interview

The Power (of) The Fragile: Mohamed Toukabri reunites with his mother onstage

© Ivan Put

Brussels choreographer and dancer Mohamed Toukabri had just finished his successful solo debut The Upside Down Man, when issues around Covid and visas thwarted his next project. Finally, after fourteen years of dancing in Europe, he was reunited with his Tunisian mother, who stepped onto the stage with him.

Mimouna Latifa Khamessi was happy to be photographed, but decided to let her son speak about the piece they are making together. The language is too great an obstacle. During the interview she discreetly keeps to the background, but her fluky body – ready for the rehearsal that will continue later – is very present, and her soft eyes do not lose sight of her talking son.

When Mohamed Toukabri translates some of his mother’s words at the end of our conversation, her emotions become obvious. That she couldn’t be with her son sooner to see him dance in Europe clearly hurt. The fact that she can now be with him to work on a piece together makes her happy. The Power (of) The Fragile promises to be an encounter of a son who invites his 64-year-old mother into the world where he has long since found a new home.

Toukabri started breakdancing in Tunis when he was twelve, and joined the Sybel Ballet Théâtre in 2002, directed by Syhem Belkhodja. At the age of sixteen, he started at the International Academy of Dance in Paris, and one year later, in 2008, he began his training at P.A.R.T.S. Following collaborations with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, Needcompany, Rosas, Aïcha M’Barek and Hafiz Dhaou, he presented his first solo The Upside Down Man at the Beursschouwburg in 2019: an international success that was also presented in the #New­Young category at the TheaterFestival in 2019. He does not think that inviting his mother for the follow-up The Power (of) The Fragile is strange. Mohamed Toukabri: “The second part of The Upside Down Man was already dedicated to my mother. In it, I call her ‘my first country’ – a metaphor I created myself to get rid of the weight of nationalistic discourse. If everyone considered their mother’s womb to be their first homeland, and saw birth as a migration, then we are all migrants.”

“In this performance I wanted to ask my mother on stage because it was her childhood dream to become a dancer. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, that was impossible. Her father was a faithful companion of Habib Bourguiba, who brought about the independence of Tunisia and also became its first president. Someone in that position couldn’t have a child who was a dancer. Because at the time, and to some extent still today, it was not considered a real profession. Now I, who could become a professional dancer, can invite her and give her a stage to realise her dream.”

You mentioned migration briefly, and this theme also plays a decisive role in the background.
Mohamed Toukabri:
I have lived in Europe for fourteen years now, but the day I received the Belgian nationality, and with the red passport also the privilege of freedom of movement, which before I only knew by hearsay, a weight fell from my shoulders. But I couldn’t just sit back then either, because while I was given the privilege, others continued to carry their weight. My mother was one of those people who were not allowed to enter Europe. So it was also a statement to make this piece with her. It was a way of showing that dance can also overcome problems to achieve something beautiful. Even though it was hard for my mother to get permission to come here, also when I was Belgian. Due to issues with visas and Covid, we had to postpone the show four times. During the first wave she could not come. After that, her arrival was not considered essential, even though all her papers and permits were in order and the project of an entire team of seven employees depended on her arrival. These personal problems will also be briefly discussed in the piece.

1772 Toukabri3
© Ivan Put
| Mohamed Toukabri and his mother Mimouna Latifa Khamessi: “The day I received the Belgian nationality, a weight fell from my shoulders. But my mother wasn’t allowed to enter Europe.”

How do you interpret this piece?
Toukabri:
The performance begins as a visit to a theatre space, because that’s where I’ve spent so much time in the last fourteen years of my life. Since I first moved from Tunis to Paris when I was fifteen, then to P.A.R.T.S. when I was seventeen, and then travelled around with the companies I danced with, the theatre has become a safe space for me where I can discover myself, be who I want, meet people, and transcend the boundaries of language and colour. Dance allowed me to give direction to my life. In the piece, I introduce my mother to that world of dance. I take her on a journey that is completely new and foreign to someone who is 64 and not a professional dancer. This also demands trust. I’ll make sure she can feel safe too.

How has that introduction been for her so far?
Toukabri:
She was pleased for the invitation and happy to do it. It was her dream to be on stage. But of course, I also realised that she was especially happy to be with her son. That she could see where I lived, how I went about my days and with whom. The last fourteen years, that has not been possible because we have never been together for more than twenty days. These two months we’ve been together we’re rediscovering each other. That has changed us and our relationship in ways that we probably will only realise later.

After fourteen years of being apart, it is intimate and challenging to suddenly make a show together.
Toukabri:
This is my second creation, and it is normally an important part in finding your own voice. So I had a strong artistic vision of what I wanted to do. I had to let go of some of that, because I was projecting things onto her, because there was this reality of someone who had never danced before, and because we had to find our way on that blurred line between personal and professional interaction. But at the same time, it brought back the joy of work. Creating a performance remains an intense process, but after fourteen years of dancing it had also become routine. Now the essence came back: being in the here and now, listening and letting go of pre-programmed ideas.

Your mother may not be a professional dancer, but she does look pretty fit. How dancey is the choreography?
Toukabri:
You could say she’s a natural mover. Physically, she’s capable of a lot, and I wanted to teach her things I’ve learned too. She’s not just a stage presence. She now also knows what it means to be on stage as a professional dancer and perform for people you don’t know. As an outsider, you may think that’s easy, but the stress and fatigue that come with it are certainly not nothing. There are certainly dance elements in the creation, but for me, who comes from breakdance and acrobatic dancing, this is a very different performance than what I’m used to. There are also very simple movements of two bodies in space touching and caring for each other. You see a mother and son, two individuals from two generations, two body types. She also talks, for example about her childhood, and about the moment when she migrated at eighteen and went through the same thing I went through later.

THE POWER (OF) THE FRAGILE
21 & 22/10, 20.30, Beursschouwburg, www.beursschouwburg.be

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