As the child of Turkish parents, growing up in Berlin from an early age, Nejla Yatkin always felt she was living in two cultures. “As an immigrant child, you had to catch up so much, so you wanted to assimilate and be part of your environment. For my parents, women had to be a certain way; you couldn’t do certain things, couldn’t laugh too loud. So there was a sense of oppression at home. And after a girl turned 12, she was not allowed to do certain things,” Yatkin said.
Yatkin was clearly immersed in her parents’ culture while at the same time looking at it from an outside perspective. Now a thoughtful creator of dance works that explore contemporary issues from a distinctly personal perspective, she recently made a piece, Wallstories, that examined the implications of the fall of the Berlin Wall, something she had experienced firsthand. That work was honored for Overall Excellence in Dance at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival. This year’s Fringe Festival is presenting a preview of her latest ambitious project, which also hits close to home for her.
Oasis: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but were afraid to dance is an evening-length multimedia dance performed by a cast of seven, inspired by images and stories from the Middle East. With an original score by Iranian-American composer Shamou, it incorporates video, shadowplay and speech as Yatkin draws on her personal experiences as well as the tradition of magical realism.
“While I was working on the Berlin Wall project, the seeds for this were planted,” Yatkin said by phone recently following a Brooklyn rehearsal. “I was thinking that the time when the Wall came down—we were so relieved, the sense of freedom and endless possibilities—reminded me of the Arab Spring. Originally, I was thinking of a piece that was more spiritually based, with a focus on Rumi. But then that happening changed the direction. I read a lot about the Middle East, and remembered from traveling to Turkey and Egypt, what it was like, and talking to women there.
“I’m not going into the political stuff, more into the cultural stuff. I feel like it’s important that we from the Middle East also deal with issues that are important, like the veiling, women’s rights. There’s all this talk about democracy, but then women are culturally so oppressed in that region. There’s a big focus on that—on rape of women, torture And then the last part of the piece deals with a little bit of spirituality and religion,” she said.
The piece is framed by a well-known Persian love story, Layla and Majnun, that she describes as “the Romeo and Juliet of the Middle East,” and opens with a duet representing those lovers. Their contrasting backgrounds doom their love affair.
“But they’re so deeply in love that at one point the man goes crazy—which is interesting, because in Western culture, usually the woman goes crazy for love. The story’s allegorical meaning is about humanity; the man stands for humanity and the female represents the soul. When you read it deeper—because Persian stories are very poetic—it’s about humanity losing its soul, then being in constant search for its other half, the spiritual thing that we lost by gaining knowledge.”
Following a first showing at Washington, D.C.’s Dance Place (a co-commissioner of the work) in March, Yatkin has been editing, shaping transitions and refining the performances. “I’m trying to get them to a very honest place, where they don’t ‘act’ it but can be the role more, deepening the truth in it and the honesty of the roles that they’re playing so that it’s not mimicry or pantomime, but honest and real. It’s not easy, because it deals with difficult issues. But some parts use more irony and humor.”
Oasis: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but were afraid to dance
Aug. 18, 19, 22, 23 & 26, Theater 80, 80 St. Marks Pl., www.fringenyc.org; times vary, $15.
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