A Protest Dance of Everyday Moves and Volunteer Nudes
By Gia Kourlas
Published in New York Times

Walk with a loose neck. Take steps without making a sound. Try acknowledging another person using only your eyes.

In preparation for Mia Habib’s affecting “ALL — a physical poem of protest,” 16 performers sat in a circle in a studio at Movement Research in the East Village to talk about the choreography they had recently learned and rehearsed: a mix of walking and running in a circle. It seems simple. But as with all things in contemporary dance, the magic comes from approach, subtlety, nuance.

“How can I move in a soft way?” Ms. Habib asked the participants, all of whom are volunteers. “When there are soft feet, a softness enters the rest of the body.”

The choreography is a mix of walking and running in a circle.CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times
The choreography is a mix of walking and running in a circle.CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

“ALL — a physical poem of protest,” which opens on Friday as part of the La MaMa Moves! dance festival, explores what Ms. Habib, 38, refers to as “the protesting body.” It can be performed for up to 12 hours, though the New York iteration will clock in at a brisk 45 minutes. And there’s one other integral component — all the performers are nude. For Ms. Habib, a Norwegian-Israeli choreographer based in Oslo, the result illustrates group strength: What is the power of bodies meeting together in a public space?

The work, intended to showcase people of all ages, focuses on the pedestrian actions of walking and running. While repetitive, it’s not robotic. Shantelle Courvoisier Jackson, a dance artist who is helping to stage the production, told the performers, “Your natural movements are welcome”; don’t treat “them like they shouldn’t be seen.”

In the end, the group effort is meditative. “For me, what’s really exciting with this piece, but really scary, is letting go of control,” Ms. Habib said. “I never know when I come to a new place: Will there be enough performers? Is someone going to cancel at the last minute?”

But giving the work over to strangers — stage experience is not required — is part of the piece, too. “And that’s also what we do when we meet in a public space to protest or to grieve together,” she said. “We share this moment with strangers and we leave and we’re still strangers.”

Ms. Habib recently spoke about the work, her United States debut. What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.

“The longest we’ve done it so far is only three hours,” said Mia Habib, the choreographer. “I’m waiting for the moment.”CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times
“The longest we’ve done it so far is only three hours,” said Mia Habib, the choreographer. “I’m waiting for the moment.”CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

What is so powerful about walking and running?

It’s something we share with almost everyone, so it’s very primal and very basic. We can experience something together, which can quickly bring us to another energy because we don’t have to concentrate so much on this action.

Why is it important that they’re naked?

For me, the nudity serves almost as a projection screen. The viewer can create an association with schools of fish or bird or animal flocks in one moment; and there are the hard collective images or memories we have from the Second World War. When you zoom out, the multiplicity of naked bodes has this ability to almost become abstract — as if it just becomes lines or moving shapes.

And when you zoom in?

You see really unique details — our bodies are the most individual things we have, right? But when you zoom out, it all looks the same and I think that’s really interesting: A mass unifies, but it still consists of these singular personalities. But having said that, it’s also very important that the context and communities come first.

How so?

In Bordeaux, we had a Kurdish women’s activist group join us and that was more important than the idea of being naked. So we did it clothed. It’s not about nakedness. That’s just one layer of it.

What does this piece come out of?

From 2010 to 2012, I was living in Tel Aviv and I was doing an M.A. in conflict resolution and mediation. That was exactly the time when Occupy Wall Street was here. The Arab Spring started and the so-called protest for social justice in Tel Aviv was happening so people moved out in the streets.

How did that inspire you?

I got really interested in what the role of theater can be in times when the spectacle is taking place outside. What is that energy? Also, what’s going on in the belief that together we can change something and what happens when these structures fall? At the same time, there was a huge massacre in Norway. People gathered together in a public space but as an act of mourning.

What forms has this production taken?

It’s been a part of protests. It can go on for many hours in a theater space. You can be sitting all around or watch it frontally. There is also this idea that the piece can serve different causes.

How has it?

In Bordeaux, France, it was part of a feminist protest. In Berlin, the choreographer Jeremy Wade borrowed the score and did it as a part of a protest against the treatment of L.G.B.T. people in Chechnya.

Where have you done a 12-hour version?

[Sighs] That’s still a dream. The longest we’ve done it so far is only three hours. I’m waiting for the moment. Here in New York, I actually had a dream of doing it for 12 hours in Judson Church. [Laughs] Maybe we’ll have an Act 2.

A version of this article appears in print on May 1, 2019, Section C, Page 2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Protest Dance With Everyday Moves. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe