Serendipity was centred on 60 differently-abled people in wheelchairs. Choreographers and dance therapists worked together with the Palestinian dance trainees to mount the performance. The 5-weeks rehearsal period for the performance took the physically and mentally differently-abled participants on an artistic journey of physical and emotional social defiance.
This performance aimed at empowering the participants through opportunity to show their skills and commitment and step out of the margins of society into the centre. As a result large parts of the community, and even their families, looked at them in a different way and finally saw them as active members of society.
The actual work process on the performance started long before the actual performance or preparatory modules. It started with the recruitment process of the participants, which was mainly done by Summar Rasras. She had an extremely demanding job. The concept of integrating differently-abled persons into a public performance was a very difficult one for many parts of Palestinian society to come to terms with and accept. Summar contacted many organisations that worked with people who were mentally and physically challenged to explain what YANTE intended to do and to persuade differently abled persons with physical or mental disability to take part. There were many objections, not from the prospective participants but mainly from their carers. Some carers felt subconsciously and maybe in some cases consciously ashamed of their differently-abled relative, in most cases a child or sibling. They refused to showcase him/her to the public. The team could also observe that those carers were often physically and financially overwhelmed with their roles and thus had to demonstrate a ‘mercenary’ attitude of ‘what’s in it for me’.
In the end, some 80 persons with wide-ranging differences of ability were accepted, of whom around 60 took part in the performance.
The 5-week rehearsal phase started with a training from March 4th until March 30th 2014. The rehearsals were conducted in two separate groups. In the first week the first group rehearsed on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the second group on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from 15:00 – 18:00. Upon the request of the participants and due to the high level of interest from participants from more distant locations, such as Hebron, Jenin and Toulkarem, the rehearsal schedule was changed. Hence the first group rehearsed on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday from 15:00 – 18:00, while the second group rehearsed on Friday from 11:00 – 16:00 and Saturday from 14:00 – 19:00.
The stage rehearsals started as planned on April 1st 2014 where both groups came together for the first time. Also as planned the stage rehearsals were conducted daily from 14:00 – 19:00 until April 4th and from 11:00 – 17:00 on April 5th The premiere took place on the same day at 18:00.
The dance performance and accompanying awareness campaign were designed to help raise the level of awareness to the incorrect stereotypes against disabled persons. The design and structure of the rehearsals ensured that the participants were introduced to non-violent and empathic communication. This was ensured by starting and ending each rehearsal with an open circle, where the participants would start by sharing how they were feeling emotionally, how they were feeling physically, and what their wishes and needs were that they hoped to fulfil through the rehearsal. At the end of the rehearsal, the participants came together again to share how their experience of the rehearsal was, and to share their gratitude.
This technique and the rehearsal structure, supported by individual overview and mentorship of the team to each participant, helped the participants develop interpersonal skills that are important for raising their self esteem and developing their ability to give and receive empathy. Non-violence starts by one’s ability to receive and convey empathy.
The rehearsals were also conducted in a participatory way, where the participants co- created the choreography, and therefore developed a strong sense of community and ownership. Hence as the audience applauded they felt really proud and capable.
This, along with the constant support, mentorship, and psychological supervision and assistance, helped enhance the sense of self-esteem and self value amongst the participants, it highlighted their capabilities, and provided them with a platform to explore and search further into the nuances of the various possibilities and abilities that their bodies and minds provide.
The team witnessed beautiful developments and many milestones of individual human development amongst each and every participant.
To give a few examples, one participant, who had been involved in a car accident a few months before rehearsals started, was depressed, resisted therapy, and insisted that he could not move certain body parts; he showed signs of denial and resistance to being disabled and in a wheelchair. By the time of the premiere this participant had developed great skill in using his chair, was smiling, laughing and constantly making jokes, and even flirting with some of the trainers. He could also gradually move some of the body parts that he had previously maintained he couldn’t move.
Another participant, who was injured by the occupation at the age of 18, who could not move his left side at all and felt great pain in using the wheelchair, expressed that he is feeling livelier, and even performed a strong duet where he used his left side.
The performance helped change the perception of women towards higher levels of gender equality. More than 50% of the participants on stage were women; at least 60% of those females were veiled. These women danced with men, touched men on stage – sometimes even in an emotionally affectionate way. The pictures of the premiere speak very loudly about this aspect.
It is also worth mentioning that the three key persons behind this production – the artistic director, the choreographer and the coordinator – were all strong women, who defied society and enforced their respect where necessary. It did prove challenging for many of the men involved to accept and deal with those women as authority figures.
The participating women were shown in the media as strong women, worthy of all the respect and support society can provide. The media attention has certainly proved to be empowering for them since their families and friends, some of which were critical of them participating in such a project, could see them being portrayed as strong, beautiful and capable women. Some of the women reported a positive change of behaviour towards them.
Many of the women who refused to participate citing social and religious constraints, expressed interest in joining similar activities after watching the premiere and asked the organisers if there would be a continuation to this work. The number of enthused participants encourages YANTE and the Abu Rayya Rehabilitation Centre to consider introducing dance as a weekly activity at their centre starting in autumn 2014. This would allow many more women to join this healing and empowering process.
Also on the administrative level, the three key women leading this programme observed a change of attitude amongst the men towards accepting and most importantly respecting the hierarchy and their roles as leaders without questioning their capabilities. A few men, who were not amongst the participants, rather regional coordinators or accompanying persons of those disabled could not accept and respect the role of these strong women and caused some difficulties and challenges that are reflected in this report.
