Mohamed Toukabri: the fluidity of identity

Judith Arazi

It was when the dancer Mohamed Toukabri first set out to develop his own creative work that his identity, multi-faceted and confused, came back to hit him like a boomerang. “When I was ‘young Mohamed’ who had just left Tunis to try his luck in Belgium, no one asked me to position myself. With age and experience, things have changed: I felt like I was being asked to make a choice.”

That profoundly impossible demand led to the creation of The Upside Down Man, Toukabri’s first solo show, which you can see in Brussels at the Day of Dance. With a background in breakdance, Toukabri trained in ballet and then in contemporary dance in Tunis before joining the prestigious Brussels dance school P.A.R.T.S. in 2008. The young dancer later excelled under the direction of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Damien Jalet, Aïcha M’Barek, Hafiz Dhaou, and choreographers from the Brussels-based Needcompany, of which he became a member in 2013.

“I came to Belgium to develop my dancing,” says Toukabri. “Given the migrant crisis and the turmoil shaking the Arab world, I wanted to show that there are also people, like me, who left that part of the world out of curiosity, to find out what was happening on the other side of the sea.”

Alternating dance and spoken word, Toukabri, with the help of family photographs and videos, tells his story, the contents of which challenge notions and preconceptions surrounding the Arab world. A mother in a short skirt, her hair blowing in the wind. A father getting down to the beats of Michael Jackson. “Coming from a Muslim family doesn’t stop you from dancing,” he says, twisting his limber body as if to illustrate the fluidity of his individuality.

Whether with feet firmly on the ground or standing on his head, The Upside Down Man overturns clichés in every direction, drawing the spectator into his vortex of identity. A whirlwind that he conveys with warmth, originality, and a radiant smile. “I didn’t want to be in conflict with the audience, but rather to invite people into my world and make them feel comfortable. That’s why I smile, to put everyone at ease,” explains Toukabri, who, on arriving in Europe, decided to abandon his nickname “Benny” and restore Mohamed, the name chosen by his parents, as a statement to the world.

“In Tunisia, Mohamed is associated with tolerance, humility, and faith. In the West, my name brings to mind the Islamic State, jihad, and menace.” An artist and a genuine nomad, Toukabri’s poetic story weaves from one coast to another, building imaginary bridges whereby its many nuances can roam freely. “The only way to achieve change is through direct encounters.”

THE UPSIDE DOWN MAN 26 & 27/4, 20.30 Beursschouwburg

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