Badke, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, review: Rowdy, cheerful and explosively danced

Palestinian dancers perform unusual take on traditional folk dance

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The Independent Culture

The dancing in Badke goes from social celebration to claustrophobic exhaustion, and back again. Ten Palestinian dancers, with backgrounds from hip hop to ballet, hurl themselves joyfully into a wedding dance. They won’t stop, even when the power cuts out.

The title is a play on “dabke”, a traditional folk dance often performed at social celebrations. More formal versions have been used in theatre, where the dance can become an expression of national identity. Badke, in London for the Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture, plumps firmly for the wedding version. It’s rowdy, cheerful and explosively danced – which, as the dancers drive themselves onwards, acquires its own political edge.

Created by the dancers with Belgian theatre collectives Les Ballets C de la B and KVS, Badke starts in darkness. You can hardly see the shuffling line of dancers, but you can hear the rhythmic stamping, clapping and occasional call. When the lights go up, the performers have already launched into a core version of the dance. Arms across each other’s shoulders, they skip from side to side, knees lifted high. It sets up the basic patterns before the dancers peel off into their own variants.

Directors Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and Hildegard De Vuyst set solo material against the group dances. One woman steps forward, her shoulders swinging as she dips and turns. Another follows, wearing headphones – we can just hear the tinny echo of the music. At last the soundtrack kicks in, pushing everybody to new heights.

Naser Al-Fares’ score is party music, and the dancers go wild to it, in groups and in virtuoso solo sections. Depending on their own training, they’ll add hip hop footwork, ballet turns or circus tumbling, joining in and showing off. The steps can be spectacular, but it still looks sociable. Dancers watch each other, or stop to drink from the water cooler. One acrobatic couple have a little argument about getting too close to the audience, before diving back in.

Then the power goes out. Left in dim light, without music, the dancers start to whistle and clap, drumming on the water cooler, keeping the dance going despite failing resources. It’s an image of community and solidarity, but as the music returns, it begins to feel relentless. A wailing note sounds more and more like a siren. War and blockades are a looming, unspoken context.

Across an hour of non-stop performance, the group gets sweatier and more frantic. The dance becomes its own prison; they’re stuck here. They keep going until they fall, lining up on the stage. One man mimes a pistol shot to his own head before flopping down, but even that isn’t the end. Everybody is soon back on their feet, dancing into darkness. Returning for curtain calls, the cast skip and shuffle as they meet the applause. It brings back the celebration mood of the opening – but it’s unnerving to see that these dancers still won’t stop.

The Shubbak festival continues until 26 July.