Ali and Alpo in Edinburgh

Ali Alawad is an Iraqi musician and Alpo Aaltokoski a Finnish choreographer and dancer. They met in Finland during Ali’s asylum application, but were never able to perform together. To avoid forced deportation, Ali had to flee Finland two weeks before the first night in Helsinki. The performance is still taking place, and Ali is singing and playing oud via video projection. The following blogpost is written by Mike Baynham, who saw Ali and Alpo in the international Fringe Festival in Edinburgh (https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/ali-and-alpo , watch a video clip http://www.aaltokoskicompany.fi/ohjelmisto-item/ali-alpo-2/of the performance).

لا ينظرون وراءهم ليودعوا منفى،
فان أمامهم منفى  
[محمود درويش]

They don’t look back to say goodbye to exile, since they are heading towards exile,

[Mahmoud Darwish]


Edinburgh. Summerhall. Afternoon. The stage dark and rectangular, walls hung with curtains of black fabric, as if the afternoon, quenched, is mourning daylight, the air slightly smoky from an earlier performance. A space that feels tired, used, like an unmade bed. A space of repetition. A gauze curtain covers half the stage. The mood: desolate. Vacant. Empty.  


Twisting. Discordance. Discomfort. The dancer struggling backwards, step by painful step, as if a cipher blown backward by a powerful wind, an unimaginable force which contorts his body like a face in agony. His body a contorted face. Doing the work of a face. Blown back, distorted into unexpected shapes, in a wind tunnel of feeling. Sometimes on the ground, legs splayed out and upwards like a stricken insect, body twisted, holding an unbearable tension, a tension that sometimes breaks out into moans and grunts, uncharacteristic of a dancer. The introductory music, atonal, evoking this tension, this pain, this struggle forward which is also a struggle back.   Beauty erupts. Alpo aspiring upwards his arms like the branches of a tree painfully growing, reaching out to hold onto the air, to fold the air in his arms, to grasp what escapes him. Dancing that absence. The muscles of his back curved and rippling like the bark of a tree trunk. Cthonic. Rooted. In the topmost branches his hands flutter like birds released.   A story untold, perhaps untellable, held in the muscles, the nerves. On the skin. Bone deep. Visceral.  


علي Ali all lightness and depth, both presence and absence. His image makes him present, appearing and disappearing, simultaneously projected twice, once on the translucent gauze screen, again on the back wall of the stage. The plucked notes of the oud emerge from the void, willed yet unexpected, unbearably plangent and precise, to gather in the darkness, the air, the tension, weaving it into a melody which the voice joins, taking us deep. Its richness, range and timbre a pulling together. His voice, a darkness of feeling floats through the music, in the agonised concentration of the singer, as the words ripple, his breath making each one of us aware of the air we are breathing. Each breath. The breath we share. The tension, agony, sweetness of his voice made visible in his face. His face dancing pain. His voice, the music carry us forward, giving that pain and feeling a shape, a sense, a comfort. We are held. His voice, the music both holding us and taking us towards a limit. A limit within which they fleetingly connect, in which the dancer and the singer swim.  


Here modes collide like planets and in collision shape each other, both digging deeper, well beyond intention, beyond the intention to collaborate. Call it a collision of modes if you like, both a means and a meaning of holding, feeling and speaking pain. Out of collision some bruise, deep held, breaks out, erupts, some contagion of grief on the skin, something speaks.   As the credits roll, the unspoken story, the absence of Ali the oud player and singer is made palpable. Briefly Ali and Alpo are together again in the same timespace, the same medium. We see them on screen smiling, exchanging a hug. An ordinary hug. Happy days. Here we feel cheated by the forces of distortion that shape lives. Forces that Alpo struggles with through his body, that Ali shapes and gives form to in his music. Both taking us to the very edge of pain and back again. What is sweeter for the artist who has taken themself and their audience to the edge and back than to return, like a diver breaking the surface and taking welcome gulps of air, to stand sweating and acknowledge the cheers and plaudits of those who have gone deep with them. The cruelty of the asylum process cheats Ali of this and cheats us of his presence. Cheats Alpo of Ali. Ali of Alpo. Cheats us of Ali and Alpo together. We feel cheated. Cheated.