Stealing Stories: Leyya Tawil

By Claudia Bauer


You poor little creature…what is yours? Your house…your job…your kitchen chairs and the number plate on the door…ah! But these don’t belong to you. By what right did they come to you? — Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight

For many creative people, artistic expression offers respite from the troubled world. But for others, art raises more questions than it answers. Big questions, unsettling and often unyielding ones, questions of right and wrong and life and death. Useless as a means of escape or understanding, for those restless souls art is a way of responding to the unanswerable.

Being a wholly low-key, warm and unassuming person, Oakland choreographer Leyya Tawil (her last name is pronounced tah-WHEEL), the artistic director of Dance Elixir, doesn’t describe herself in such dramatic terms. But in talking about her new piece, Thieves, scheduled for two work-in-progress showings during the San Francisco International Arts Festival, Tawil reveals the keen sensitivity and willing compassion that are at its heart. Rather than evading life’s hard questions through art, Tawil uses it as leverage to push deeper into them. In the case of Thieves, she delves into being an outsider.

Thieves had been brewing as a way of working on my personal definition of Arabness and my perspective when I travel,” said Tawil, a first-generation Palestinian-Syrian American. “In the Arab world, I’m an American. But in America, I’m an Arab. At home in Michigan, where it’s all Arab Americans who have been here for two generations or so, I’m an outsider because I’m an artist.”

Heroes & Villains
Tawil’s sense of herself as an outsider is a tad ironic given that her talent is embraced worldwide; in the last two years, she has performed in Beirut, Montreal, the Czech Republic, Damascus, Amsterdam, Ramallah and Austria as well as stateside on both coasts. But formative emotions can influence us throughout life, and Tawil is still deeply attuned to how people fit into geographical, emotional and artistic contexts–or don’t.

Her 2010 solo tour, Map of the World, provided an organic medium for Thieves; ideas grew as Tawil traveled between cultural and climate extremes, re-contextualizing herself over and over. “I visited a lot of really intense places in rapid-fire. To witness the water politics in Palestine and then [days later] to be in Austria–everything’s a fountain! There’s water everywhere. That really shook me. It was like, something’s not right in the world that there are these two disparate places. Not to get too grounded in politics…but you create a desperate situation [like lack of access of water], and then people steal to survive–but who’s really the thief? Who created the situation where you need to steal to survive? Are they the criminal or are they the victim?”

Heads of state are overmatched by that conundrum. Yet, undaunted by the scale of her idea, Tawil started delving while on the road. “The dancing that comes out in the space when I’m rehearsing in Cairo, I call that Cairo research. I absorb information on a very kinesthetic level; I need to be walking on the street and meeting people face to face, and eating food of a place, and breathing the air of a place. Without thinking too deliberately or scientifically about it, I go into the studio, and I just analyze what is happening on a kinesthetic level.”

An avid reader of poetry, Tawil found a vocabulary for Thieves in Kenneth Patchen’s novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Frank Stanford’s 15,000-line epic The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (even her reading list is outsider-y). “Stanford wrote, I make murderers look like saints and saints look like thieves. It’s this idea that a thief is also a victim.”

Patchen added yet another layer of meaning. In his experimental world, “the thieves are like warriors of hope. I use thieves in the most positive sense,” Tawil said. So among thieves, there is a subculture of outsider-thieves with good intentions? Tawil laughed when I suggested that her vision for the piece was looking a lot like Robin Hood, who is either a hero or a sociopath, depending on your perspective. “Thieves is totally Robin Hood! But the merry band part is important too, because there is also this idea of wolves that run in a pack–finding like-minded people who you know have your back is part of being an artist, it’s also part of finding community, it’s part of survival, it’s part of art-making.”

Tawil considers herself a thief of sorts. “When you’re in a place that’s not yours, taking these stories in and then going into the studio and making a dance is kind of like stealing; like stealing the essence of a place and making it mine.”

The Merry Band of Thieves
Tawil’s composer and musicians will journey even farther than she has, physically and emotionally, to perform Thieves. The Lazy Sleepers, as they call themselves, are a quartet of Iraqis who have lived in the Netherlands since receiving political asylum there in 2008. One is tempted to assume that Iraqi musicians who were refugees in Jordan and Syria before settling in the Netherlands will play Middle Eastern music for the Palestinian-Syrian-American choreographer’s show in the San Francisco International Arts Festival. But one would be wrong. The Lazy Sleepers play straight-up rock.

