On a late summer evening in downtown Cairo, dance duo, Nasa4nasa (Noura Seif Hassanein and Salma AbdelSalam) premiered their latest performance, No Mercy – an experiment in the art of bewitchment and seduction, and a poignant reflection on global consumer culture. Through serial repetition of gestures, the dancers exhausted their bodies in the hour-long performance, making tangible the violence behind the frenzy of overconsumption, in an increasingly digitised world. Through a tessellation of scenes, the performance reveals a choreographic language that is particularly “nasa4nasa-esque”. Experiencing No Mercy in real life was akin to witnessing an exorcism, a purge, a preoccupation with finding a way of collectively coping with the intensity of emotion in the digital age. Where in the body do we store the endless amount of content that we consume? And how then, do we rid ourselves of the impending symptoms?
The stage is pitch-black. Silence roams Rawabet Theatre in anticipation of the performance. The audience settles as an ambient sound transports us out of the hustle of Cairene streets and into the performance. Vivid blue spotlights radiate throughout the stage as the dance duo stand immobile, mirroring each other, their heads tilted to either side, and their arms resting in front of them. “You have to be a perfect dancer to dance immobility,” I recall Jean Baudrillard1.
Over the years since they first appeared online, the duo has mastered the art of performing excruciatingly slow gestures – stripping dance down to its bare minimum. “This immobility, Baudrillard goes on to explain, is not an inertia, but a paroxysm which boils movement down to its opposite. Indeed, the first few moments of No Mercy transport us into a space where every detail of each movement becomes noticeable. The rhythm of their breaths, the careful choreography of every limb, up to each fingertip, all are highlighted. This carefully constructed serenity, created through a play between command and relaxation of the body, is the beauty of Nasa4nasa’s investigation of movement. With the duo in slow motion, the audience surrenders. “We used mirroring and flocking to arrive at an undefined language,” said Noura in an interview following the performance.
The performance drowns the noisy Cairene streets outside the theatre door, and the hustle of downtown Cairo fades out as the audience is transported through the soundscape and lights into a non-referential space. “Returning to the theatre after years of working outside of it felt like coming home” Salma tells me, “There is so much emphasis on the lighting of a theatre stage, which essentially creates the world for [us]”. The blue lights reflecting on their tight blue corsets by designer Nadine Moss, along with the dancers’ supersized fake nails and long red hair, gives the impression of a present-day rendition of a mythological underworld. The dancers seduce us. The inspiration came from an Egyptian legend, “el-Naddaha” (the Caller) who, as the story goes, stands at the banks of the Nile River calling on passersby. Slender, steady, with beautiful long flowing hair, el-Naddaha is believed to call upon her prey by their name. Those who hear her walk blindly towards their death, at her embrace.
Through the steady and unhurried pace with which Nasa4nasa performs the first act, the audience cannot help but watch their every move. The difficulty that it takes to maintain a slow pace of movement contrasts with the fast-paced flux of people and objects in the urban environment. Slowness cannot be of this world. A mythical underworld which soon enough is transformed again into another iteration of itself, as the choreography shifts and the soundscape picks up its rhythm. Seduction turns to sex appeal, and the dancers thrust their bodies and drop to the ground. Rapid, frantic shaking, popping and floor work display the athletic figure.“ While consumption was evident in the performance, we were more interested in portraying an interplay of violence, time, coping and repetition to reveal the behind the scenes of our lives in the contemporary moment we were passing through in Egypt,” said Salma. Amidst the silencing of bodies in this particular context, to dance takes on radical meanings. But it is not simply a question of pushing the limits of what is permissible. It is about displaying the possibilities of what can be imagined, performed and what this experience can awaken within the viewer.
On the edge of censorship
As per protocol, No Mercy was to be scrutinised first by the Egyptian censorship board, before being approved for a live audience. It is on the Cairene stage that the performance takes on the challenge of transcending the boundaries of what a performing body can do. The duo were indeed afraid of the censorship’s reaction prior to the show, all the while knowing the urgency to put up such a performance. There is a line between what is censurable and what can be shown, and they wanted to see how far they could possibly go with it.
Choreographer Karima Mansour – who was recently awarded the French Knight of the Order of Arts, for her work in developing the contemporary dance scene in Egypt – was interviewed after the performance by a local podcast, and when asked about No Mercy, she said that performers today need to be aware that sometimes the audience are coming to watch something completely different than what the performers intend to show. Referring to a particular mindset that prevails in Egypt with regards to the body, she emphasised the courage it takes to not only break boundaries but to reposition the performing body beyond the sexualisation of the figure. The success of the show was not solely in the aesthetic value of the choreography, but in the subtle ways in which it pushed against the ceiling of what performers in Egypt believed was possible.
Questioning the trivial
With the show reaching its climax, strobe lights shimmer as Nasa4nasa’s movements increase in intensity, they run, shake, jump to the electrifying soundscape, until finally, they come to a halt. Steady again, on their knees, they mirror each other on either side of the stage, giving us all a moment to breathe. As the spotlights fade to black, the sound returns to a calm ambience, marking the end of the act. The second act opens with digital screens lowered onto the stage, and a table in the foreground, displaying a selection of foods. The performers appear dressed in black and sit at the table. Silence overtakes the stage.
