Review: “Leila’s Death” a requiem for the lost art of mourning

The touring production by Ali Chahrour leaves a memorable mark in Montreal's MAI

Photo: Leila's Death
Ali Chahrour and Leila in “Leila’s Death”. Festival d’Avignon 2016 © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Created, directed, and choreographed by young Lebanese multidisciplinary artist Ali Chahrour, Leila’s Death is a relevant contemporary work of word, music, and movement that explores and exposes the perishing rituals, customs, and idiosyncrasies of a fascinating Middle Eastern culture of mourning. The glowing centrepiece is Leila herself, a Shiite woman of trials and tribulations too copious to recount, but who has found relief in expressing grief through the singing of ataba – lamentations, or “songs of reproach”.

Invited by Chahrour to join him and his accompanying musicians Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissi onstage and on tour, Leila is by actual occupation a mourner, and here she shares with an enraptured audience her stories of great personal loss and experiences in singing for the dead (the production is presented in Arabic with French surtitles.) While the professional practice of mourning has become near-extinct in Lebanon, parts of the south and of the eastern plains of the Beqaa Valley have upheld the sacred tradition, preserving its social and religious value. Thusly, in a ceremony of cathartic song and dance, we are treated to an artistic reproduction of one her poetic chant-cry funerary rites in which she heartbreakingly laments and prays for the peaceful passing of her martyred son (played by a poised Chahrour).

Leila’s Death is most mesmeric for its intense focus. Refreshingly patient, it revels in its own meditative storytelling and in the beauty of its simplicity. You hold your breath, not only to acknowledge the wonder of it being there in the first place, but in honour of the transcendental experience. One could almost hear the gentle landing of the rose petals as they floated down to the floor in final repose.

Recently presented at the prestigious Festival d’Avignon in France and currently on a world tour through to 2017, it’s fortuitous that Leila’s Death has chosen to make a pit stop in Montreal – a sojourn which almost didn’t happen due to visa complications. “It’s ironic because much of our season this year is inspired by the notion of borders, barriers, security walls…” noted MAI Executive and Artistic Director Michael Toppings. Curious are the eastern world’s cultural and religious constraints on expressive freedom – a topic which Chahrour has researched extensively – and this imported production is broadening in that very regard. It’s a testament as to how sometimes the most poignant and powerful performances can be emotionally restrained or reticent, and neither of the four artists falter in graciously portraying that quality.

Leila’s Death © Christophe Raynaud de Lage
Ali Chahrour and Leila in Leila’s Death © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Perhaps most thought-provoking about Leila’s Death, however, is the analysis on our relationship to death and how we weep – or commemorate – the passage of a life to another realm. There is no invalid approach to memorializing the departed, to settling deceased bodies, or to contending with our tears, but it’s interesting to note how behaviours and responses associated with expressing grief are still very much culturally bound. What is vital is that we find our own ways of coping, whatever the form or manifestation, so that we may heal and rise from the multiple bereavements we are bound to experience throughout our lifetimes – including the reality of our very own.

Leila’s Death ends its visit in Montreal with a second and final performance at the MAI – Montréal, arts interculturels (3680, rue Jeanne-Mance, bureau 103, H2X 2K5) on Saturday, September 24th at 8PM. A discussion with Nika Khanjani will follow the presentation. Tickets are $17-25 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office from 3 to 7 pm at (514) 982-3386. For more information, visit the MAI website.

Presented in arabic with french language surtitles

Approximate running time: 70 minutes

Review by Montreal Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon

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