Omar Rajeh is a dancer and choreographer from Beirut and is currently based in Lyon. He is the co-founder of Citerne.live, an interdisciplinary digital space which shares dance performances with a global audience.
BIPOD (Beirut International Platform of Dance) which you founded in 2004 (Mia Habis joined the festival in 2009 and was co-artistic director in 2015) became a must-see for Lebanese lovers of art, and dance in particular. What inspired the project?
I believe it came out of a need to engage in creative and vibrant artistic dynamics, and to have the possibility to watch international work. I didn’t think of it as a festival as such to begin with, what I wanted was more of a gathering of choreographers and artists and to invite other international artists. There was nothing much happening in terms of dance in Beirut and I wanted to keep a link with England and Europe, where I studied.
In 2017 you and Mia set up Citerne Beirut, a mobile structure dedicated to the performing arts. It was dismantled and built again in 2019 but in the summer of that year the Governor of Beirut forced it to be taken down. That disappointment was the spur for you both to leave Lebanon and settle in Lyon but you were then faced with a year of virtual confinement due to the pandemic. How did you manage to thrive creatively in such circumstances?
We work with artists living in different countries and so the political and economic situation meant that we couldn’t pay the artists we work with, we couldn’t transfer money out of Lebanon. We had to move in order to sustain our work. The main idea behind Citerne Beirut was to question what sort of performance spaces we need in order to enable progressive artistic ideas. During the confinement we started thinking of digital as a new possible performance space and to explore the idea of ‘Liveness’; thinking what could be done to preserve the live element of performance and expand on it in the digital space.
The 16th BIPOD Festival was broadcast through Citerne.live, the interdisciplinary digital space you set up with Mia, last December. Ticket prices were a symbolic 1 euro. Was this primarily a means of maintaining links with your audience back home who remained loyal despite government indifference?
Definitely. Our careers started in Beirut and our work is very much linked to the cultural environment we were living in; we cannot just cut it out. We moved to Lyon before the pandemic and I was intending to return to Beirut every month to retain a link with the city and the work that we had established there. We contemplated whether to make it free or paid and eventually decided to charge a symbolic price because we believe it is a mistake to offer performances for free, except in specific conditions and circumstances. Streaming on social media is also a mistake, it’s not the right cultural framework for the work. If an audience member chooses to pay they are making a decision to engage with the performance and will not simply switch off after 2 or 3 minutes.
Have you been surprised at the level of support given to artists in Europe compared to Lebanon?
The system in France is unique and probably one of the best in the world. It cannot be compared to the system in Beirut. The Ministry of culture in Lebanon doesn’t differentiate between entertainment and culture. It also totally lacks a cultural policy and strategy to support, research, archive, and follow up the artists and their work on all levels. I feel privileged that we made the decision to come here. I value the sensitivity towards culture in France, and it’s not only the government, it comes from the people. There is an awareness of the value of culture here.
Citerne.live has now expanded into an ongoing programme of live cultural and artistic events from around the world. Audience members can choose to pay to watch an individual live performance or take out a monthly subscription to watch replays of all performances. Have you found this pricing system to be financially viable?
Not at the moment, however this is our aim. It will take time but in the long run it might be possible. We’re actually updating the system of subscription and people are subscribing to the whole website, to the live performances and the Reservoir (mediatech). Artists will also have the chance to promote their work individually rather than as part of a whole section. There will be an option to pay for individual performances and that money will go directly to the artists.
Are you hoping that the BIPOD Festival will find a new home in France when it is possible to return to live performance?
The festival is linked to Beirut and offered a cultural and artistic concept as much as a political statement in the city. There is no need for BIPOD in France to happen in the way it used to, however we could imagine an expansion of the festival with new possibilities. We are in a new phase, it’s on another level now. When we did it last year we had audiences from 81 different countries. We’re thinking about this and how to expand on this wider exchange. This year it will run live and online from mid-May to the end of June with several events in Beirut, Alexandria, Istanbul, Bari, Lyon and other cities. BIPOD will be part of a project called ‘Architecture of a Ruined Body’ and this will happen in different cities as well as on Citerne.live.
How do you think Citerne.live will develop once audiences are able to return to live performances?
The digital option will not disappear, I believe it will develop more and it is not in opposition to live performance. For us, the aim is not just to reach new audiences, we are also seeing the possibility of collaborating much more, of creating even more interaction between different audiences. What is important is the context, the discussions and talks that we will have. There is a need for a reassessment of culture. Digital is offering the potential for new spaces, but they are still raw spaces. We need to differentiate between social spaces and cultural spaces. The reasons we’re doing this are very delicate, it’s not entertainment. We’re not doing it to have 100 000 paying spectators who make us a profit. We’re doing it because of a certain concept and values – togetherness, solidarity and the potential for creative work to be a means for change. We are not alone on Citerne and our partners have their own programming that is separate from ours, so we have a space that is rich and diverse but at the same time there is a sense of curation in it.
The Institut français is helping you to make Citerne.live better known by the French cultural network abroad, what do you expect from this? What kind of collaborations could be possible?
I think it’s wonderful. They understand what Citerne is and that’s very important when you have a cultural institution like the Institut français that is influential in France but also has links all over the world. We hope it will be beneficial to the artists in terms of cultural exchange, interactions and discourse around what is happening in culture and art.
As a dancer you must yearn to perform in front of an audience again. Do you have something specific planned for your return to live performance, and what are you working on in the meantime?
I want it so much! I am working on several projects, mainly on a new performance called ‘Cent Mille façons de parler’. It’s with 6 dancers and 3 musicians and we just finished a residency in February at La Chapelle d’Annonay. I am also working on another project based on a series of solos with other artists and if travel is possible again I will be in Russia in September for a new creation commissioned by the Kaluga Cultural Centre and the Bolshoi Theatre.
The Institut français supports Omar Rajeh, by helping him to make the Citerne.live platform better known by the French cultural network abroad.
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