A collective surviving through punk
Mohamed Toukabri’s life could easily be the plot for a cheesy dance movie. Growing up in Tunis, he would secretly skip school to go breakdancing. Now, he’s working with such illuminaries as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, and is currently performing his first solo piece, The Upside Down Man. It’s a happy ending all right, but Mohamed is still writing new and exciting chapters to his story.
Interview by Yente Vaneerdewegh
Photos by Sasha Vernaeve, shot in Brussels
People tend to perceive stories of immigration in a sad, dramatic way, in my solo I want to show the constructive side, because my identity is built up from all these experiences
Your solo performance is called The Upside Down Man. What does it mean?
Some time ago I was visiting my parents in Tunis, and after a few days I told my mother I wanted to go back ‘home’. It was the first time I referred to Brussels as my home, and suddenly there was this shift of contexts and references. Before that I had never considered myself to be an immigrant; I was never occupied with asking questions about identity and integration. But now I re-question myself, stuck between two spaces. Where do I belong? Where to position myself? It’s in that moment where the acceptance and acknowledgement of this in-between space came. Accepting that this position of being in-between here and there can actually be a place of being and existence. People tend to perceive stories of immigration in a sad, dramatic way, in my solo I want to show the constructive side, because my identity is built up from all these experiences. Even my dancing is a mix of multiple worlds and influences.
Do you consider your performance to be a political statement?
Yes and no. While it obviously touches on larger themes and topics, it’s always from a highly personal perspective. No one else can tell my story, nobody else sees the world through my eyes. I like that idea, because it gives every individual his own place on this planet. But I do believe that even when you’re talking about yourself, you’re also talking about other people. That’s essentially how our identities are composed: we build ourselves up through others and the input we receive from them. I like to think of it as ‘poetically political’.
Anything else you’re working on at the moment?
I just got back from Tunis, where I was invited to develop a project for the new City of Culture. It’s called Dance(R), and it’s my first professional commission as a choreographer. I’m guiding a group of eight dancers in a series of performances that question what it means to be a dancer in today’s society. The idea is to invite the audience to the intimate space of the performers, and show everything that comes before the dancers eventually enter the stage. The premiere in Tunis is scheduled for September, but it will also be part of December Dance in Bruges on 06/12.
What does it mean to be a dancer for you personally?
What I love about dance is that it’s so incredibly personal, but at the same time a universal language that has the ability to connect people. For me, it’s the perfect tool to express whatever feelings, ideas or images I have in mind.
What I love about dance is that it’s so incredibly personal, but at the same time a universal language that has the ability to connect people
Where does your love for dance come from?
My first real encounter with dancing took place on my way back from school in Tunis. There was a group of people outside the train station spinning on their heads, surrounded by spectators. I wasn’t exactly impressed; rather, it felt like something familiar. From that moment I started skipping classes to learn breakdancing, and I’ve been dancing ever since. But I think my passion stems from my parents, who were crazy about disco dancing. My mother is a housewife, my father a tailor. But I think they are artists in the way they look at things. As a matter of fact, it was also my mother’s dream to become a dancer.
So now you’re living your mother’s dream?
In a way, yes. But I’m currently also working on a duet together with her, planned for spring 2020. The title is The power (of) the fragile, and it’s an exploration of how these two concepts are inherently connected. My mother sacrificed her youth and aspirations for me to become the person I am today. So I’m very excited that now I get to offer her the stage to fulfil her dream after all. She’s really my most important source of inspiration. I would even dare to say that we are each other’s muse.
Mohamed Toukabri brings his first solo performance
The Upside Down Man (The Son Of The Road) to
Beursschouwburg, Brussels on the 26th and 27th of April.
Free for Subbacultcha members. Join us here.