Four female figures sit on foam daybeds in loungewear, their knees spread, looking out into the auditorium of HAU1 in Berlin as the audience enter. When the houselights dim, the same relaxed contemplation of the audience continues, not challenging or accusatory, but curious. Even before Bouchra Ouizguen’s Madam Plaza begins, there is a relaxed mutuality created between spectacle and spectator, a levelling in the power dynamic through this even exchange of observation. We are here in one space, audience and performers, looking, and being looked at. The atmosphere is intimate, an evocation of a female private space in this most public of places, a contradiction encapsulating the extraordinary dynamic and presence of the women on stage, and their ambiguity.
Three of the performers are ‘Shikhat’, female performers in Moroccan society whose singing and dancing are central to public rites of passages. For the majority of Moroccans, Shikhat are an indispensible part of religious and national festivity, called upon to entertain at festivals, weddings, circumcisions, naming ceremonies and henna parties, as well as in cabarets and nightclubs. Marginalised in society, a Shikhat is a ‘free woman’ (mra hurra) – an emblem of female transgression – popularly defined as ‘women who do not want men to tell them what to do.’
Exponents of the matlug, the ‘relaxed’ or ‘free-flowing’ in Moroccan concepts of the body, the Shikat is often categorized as ‘loose’, her assumed licentiousness further provoked through the sexual liberty in song lyrics and provocative dances which reveal the intimacies and power structures of private life. The ‘loose language’ of the Shikhat is both spoken and corporeal – sensuous, forthright, bawdy, playful, shape-shifting between genders, bringing attention to aspects of female experience and expression which are taboo in Moroccan society, except in the context of performance. This quality of the three performers is harnessed by the fourth presence on stage, choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen, who met her fellow performers at Madam Plaza, the oldest nightclub in Marrakech, and after which the performance is named.
After the houselights dim the figures slowly list and roll, a mannered shifting of weight into reclining positions, very much controlled and in control. The combination of their relaxed costumes of skirts and pyjama-like bottoms and this deliberate, unselfconscious lolling suggests ‘off duty’ privacy, or the boudoir, but also hints at a kind of poverty. The connection with the disenfranchised outsider is suggested, for the ‘private’ attire is very different from the expensive qaftans and displays of gold Shikhat wear in social circumstances in public.
When the first astonishing cry from Fatima El Hanna rips through the auditorium, the Shikhat poetic musical heritage known as ‘aita or ‘the call’ reverberates. Joined with Naima Sahmoud, lamentations on men, spirituality, and sexual longing swoop and soar as the women tumble on the stage, their guttural cries sinking to a soulful croon, then rising to wail in abandonment. But here the contradiction is further established as the sorrowful is countered with joyfulness and parodies of sexualised dancing. The Shikhat is knowing about the pains of life and the limitations women face in society, but in defiant performances she is garrulous and ultimately triumphant.
The third and most senior performer, Kabboura Ait Ben Hmad, dons a man’s white suit, skilfully and grotesquely parodying an oily seducer. Fatima El Hanna joins in the mating ritual, coy and simpering. Their initial caricatured courtship grows more intense, collapsing into bumps and grinds, critiquing the power play between the sexes as Ouizguen and Sahmoud peep and spy over a barricade of daybeds.
At ceremonies, Shikhat sometimes move towards trance, and this is echoed in the paradox of Hanna’s urgently languid dance, drawing on a movement vocabulary similar to that used in Moroccan esoteric performance to liaise with the spirit world: oscillating the body from side to side, bobbing and nodding the head, swinging loosened hair. Her eyes roll back, her body revels in its loose licentiousness and the power of the Shikhat is clear. These women are ‘disgraceful’, because they have no shame. They are full of authority, living outside the socially admonished roles. Independent and strong, they are admired whilst also being shunned, their performances socially sanctioned, although their personhood is not.
The sexualised dance softens into a lolling, a stillness, and back to the mutual watching, the day beds now closer to the auditorium, downstage.
There is a tender, trusting dynamic between the four women, meeting across performance traditions, aesthetics, generations, and social class. Ouizguen claims the work is not a dance, but ‘a human, loving, friendly, maternal and ethereal encounter,’ reflecting their own creative process. It is an experience puzzling to a few of the hipster audience at HAU who leave. For those of us who remain, facing one another as at the beginning, there is again a moment of mutuality. We smile, laugh, and then applaud, relishing the rough delicacy of this fascinating and unsettling encounter.
Kaite O’Reilly is a playwright and dramaturg and fellow at Freie Universitat’s international research centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’ in Berlin.
For further information on Shikhat, see Deborah A Kapchan’s ‘Moroccan Female Performers Defining the Social Body.’
LIFT will be bringing Madam Plaza at Chelsea Theatre in London between 24th and 25th June.