A conversation with the choreographer/producer of “Dance Factory,” a new Berlin dance film centered on the Syrian refugee experience.
I just got off the phone with Mohamad Al Halabi, aka “Wolf,” a Berlin-based dancer/choreographer from Syria. We had a brief and refreshing conversation about his philosophy of dance, and a new project he’s working on. I’m delighted to have the chance to speak with Wolf, so let’s get on with the conversation!
Why do you want to do this project?
Wolf: I’m trying to do my talking through “the dance language” because we want to communicate with German society, but to learn the language… it’s gonna be a long time. And it’s hard to communicate. You know, being a refugee, there’s all this news and social media, and people in the community don’t know who you are or what you do. Some people think that we are criminals, or aliens, or have some sort of sick mentality, I don’t know what they think. But people think like that sometimes. And for us, we are new here in Berlin, and this country, but we are not new to life. I’m trying to open this gate between us and them through dancing.
“Dance Factory” is a short (10 minute) experimental dance film. It’s divided into 5 “scenes” each with a theme related to the refugee experience. For example, one segment focuses on “waiting” and bureaucracy, while another centers around the feeling of being in jail. The film features six dancers. Some street dancers, some professional, all Syrian refugees. Wolf guessed he choreographed about 80%, but left some parts open, to “give the space to the other dancers to express themselves also.”
The film is “experimental” because no one knows what the outcome will be. The group has a limited budget, so they’ve sacrificed fancy sets for a rougher atmosphere. Wolf has danced in companies around the Middle East in styles ranging from Ballet, to Arabic Folk, to Modern, so his choreography is a mix of everything. But the group doesn’t think of their movements in terms of performance, it’s more “dancing through ideas,” for example the idea of the media, or of the different ways a story can be framed.
And how has your reception in Berlin been?
Wolf: Actually the dance community here, like for us, it’s so open. We get a lot of opportunities. There are funds trying to support refugees and there are a lot of people welcoming us. To be honest, people here are open-minded to all the world, not just to refugees; they are so supportive.
Some people gave us feedback that ‘you guys are really hard workers, you are so polite, and we are glad to have you here. You are something new in our country and we’re glad because all of you are here…’ and kind of like compliments and things like that.
Wolf: Yeah. And I actually found it, like, fantastic.
That’s great to hear. I mean it’s a hard journey, and then to be welcomed with open arms-
Wolf: Yeah, it was really so important for us. Especially now, because we are trying to have a new situation here. It’s a totally new atmosphere and environment… and we have good friends by our side. I actually realized something. When you are loyal, when you are a respectful person, others give you the same wherever you are. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. You give respect you get respect.