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Bouchra Ouizguen’s opening show was cancelled on Wednesday. Luckily the show opened instead on Thursday, to a packed theater. It was beautiful. And moving. It was moving in how intense it was, yet spare at the same time.
One of my favorite kind of performances is one that can do a lot with a little, and Ha! does a lot with very little. There’s minimal lighting, no musical score (aside from live voices), and it's all done on the scrappy stage of the Imago Theater. Ha! is performed by four women in black shirts, black pants, and black shoes, with white cloths on their heads. This sounds like it would be boring, but I was absolutely transported.
The best way to describe the show is that it was a trance. The performers sing songs normally sung by men in Morocco. (Ouizguen is a Moroccan artist who studied in France.) Ouizguen’s fellow performers are traditional Moroccan cabaret singers, “Both celebrated and scorned for their performing tradition on the margins of society,” PICA’s show brochure reads. The performance pulls from a variety of traditions, including songs sung by the insane. The piece itself evolved by traveling throughout Morocco, studying different areas of the country and different forms of expressions, and by studying the works of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi.
The performance opens with darkness. The four performers are singing; it sounds like they’re saying “Hey, ho,” chant-like, but also like they’re shouting orders, like they’re rowing. The women's voices are incredible. They're hardy; sometimes they bellow and almost shout, but sometimes they whimper, but it's always melodic and rhythmic. This show is incredible in how it creates space with sound, and also in how it embraces stillness as a key element of a performance.
All performances require a special brand of bravery, but perhaps the bravest performance is the kind that can embrace silence. At times the performers of Ha! stand on the stage without a sound, they look around, then move against one another slowly. Again, this sounds like it might be boring, but it’s not. Shortly after this, they start hip-thrusting, playfully, making goofy grunting sounds; the audience laughs. It's like they're teenagers of the '50s who've just turned on the TV and discovered Elvis Presley and the concept of pelvic thrusting.
I stayed for the post-show conversation on Thursday night. Two of the performers decided to rest. (The show would be exhausting to perform, with nearly non-stop singing.) “I talk bad about my work,” Ouizguen said, through broken English. She speaks English with a French accent; the audience yelled out English translation suggestions at times. She was reluctant to put her work into categories. And it’s true that it seems better to experience this particular work for itself—to absorb the sounds and the unique voice that inspired it. There are two more performances of Ha!, tonight at 8:30pm and Saturday at 8:30pm. I think it’s fair to say, that you can only see this kind of show in Portland—this particular, international perspective—through the TBA Festival.
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