Actually, they play what they call post-rock, and their 40-minute score ranges from pounding 4/4 beats to prog-rock riffs with hints of oud-ish rhythm. But they’re a rock band for sure: Mustafa Essami on percussion, Majed Rasheed on bass, Zaid Hassan on guitar, and band leader Muhanad Rasheed on guitar and keyboards. (Baghdad native Rasheed is an award-winning choreographer and dancer in his own right, and his company, Iraqi Bodies, shares a festival program with Nina Haft & Company for the U.S. debut of Crying of My Mother, Rasheed’s piece on the religious conflict in Iraq.)

As of our late-March interview, Tawil was still commuting to Amsterdam to collaborate on Rasheed’s score and develop her choreography. But rehearsal video showed her branching out from her fine-tuned contemporary technique into a more visceral, unstudied movement that channels the raw emotion underlying the piece.

“My work historically has been at least fifty percent deliberately designed–the technique, the architecture of the space and the group organization are really clear. This piece doesn’t demand that level of movement architecture and concert-stage mentality,” she said. “Thieves really is, ‘What are you trying to say, what are you trying to say, what are you trying to say?'”

Scribbling on her ever-present pad of paper, Tawil diagrammed the methodological challenge she set for herself. “I find myself drawing notes [for the choreography]: That phrase will go like this, and then that phrase will go like that, and then for sure it’ll stop here”–her pen jams to a halt. “And I was like, what? I’m doing it again! No, don’t do it! Just figure out what you need to say with your body, and it will self-delineate.”

Once she figures it out, she will reset Thieves on Dance Elixir members Jeremiah Crank, who has performed with Kansas Regional Ballet, Peninsula Ballet Theater and Liss Fain, and former Bill T. Jones, Stephen Petronio and Mark Morris dancer Roche Janken.

The Artist Must Be the First to Die
From Thieves‘s labyrinthine origins, Tawil has emerged with a cohesive work in four sections: Fury, the Race, The Artist Must Be the First to Die, and Wolves. Her aggressive word choices suggest both the intensity of the movement and the urgency of her feelings. “I think art-making right now is a really drastic act; as an artist, to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life,’ that’s pretty drastic at this point in time.” Getting to that point takes fury; not in the sense of anger, rather in that “one has to brew in order to make a dance,” Tawil said. “That’s the fury–it’s a trembling, a preparation. Also the fury of survival: how overwhelmed do you have get by your environment to do something that maybe isn’t acceptable?” Like stealing? “Like stealing.”

Crank and Janken release Fury’s pent-up energy in the Race, an outpouring of tension among bodies and tension between opposing ideas. “The dancers and musicians are in this race together through time. But then also, the race against time, the race against society–who’s going to win this thing? It’s full-throttle. They kind of throw their bodies around–give it what you got.” Everyone is on the same side in this race, driven to prevail in a war against an unseen enemy.

Artist borrows its name from a line in Journal: In a world of murder the artist must be the first to die. He must lead. To Tawil, Patchen is saying that the artist must tell the truth, whatever the cost. “Artists are on the frontlines of sensitivity and conceptual thinking. So if we’re not telling the truth, no one’s telling the truth. But to tell the truth is to walk the plank. The movement is resigned. It’s human and naturalistic, slower, not as stylized as the other sections. It’s like, ‘This is what I have to do.'”

The preparation of Fury, the action of Race and the turning point of Artist lead to the integration of Wolves. “Wolves is finding your people and running in a pack. It’s like, ‘This is who I am.’ One of the dancers is trembling as an extension of ‘this is who I am’; the other dancer is on the ground, growing roots down, grounding down in stillness.” So, having defined himself, the outsider is free to merge with others. Then again, “even within your group, you’re different. The dancers are in the same wolf pack, but their pure self is different.” So the question remains, unanswered.

Dance Elixir will perform Thieves twice during the San Francisco International Arts Festival (the completed piece will premiere in the 2012 festival):

Tue, May 31, 8pm: open rehearsal followed by Q&A. San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, 301 Eighth Street, San Francisco

Sun, June 5, 4pm: full-production work-in-progress showing. Southside Theater at Fort Mason, San Francisco

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer based in the East Bay. Visit her blog at

This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and