also the groups. Our local dancing project makes use of this fact and even encourages participants to pass on or re-adapt the dances after the event – with the speculative vision that they might one day become folklore. Many of the circle dances come from one place and are passed on, spread. I am interested in what Omar and Tanem can tell us about how dances become re-localised.

Clara Reiner: In German-speaking countries, folk dances are often named after places, after geography. For example, there is the Ahrntaler Landler and the Eisendorfer Landler and the Goiserer Landler and so on. In other words, these are dances in which the place has given them their name. With ‘local’ we are also referring to a geographical location, but it is not specific. ‘local’ is also intended to differentiate it from ‘global’; we wanted to emphasise that the dances do not claim to be universally valid and that they do not appear in the same form everywhere. The dances adapt and change where they take place. The title tries, as René puts it, to think about the migration of the dances, dances who travel along with the people who may then decide for themselves where those dances ultimately happen.

Omar Mohamad: A circle dance like dabke is widely spread over vast regions and transcends national ascriptions here. Even if it is called different names in parts and becomes varied, but dabke is danced in Lebanon, in Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Palestine, Israel, and Iraq – as well as internationally by diasporic communities.

Omar, at each respective Bülbül Club, a dance style from West Asia and North Africa, such as the dance style dabke which you mentioned previously, is in focus. The club is held by and for diasporic communities from North Rhine-Westphalia. Who are you connected with to achieve that?

Omar Mohamad: There are networks in which I am already active. Yet the work for Bülbül Club provides a further opportunity to address new communities and groups. The next event on May 31st will be about Circassian dances. I am familiar with Circassian dances and people who are biographically connected to them. Circassians live, among other places, in Syria, but they fled other regions many centuries ago; they reside in several countries. I collaborate with the Circassian Culture Association Cologne, with Irfan Genel and Sasha, Sinejan, Gökhan and Tamby, who will instruct and share these dances. They meet regularly in their community and are looking forward to the BülBül Club to socialise with other people who are interested in learning the dances. There is this prejudice that groups do not share their respective dances openly, but this is increasingly opening up. Bülbül Club is also a laboratory to me in which I am also allowed to learn. Opening up and a willingness to participate are aspects that are important to me in this process, and I find I enjoy them.

I believe the term laboratory is quite appropriate in a way, applied to both formats presented here. Clara and René, what do you record or perpetuate outside of the local dancing events? How do you transport knowledge about these dances you created, by other means? I wondered if a growing archive emerges here.

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: An archive does exist, in a certain sense. There were cases of participants sending us videos afterwards, videos in which they performed the dances, readapting them. There are people who regularly visited our events and have become proficient in them.

Clara Reiner: In addition to the movement archive, there is also an archive of narratives. Our dances have a narrative, a story, however fragmentary or short. That was important to us because those circle dances have often been developed for certain occurrences and events, or they do function like a narration themselves. Our narratives are linked to the dance and to specific individual movements. In “Summertime Sadness”, for example, we tell the story of how a particular leg movement came about. This question of temporality plays an important part because it is often maintained that these dances are already ancient. With local dancing, it is evident that we invented the dances, and yet we tell of their history and a long tradition. So there is an interest in fictionalisation. And that is something we negotiate via language.

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: Fantasy and narration are very important in our project. We play with fantasies of rural and urban contexts. The imagination of tradition is very impactful. And this also happens with supposedly historical, originally evolved folk dances that invoke a long history that is being reconstrued and retold. There is, for example, a Soviet folk-dance, Beryozka, during the performance of which the dancers seem to float, which was developed during the 1940s, while it pretends to be centuries old.

Omar, let us talk about Bülbül Club in more detail. This regular tanzhaus nrw format moves about between workshop, meeting space, and party. What happens during the events?

Omar Mohamad: Bülbül Club is meant for diasporic communities who live here in this region and who are constantly searching for spaces where they could, for example, dance dabke. This is often connected to, more or less rare, celebrations such as weddings – they provide a space to dance. I saw the opportunity to open a regular space for those locally underrepresented dances at tanzhaus nrw, and this was met with enthusiasm by the house programming team. Bülbül Club is a space for everyone wanting to dance and practice various circle dances together. Because when there is a celebration, many would like to join the dance, yet they cannot dance it. Different people – not only from the diasporic communities – want to dance or learn circle dances. The very few programmes that exist here are unknown or difficult to access. So, I came up with the idea to start with a short workshop to simply share the basic steps on which to build, for a start. Those are fairly developed dance styles; there are dance pieces, artistic choreographies based on dance styles such as dabke. Bülbül Club provides opportunities to learn the basic steps, but it subsequently also opens up a space in which experienced, advanced dancers and beginners alike dance together. People come into contact with each other here, get acquainted, exchange, ask – how do you do this or that? –, they have a drink together and dance on.

People from Düsseldorf and the surrounding areas, from the Netherlands, even, all wanting to dance, came to our first event. I stood in the Foyer, waiting for the doors to open, when a person approached me and told me she was so excited and happy to be dancing dabke. Advertising all but worked by itself because people who I shared the invitation with asked their friends to join: ‘You know, there will be dabke that day,’ or ‘Come on, we will go together at such-and-such date.’ We were all overjoyed to have reached so many people who entered tanzhaus nrw for the first time.

