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Human Movement

In one corner of the black-box stage, three musicians adjust their instruments: drums, double bass, clarinet. As each performer enters barefoot, they set down a pair of sneakers with toes lined against the back wall. A dark-haired woman in white stands centerstage in front of a projected film image of the open sea. I can hear the water lapping as if I’m aboard a boat. The film plays over the woman’s face and dress, making her seem an apparition. Another woman—who could be her double—enters, also dressed in white. As the show begins, the first woman picks up a violin and begins to play as she walks off to join the musicians.

Performance

“Iphigenia Point Blank,” written by Lisa Schlesinger with choreography by Hussein Smko

Place

The Sheen Center New York, NY, December 6, 2023

Words

Karen Hildebrand

“Iphigenia Point Blank” by Lisa Schlesinger and Hussein Smko. Photograph by Gus Ford

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“Iphigenia Point Blank” is billed as “the story of the first refugee” and “a woman’s experience of war.” The play, written by Lisa Schlesinger with choreography by Hussein Smko, opened at New York’s Sheen Center, and is particularly timely, given the events currently unfolding in the Middle East. By comparing a dramatization of the Trojan War from Greek mythology with scenes of life in Syrian refugee camps from 2011, the production makes us look “point blank” at the human consequences of war. 

The program gives a plot summary for those of us rusty on our Greek classics: Iphigenia, who thinks she is to be married, is instead to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to assure that the gods will favor the Greeks in the Trojan War. But was she indeed murdered, or was she replaced on the altar by a deer and spirited away from her homeland? The doubling of Iphigenia in this production—one played by Sarah Himadeh, and one by violinist Layale Chaker—is an elegant touch to suggest the two possibilities. 

“Iphigenia Point Blank” by Lisa Schlesinger and Hussein Smko. Photograph by Gus Ford

Hussein Smko discovered his passion for dance in Kurdistan, during the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Dance is discouraged in Islam, but he used social media to learn breakdancing, house, and capoeira on his own, and eventually Jonathan Hollander of Battery Dance spotted him and began to coach the dancer via Skype. Smko brings his own experience of displacement to the production. His choreography for “Iphigenia’s” cast of actors who are untrained in dance was strongest when unadorned, such as a section of hypnotic foot stomping in unison, the performers’ arms raised overhead—a motif inspired by Middle Eastern folk dances. The most deft mover, Danny Bryck, narrated the evening as a Puck-like character with a wreath of flowers on his head. While balancing off-kilter on one leg and flashing a cocky smile, he brought to life a vital element of the story—the Wind. In Euripides’ narrative, the Greek troops were stalled without the wind necessary to set sail. Once Agamemnon completed the sacrifice of his daughter, the gods would allow the wind to blow and thus the war to begin. Bryck brought a cheeky personality to his role, taunting Agamemnon with: “Go on, make me.”

The purpose of the Greek chorus is typically to comment on the story. But here, Smko’s chorus performs the story in movement while the commentary comes from Bryck as narrator. As a dancer, Smko often seemed to be pulling his fellow chorus members along behind him, and much of the choreography felt cramped in the small space. Finally, he took a solo that allowed him to completely unfurl his lanky mass. His energy was fiercely raw as he leapt laterally from side to side, higher with each repetition. The way he shimmied his shoulders reminded me of a traditional Jewish dance, but he gave the move a forceful snap, like popping, in hip hop.

“Iphigenia Point Blank” by Lisa Schlesinger and Hussein Smko. Photograph by Gus Ford

The most arresting choreography of the show was the interplay between action onstage and scenes of Syrian refugees filmed by Irina Patkanian, projected on the rear wall. At some point I noticed there was a subtle mirroring between stage and screen. In the film for instance, a scene of people washing their clothes outdoors played while onstage a violence against Iphigenia ensued, and Smko wound up the fabric of Himadeh’s costume as if wringing wet laundry. In the film, people sorted through piles of blankets and sneakers, while onstage the shoes that were initially lined up neatly were now heaped into a pile. Near the end of the play, Himadeh folded a sheet of paper into a small boat that she then set, as if to float, on a runner made of shiny mylar to form a miniature diorama representing Iphigenia’s escape. The symbolism was elegant and crushing as we now saw on film a raft at sea crowded with refugees. Onstage the performers tipped the mylar runner, dumping the paper boat into a basin of water. Onscreen, the image shifted to show the ocean raft bobbing empty on the water. 

Ultimately stage and screen worlds blended when a white-scarfed Serbian woman on film sings and the onstage Iphigenia walked toward her, then turned and to lift and wrap the bottom edge of the cloth backdrop around her head and shoulders. Time has not changed the damaging impact of war on women and the displaced. The film reverted to the image of open sea, and the cast unhooked the top edge of the backdrop cloth, allowing it to float like a giant sail behind Iphigenia and to eventually cover the entire stage and audience. It’s as if we were drowning, I realized, yet the canopy also felt somehow protective. The performers exited the stage without taking a bow.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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