Mohamed Toukabri: The Power (of) The Fragile – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Grace Spencer

Concept and Choreography: Mohamed Toukabri

Mohamed Toukabri’s The Power (of) The Fragile braids the personal and political, producing a reckoning of roots, art, and family. A duet with his mother, Mimouna (Latifa) Khamessi, the piece was originally developed in 2021 and comes to Sadler’s Wells as part of their 2024 Elixir Festival, which focuses on challenging perceptions of age in dance.

Toukabri began dancing at 12, starting with breakdance and left Tunis to train at the International Academy of Dance at 15. He subsequently trained at the Mediterranean Centre for Contemporary Dance and at P.A.R.T.S. (Brussels) and brings his comprehensive training to bear on the piece, which showcases contemporary, experimental, and breakdance elements.

The piece itself has a storied past, having been postponed four times due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and Toukabri and Khamessi’s designation as ‘non-essential’ travellers, despite their huge financial investments and responsibilities. This is incorporated into the piece, and becomes the first site on which commentary on international politics is overlaid on the artists’ fresh, and painful, experiences. Toukabri’s dissection of the value, or lack of, placed on the arts by governments feels timely and vital.

Above all, though, The Power (of) The Fragile is a testament to Latifa. It was her dream, the audience is told, to become a dancer, which was made impossible by her family’s political ties in 1950s and 60s Tunisia. The piece begins with Toukabri introducing her to the stage (and, entertainingly, to the fourth wall and the audience), and the sequences which follow are a celebration of the dancer she always was. There is a joyously cathartic boogie and an emotional sequence in which Toukabri supports his mother’s body as she discovers her own power. These releases are underpinned by a sense of pain, however; after her son left for France aged 15, Khamessi was continually denied visas and was unable to visit him for ten years.

She discovers dance in this piece, then, but it is also the story of a mother and son re-discovering each other after so long apart. In the post-show Q&A, they talk candidly about the rehearsal process and tour for The Power (of) The Fragile being their first chance to truly get to know one another. This is the real heart of the piece – it is an emotional experience which feels like it is developing in real-time, through and within the performance, and it is one which audience members feel privileged to be part of.

Given the talent of the pair, the dance sequences are perhaps too few and far between, and the pacing sometimes falters. But Toukabri is an incredibly accomplished performer, and works with Khamessi to create choreography which is ambitious but leaves space for improvisation and flexibility; Diane Fourdrignier’s dramaturgy has created space for the duo to check in with one another throughout. There’s also a genuinely hilarious ending sequence, which comes as a complete surprise.

Of his previous work, Toukabri has said ‘I call [my mother] ‘my first country’ – a metaphor I created myself to get rid of the weight of nationalistic discourse. If everyone considered their mother’s womb to be their first homeland, and saw birth as a migration, then we are all migrants.’ The Power (of) The Fragile is a return for Toukabri in many ways – to his mother, to his homeland, to the fundamentals of dance and what it can do for us.

Reviewed on 11 April 2024. The Elixir Festival runs until 20 April 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Emotional and adventurous

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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