People with vastly different connections to the dances meet. How is knowledge passed on at Bülbül Club, apart from the introductory workshop?

Omar Mohamad: First of all, I counted on the dancers who were already proficient in this dance style coming to the workshop at the outset. It is about providing energy, about encouragement, and about entering together. The workshop part, more or less, serves as a warm-up to the following party. If experienced dancers want to improvise, the opportunity is there, but everyone observes the whole group and returns to the simple repetitive steps. There is a broad spectrum from simple to very elaborate and improvised dance movements. The dancers within the group do not know each other, and I find it intriguing, time and again, to watch how harmonious and careful they dance with each other. The teachers I invite are mindful of the exchange. Two circles formed at the last event, for example – it was very well attended –, and then Tamem reacted and combined them both in a large semicircle. All the dancers who instruct, who want to share impulse, move to the front in the direction of the general motion. This shifts spontaneously and organically. You may enter or pause as you wish. Persons, who stand apart, alone, receive repeated invitations into the round. It is not important that you are good at something; it flows in community.

Clara Reiner: Listening to Omar, I think it is important to emphasise a big difference between BülBül Club and local dancing. Dabke has a community of devotees, people who dance it enthusiastically. The dances we share at local dancing are completely unknown. Our approach is a conceptual-choreographic one, and most of all a speculative examination within the genre of folk and circle dance. It is a reinvention that is headed towards such a communality as Omar describes it, but is still a long way off.

That is right; that is a big difference. Still, I am sure that yet other persons and communities receive an approach path to circle dances via your project.

René Alejandro Huari Mateus: Dancing, in the context of the dances of Bülbül Club, seems to me to be a cultural practice wherein knowledge on the dances is shared and everyone joins in, give or take. But in a different cultural context, this practice needs to be sort of re-established and resituated. I would be interested in learning dabke, for example. But I wonder what it would mean if I did it? Am I allowed to just do it? What does it mean for me as a choreographer if I learn it? There is a great desire to simply learn it. That is why I think Bülbül Club is an awesome offer that communicates, look, we invite you to learn these dances – without those fears of appropriation. I find the changing offering of different dances important, too: We learn from those people then, and then we share that. I do not feel that this is as openly communicated and reflected upon by the clubs or initiatives who offer circle dances elsewhere, and I do not, therefore, feel invited. Bülbül Club radiates: We take care so everyone who wants to may learn and dance the dances.

Omar Mohamad: I, in turn, am very excited for local dancing, and am very glad that I am allowed to invite a teacher from the Bülbül Club context to this. For the event in the tanzhaus nrw Foyer on Sunday, June 9th, I was able to win Rania Houri, who will share Dabke dance steps there.

Clara Reiner: That’s nice. We are looking forward to that!

Thank you very much for this interview!

Clara Reiner performs, choreographs, builds objects for the stage, and lives in Offenbach on the Main. She studied choreography and performance at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies in Gießen.

In her choreographic work, René Alejandro Huari Mateus is interested in practices, work modes, and representational opportunities that reject any reproduction of violent structures, even if they are meant to criticise them. The intersections of forms of discrimination that mark the institutions, those in which choreography, dance, and performance are developed and presented in Germany, obscured behind inclusive programmes without significantly altering things, have informed René’s identity and her approach to artistic creation.

Omar Mohamad studied business administration in Aleppo and followed up with an apprenticeship to become an event manager in Germany. He fled Syria for Germany in 2015. He has since been active volunteering in various Ruhrgebiet-based intercultural projects, among which is “Freie Universität Oberhausen (Oberhausen Free University)”. He concluded his training to become an event manager at Ringlokschuppen Ruhr and was responsible for PR and audience development within Collective Ma’louba at Theater an der Ruhr. He is a member of the Grün-Bunte-Liste (Green-Multicoloured List) for the Mülheim Integration Council. He currently works in administration in controlling and in the tanzhaus nrw awareness team.

Mohamad Tamem is a dancer, choreographer, and theatre performer who graduated from his studies in dance and music at the music conservatory as well as the Iymar Dance Group Academy in Damascus, Syria. As choreographer, he served as the head of several contemporary dance and traditional folk dance companies. In parallel to his artistic career in Damascus, he conducted music and dance workshops for children and youths, with and without disabilities, at the Jafra Foundation for Youth Relief and Development as well as for the United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. As an actor, Tamem was a member of international theatre ensemble Grubengold at Bochum’s Prinz Regent Theater (2015-2018) while also working for independent theatre and film projects in North Rhine-Westphalia, for Ringlokschuppen Ruhr, Theater an der Ruhr, Sababa Production, Collective Ma'louba, and others.

Lucie Ortmann, dramaturge at tanzhaus nrw, posed the questions.

Eine Gruppe von Menschen bewegt sich in einer Reihe nebeneinander und hält sich an den Händen.

local dancing

Clara Reiner, René Alejandro Huari Mateus, Jacob Bussmann & Frédéric De Carlo

Thu 06.06. 16:00 Theatermuseum Düsseldorf
Fri 07.06. 19:00 Jugendkulturcafé Franzmann
Sat 08.06. 16:00 Niemandsland e.V.
Sun 09.06. 15:00 tanzhaus nrw

Fassade des tanzhaus nrw bei Nacht

Bülbül Club

Open Foyer
Fri 31.05. starting 20:00
Fri 28.06. starting 20:00