Mo Khansa, who works simply as Khansa, is a radical young Lebanese dance artist, choreographer and singer who interrogates ideas about identity, place, gender, sexuality and autonomy in his incredible work. Influenced by his mother, herself a more traditional type of dancer, and iconic artists like Arca, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bjork and FKA Twigs, his is a singular path. Watching him move feels like being let in on a secret, one which could blow things apart—such is his power.
His dancing straddles past, present and future: his movements are sensual, fluid and possessing a ballet dancer’s effortless grace. He is so self-contained, it is as though he arrived in the world as a fully-formed entity. The term “born to dance” may be something of an overused cliche these days, yet it is entirely apposite. In a recent interview with Vice magazine*, he spoke of the power of art, particularly dance, in transcending ultra-masculine backgrounds, and of leaving college to make his own art. “We have these backgrounds where there’s so much testosterone. But what if someone just walks up and starts throwing glitter on everyone? Just trying to transform it into something else . . . I was making my own New York, in a way. I created my own curriculum, jumping from place to place.At university, it’s all designed in a way to work for the market here, but there’s not a market for performers.”
Director Dania Bdeir’s stunning film Warsha is inspired by a true story. She saw a crane worker alone, praying perched at the top of a crane. The image of him really resonated with her, this man so present in his own sacred space, in spite of the immense peril. So began the creation of Warsha, exploring human duality, risk and the power of imagination.
Khansa portrays the central character Mohammed, a put-upon Syrian crane worker longing to escape the claustrophobia of his daily routine. Resigned to his lot, he is aching to transcend the limitations of his stultifying quotidian environment, full of macho, judgemental co-workers and their heartless jibes. When he volunteers to take on “The Beast,” the tallest and most dangerous crane in Beirut, the vertiginous scenes are both jaw-dropping and awe inspiring.
As both an actor and dancer, Khansa owns every scene. He is the epitome of elegance and restraint, using at first, subtle, barely-there gesticulations. Lost in a song playing on his small radio, his character Mohammed lip synchs, with eyes closed, then wide. He stretches out an elongated arm, an expressive curling hand, and he peacocks like an old school Hollywood diva, with the ballroom and belly dancer existing simultaneously within his long, lean frame. As the camera pans around his fearless alter—ego, suspended from a chain, with nothing at all between him and certain death, the shots are not for the faint of heart. It is real heart in mouth, watch through fingers stuff. He spins around on the chain, cutting balletic shapes, clad in a gorgeous red vintage taffeta gown and evening gloves: he looks imperious, slinky and free.
This indelible vision is a perfect central metaphor for freedom, both of a creative and personal nature. This is the struggle for true acceptance, written in his soulful eyes, the stretched out arm, his head up and proud. Here, Mohammed’s alter-ego is living out his wildest fantasy, his whole body an expressive instrument. He is a conduit, standing for queer power and liberation, for subversion, radical joy and beauty. His dance is expressing the inexpressible, touching the infinite core of what it means to be human.
*“The Lebanese Belly Dancer Who’s ‘Too Queer’ For His Country,” interview with Kirsten O’ Regan, December 17, 2017.
Part of the Glasgow Short Film Festival “Lebanese Focus: Trapped” programme. Following the exclusive film screening, Khansa will be performing live at the CCA Glasgow, March 24, and director Dania Bdeir will also be presenting a masterclass.