“As a child and for a very long period of my life I was very afraid of Leila because she represented death for me,” said choreographer Ali Chahrour. “The Shiite way of crying is not just to sit and cry; it’s a whole performance with the body. It’s engaged. It’s very rich about the presence of the body and the voice.”
Chahrour’s internationally recognized work, Leila’s Death is based on the life of Leila, a professional mourner from Southern Lebanon, who performs with Chahrour alongside two Lebanese musicians. In the Shiite tradition, mourners are professional performers who, following a death, learn about the deceased—their relations with their family, their work, their lives—and write or select songs and poetry to represent them at their funeral. They perform their grief and help the family and friends of the deceased to express their sorrow.
It is from this cultural tradition that Leila’s Death, the second work in a trilogy about funeral rituals created by Chahrour, was born. Leila has seen many deaths; the funerals she has lamented at, the passings of those close to her, and the death of her profession. Lamenting is a declining tradition, and Leila—who is Chahrour’s father’s cousin—had stopped mourning entirely until Chahrour approached her with the idea for this work.
“The quality of movement that Leila has, it’s a dance performance,” said Chahrour. “She has in her body all these funerals that she attends. How she dances in the funeral, how she moves, it’s just in her quality and her presence.”
The use of traditional ritual as a base for building contemporary art strikes a chord with one of Chahrour’s missions as an artist—to discover and create a “local contemporary dance” in his home country of Lebanon.
“What’s a local contemporary dance? To answer this question, I wanted to work with people who are not trained as professional dancers. They have very specific stories, they have a specific quality of movement, and they create new techniques.”
“I found these rituals in Arab history and Shiite history can be a very strong base from which to create or start a local contemporary dance. It’s very rich in terms of the presence of the body, the music, the rhythm, the quality of the movement, so when we started the research I found this is very, very rich,” Chahrour said.
Chahrour’s work was created for audiences in Beirut, but its deeply emotional content has struck a chord with audiences around the globe. Leila’s Death has toured in France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the United States. But despite his global success, Chahrour is committed to making sure his work continues to reflect its source material. He insists on holding most of his rehearsals in Lebanon and on premiering his work in Beirut.
“The most important thing for us is to present the piece and face the performance with the audience in Lebanon,” he said. “I’m trying to… protect ourselves from the market, and this idea of [wondering] how we can please the international scene. This is something I don’t know if I will manage, but we are trying to keep the local references of the performance.”
While Chahrour’s work holds an essential connection to Lebanese culture, he only aims to represent himself. He says he doesn’t want to be seen as an ambassador for his culture or his country; rather, he strives to share the intimacy and emotion that come from deeply personal work. In a tumultuous time for Lebanon, Chahrour recognizes that people are bound to project ideas of politics and religion onto his art, but he is more interested in asking questions than seeking answers.
“In interviews in Lebanon they ask me if I’m a religious person or if I’m not a religious person because they don’t know how I’m dealing with these materials,” he said. “This is very interesting for me, because we respect the materials we are dealing with as much as I respect my work as a choreographer. But at the same time, we have thousands of questions about this religious material and these practices. So it’s a really very sensitive line in this world.”