One female participant, who had some slight mental disability, was very cynical about her life, and showed alarming signs of depression, due to family oppression. This participant became jovial and happy, because the organisational team managed to convince her very conservative family to allow her to sleep outside her home for the first time in her life. She felt so happy and thankful that she came to thank the organisers every day during stage rehearsals and asked to take pictures with them every day, saying she wants to be able to remember each of those days forever.
This was the first large scale community dance performance where YANTE used Palestinian music, and one that was especially composed/compiled for this performance. YANTE was very pleased that Tareq Abboushi was engaged to compose and adapt the music for this production. This talented and well-known multi- instrumentalist musician, composer and director threw himself into the task with great enthusiasm, assembling a pulsating score by combining pieces taken from the albums ‘Mumtastic’ and ‘One’, composed and performed by himself and his New York-based band Shusmo, and weaving them together seamlessly with music specifically composed for this purpose. The result can only be described as magnificent.
The Awareness Campaign that was launched in March 2014 presented the Palestinian public with various public space interventions, where the participants performed improvised segments with their wheelchairs in the streets of Ramallah, in schools and community spaces in villages and at public events like the annual international book festival organised by the Palestinian ministry of culture, among many other spaces.
These interventions were followed by a talk, where the audience was introduced to the difficulties, prejudices and inequality under which persons with disabilities are forced to live in Palestine. The space was then open for discussions and sharing thoughts and ideas by the spectators.
In the village of Qibya a disabled girl attending the school was invited to join the improvised dance. She also shared her experience of being discriminated against in the school. This girl reported weeks later, that there had been a big change of treatment towards her in school, where fellow students started helping her more and showing kind behaviour.
Additionally, the Jerusalem Centre for Legal Aid and the Palestinian Prime Minister’s Office were made aware of the difficulties disabled persons face with public transportation, where drivers refuse to allow them to ride with them, which is against Palestinian laws and legislations. Both parties committed to enforcing the law and to holding those who act in breach of it accountable.
The premiere performance of “Serendipity” was celebrated on April 5th at the Ramallah Cultural Palace and was itself a celebration of the successful commencement of the second year of training for the YANTE trainees who were honoured on stage with an extra applause of recognition, for the immense amount of time and effort they invested not only in the performance and awareness campaign, but also in their individual training and growth, and especially for their perseverance throughout our very rigorous I CAN MOVE programme.
The first performance to be fully choreographed by the Palestinian I CAN MOVE trainees lasted approximately 60 minutes. It was watched live by about 700 people who received it enthusiastically and in the end it was a huge success and justified all the hard work put in by the I CAN MOVE team and their external collaborators.
The performance was also very well perceived in the media, hence hundreds and thousands of people were reached by our message through the profound reports prepared and broadcast by (alphabetically): Al-Arabiya TV, Dubai TV, Al-Falastiniah TV, Al-Hurra TV, Palestine TV and Sky News.
The original plan was to tour the production ‘Serendipity’ throughout the West Bank including Jerusalem, with seven performances scheduled in five locations (Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah and Toubas). Unfortunately, the planned performance tour had to be cancelled due to logistical and technical reasons. It was therefore decided for the performance to be replaced by a tour of a recording (DVD) of the performance, which was held in schools and community centres in Palestine, Austria, Sweden and the United States of America. The screenings were followed by a presentation about the experience of working with differently abled persons.
Differently abled persons who participated in the performance are also invited to the screenings in their governorates of residence to speak about their experience of the ‘Serendipity’ production. These screenings have proven to be valuable for raising the communities’ awareness for the difficulties persons with disability have to face in Palestine, whether in terms of transportation, lack of adequate facilities or employment.
More than 3000 people have been reached throughout our DVD screenings. Some of the locations were: Al W’ad al-Sadiq School- East Jerusalem, Qibia, Palestinian Circus School – Birzeit, Community Club – Tammoun, The Freedom Theatre – Jenin, Alamera Basma School – East Jerusalem, Yes Theatre – Hebron among many others.
We faced various social challenges during the phase of the performance such as:
The first four challenges were overcome through perseverance, honesty and transparency. These four challenges, as difficult as they were, were easier to overcome for they concerned externals or a third party, and none of the directly involved protagonists such as the participants and the team – artistic and administrative.
However, the last challenge above, where some participants attempted to increase their monetary gain from the project, was more difficult to overcome. These participants did not only show little gratitude, but they also started inciting the rest of the participants against the I CAN MOVE team. In a place like Palestine, where unfortunately corruption of NGOs is the norm and not the exception, it was difficult for YANTE to counter the groundless accusations of those participants that “the organisation is making money in the name of the disabled participants”.
The team acknowledged that what is needed is trust, and such trust can only be built through long-term encounters and profound human relationships. However, time was not on the side of YANTE, as those participants came forward with these accusations 2 days before the premiere, leaving little or no time for the team to be able to profoundly deal with this ordeal.
Nonetheless the organisational team managed to face the false accusations of those participants, while remaining true to its values and refusing to be blackmailed. The organisational team assumed the challenges were overcome after the premiere had taken place, where all participants were jovial and proud of their achievement.
However, the same people as before attempted to blackmail the organisation again after the premiere performance. Their behaviour was a combination of ‘tribal’ attitudes and a macho behaviour against the leading women of YANTE, showing little appreciation and respect for the team. Hence the organisation decided to overcome this challenge by replacing the live performance tour with a DVD tour along with an awareness campaign together with those participants who remained respectful and committed, combined with artistic public space interventions through small performances with wheelchair users.