The live broadcast is coupled with a live Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) recording of the crunching and gulping of friend chicken, rice, fries, octopi and other foods. Behind them on the screen, we see a close-up of their faces as they eat. Inspired by a phenomenon that has come to be known around the world as Mokbang (in Korean Muok-da meaning “to eat” and Bang “to broadcast”) where people eat in front of the camera to a massive online audience, the action inspired conflicting emotions in the audience, from complete repulsion to bursts of laughter. “Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection,” writes Julia Kristeva2, who coined the term “abject” to speak of loathsome phenomena which is neither completely separate from us nor can we necessarily assimilate into. It is the very repulsion and simultaneous attraction to them that arouses disgust. The live feed shows a close-up of their mouths and the sound of their chewing plays on the relaxing and simultaneously cringe-worthy nature of ASMR.
Similarly to the 2018 short film Clams Casino by Lebanese-American filmmaker Pam Nasr, which centred around the notion of Mokbang, the performance alludes to our increased isolation from our physical surroundings while we are nonetheless given the opportunity to connect with thousands of people online, at the click of a button. We have become addicted to “a culture that centres around ‘the spectacle’,” remarks Sahar Khraibani in her review of the film.3 Both the performance and the film touch upon our constant strive for desirability, even when presenting the audience with that which is furthest from what is desirable. We desire to experience pieces of sensations, driven by our curiosity, which means that we lend our attention to both what we desire and what repulses us. Watching Mokbang being filmed live on stage in No Mercy essentially plays on our primal instincts. As the dancers go on crunching, they almost erase our memory of the seductive imagery that marked the first act. The audience is completely consumed by means of novelty. The power of the piece lies here. Its carefully constructed sequences of acts, revealing themselves in contrast with one another, guide us by the hand from one scene to the next, from one rhythm to the next.
A new way for dancers in Egypt
Absurdity eschewed with violence emerges when the stage light fades to black and a remix of Britney Spears’ hit song “Gimme More” breaks the silence. The dancers are back on their feet with the song on loop. They repeat a choreographic sequence over and over again. A few repetitions in, they are joined by buff backup dancers. The performance, albeit seeming never-ending, was anything but tedious or repetitive. A careful play of push and pull kept our attention throughout every scene. They flirt with different choreographic languages, to put together a fluidity in their investigation of movement that brought forth a reflection of our collective online behaviours while placing themselves as part of the culture of extravagance. A body is never neutral, but it takes a skilled dance duo to hold space for the exploration of the body within this particular context.
In subtle ways, the duo have carved a new path for dancers in Egypt in the past few years, by bringing onto the stage elements that were rarely ever seen, and by taking dance out of the theatre and into other environments. “We are interested in creating a language that steers away from concrete references, creating a somewhat unfamiliar language that is marked by in betweenness,” Nasa4nasa told me. Both Salma and Noura have trained since childhood with some of Egypt’s famous dance teachers, in methods including Jazz, Hiphop, Contemporary Dance, and traditional Chinese martial arts. Steering away from their formal training, they have developed over the years a foundation for a choreographic investigation that mirrors their own particular experience in present-day Egypt.
They first appeared as a duo in 2016, on the internet. They gathered a following through their social media page, wherein one could find videos of them performing on makeshift stages. Their page garnered a growing audience who were presented with short clips of the duo performing in empty pools, warehouses, gardens, deserts, forests and other landscapes. They responded to the various environments by disappearing at times, and other times clashing with or maintaining a tension between their bodies and the architecture. The challenge of working without a stage is in dealing with the boundlessness of the natural environment. Bodies look minuscule in nature. But this tension is resolved when the camera is introduced as the frame becomes the boundary within which they performed. Through the medium of video, the performers are disembodied and their image transmitted to the audience via the screen, breaking down our traditional understanding of time-based arts. The snippets of movements continuously play within the digital space, with the possibility of being replayed ad infinitum.
Consuming at the digital age
Whether the audience of No Mercy was seduced or repulsed by the performance thus far, one could not help but keep watching. In a sense, the choreography mimicked our addictive behaviour on online platforms. When it comes to consuming content online, whether it arouses or horrifies us, we often cannot stop scrolling. The organising principle behind the choreography of No Mercy revealed as the performance unravels is akin to the way that content is organized on the internet. The serial repetition of movement resembles the looping of audiovisual media on digital platforms. The dancers cast a mirror on our online behaviour – which has been amplified recently during the pandemic. By treating the digital screen as a stage, and by bringing it onto the stage in this case, they play on the moving between the real and the digital landscapes. In 2020, Nasa4nasa was invited to curate an internet-based performance series for the Gwangju Biennale. A group of young performers worked with the duo to create a series of short pieces for the internet. Therein, they highlighted the conflation of digital and physical architecture. They travelled seamlessly from one screen to the next – similarly to the tessellation of scenes in No Mercy.
At the end of the tumultuous performance, their manifesto, marking the birth of the duo, comes to mind, serving as a map to understanding their practice:
Nasa4nasa uses static imagery to research notions of form, aesthetics, and value. Nasa4nasa uses chance and repetition to examine failure, affect, vanity and boredom. Nasa4nasa seeks to foreshadow alternative spaces as occupied stages. nasa4nasa is housed on social media, to actively interact with and sometimes interject with daily virtual mass consumption. Nasa4nasa can be taken lightly or seriously, it is meant to do both. Nasa4nasa fucks with dance.
A statement they have since delivered in many ways.
1Cool Memories II, 1987–1990, Paris, Editions Galilee, 1987; trans. Chris Turner (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996) 44).
2« Céline ni comédien ni martyr », Psychanalyse et littérature, Centre de recherche en littérature comparée, University Paris IV, 2009/2010.
3« Overcoming Isolation Through Mukbang, the Subculture Where People Watch You Eat », hyperallergic.com, 28 juin 2018.