I never forgot the image of Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel, who won a gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles during the1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I remember my admiration as she ran in a traditional track uniform — tank top and shorts — and knowing that she was breaking multiple barriers for Muslim women with her performance.
By the 2012 Olympics in London, every Muslim country was represented by at least one woman athlete, although Afghanistan sprinter Tahmina Kohstani elected to run in a hijab and long clothing.
There is still a long way to go on the international stage.
We got a fierce morsel of their struggle as Moroccan choreographer Hind Benali danced in the intimate confines of The Alloy space courtesy of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater,
The result was a fully-formed and informed woman, representing the best that her country and, moreover, what she, had to offer.
Her group was officially named Hind Benali/Fleur D’Orange; the piece, created especially for her American tour, titled Identity, would combine traditional and contemporary dance.
It’s not often that we see crossover companies like this. Most memorable, via the Pittsburgh Dance Council, was India’s Nrityagram in 2002, which was primarily rooted in Odissi dance, but bravely ventured into the modern idiom and, in 2013, New Zealand’s Black Grace with its seamless blending of old and new.
In a way, this was more dangerous.
Hind brought composer Mochine Imrharn and hip hop dancer/flutist Soufiane Karim with her. Together they had a soulful opening, immediately reminding one of a deep history and windswept sands. Mochine‘s score was particularly evocative, giving Hind a supple platform for her dance, filled, as it was, with so much, including melismatic singing and cave-like drips.
The petite dancer was crouched to begin her journey, She stood up, almost encased in a lavish traditional costume,her hands scooping up and thudding against her chest. She tucked the skirt into her waistband and began quivering.
It was locked into her tradition. But her distress became more apparent as she took off the skirt and embraced it. Soufiane provided an interlude with some hip hop, a contrast to be sure and a trend, but not particularly connected. Later though, she would use him as a foil for her emotion.
When Hind emerged again, she was crawling, like an animal wild and free. Yet she never lost sight of ritualistic elements and eventually revealed a black leotard, allowing us to see a rather lovely modern technique. At times she seemed to be shedding layers of tradition. Other times she tried to embrace her conflicting role in life and her feelings often burst through with uncommon force.
Occasionally that made Identity seem conflicted. Yet, at its heart it was truly symbolic of women in the Muslim world, who are gradually and collectively building toward their own brand of freedom. I also applaud the men in Identity, so versatile that the production seemed larger than three artists, and so important for their support and interaction.
So it was personal. It was political. Best of all, it was art.