The Walker and the Guthrie co-present ‘Leila’s Death’

The Lebanese theater performance honors the tradition of Shiite mourning through song, dance and storytelling.

Dominique Houcmant Goldo, Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

Dominique Houcmant Goldo, Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

Maddy Folstein

In their 2017-2018 seasons, the Walker Art Center and the Guthrie Theater have collaborated to present a work of international performance art. 

On Saturday night, the first installment of the series, “Leila’s Death,” a work of Lebanese dance, theater and music, took over the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater. Choreographed by Ali Chahrour, the performance draws on the Shiite tradition of mourners, who are professional performers who sing and present poetry that represents the deceased at the funeral.

“It brings a very specific cultural and religious happening to this community, and perhaps with the [audience] that might be a different experience to go through,” said Jeffrey Meanza, associate artistic director for the Guthrie. 

Though Chahrour was trained in theater and contemporary dance, he has moved beyond this training, combining it with musical and storytelling elements.

“Ali’s work is a mix of different forms, almost to the point where you can’t call it theater and you can’t call it dance,” said Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of performing arts. “It has a broader ability to move people and to look at traditions that are connected to death and dying.”

The performance on Saturday was masterfully simple, despite minor technical problems that occasionally distracted from the impact of certain moments. Only four people set foot onstage, and the performers used minimal props and set pieces to support their movement. Two musicians, a drummer and a string instrumentalist, underscored the entire performance, filling the space without the support of a full orchestra or band.

This simplicity draws all attention to the vocal and physical work that is the focus of the performance. Leila Chahrour, who was a mourner, sings with a raw voice that sounded otherworldly — she encompassed layers of pain, grief and sorrow in each note. Ali Chahrour, who danced throughout the piece, combined rigidity and fluidity in his and Leila’s movement to convey the difficulties of mourning.

Like the mourning process itself, “Leila’s Death” touches on something beyond words. By combining its different artistic forms (dance, music, theater and storytelling), the performance grasps the raw emotions of healing after a loss.

“It ends up feeling as if it’s almost a spiritual event with the audience — the audience is directly related to the action onstage,” Meanza said.

In programming this collaborated season, both the Walker and the Guthrie were intentional in their decision to bring international work to their stages.

“I think at a time when our political leaders are attempting to shut down borders … and limiting the flow of ideas and people and artists [who] are able to get into the country, it seemed really essential to do everything we could to reflect the humanity, the complexity, the diversity of what artists are doing out of the Middle East… and other misunderstood populations,” Bither said.

In the spring, the Walker will host the second installment in the collaborative series. Canadian theater artist Robert Lepage will bring his play “887,” an autobiographical exploration of LePage’s childhood in Quebec City, to Minneapolis.

“He’s known for these elaborate, highly technical productions,” Bither said. “He really digs in, and it’s very much an identity piece about a culture that is not fully recognized and empowered in a moment in time.” 

Presenting international works of experimental performance art may be challenging for one artistic organization alone. By combining forces, however, the Walker and the Guthrie are able to harness their production capabilities and audiences to make a more successful product. 

“I think it’s incredibly healthy for the ecosystem if organizations can get past ego and rigid structures… and bend enough to be able to make a successful thing happen by fusing staffs and boards and audiences,” Bither said.