Spotlight on our Alumni community: Meet Anas Abu Nahleh

Meet Anas Abu Nahleh, Alumnus of the Atelier Beirut, 2022.

Anas is a self-taught multi-disciplinary performer and choreographer from Amman, Jordan. Together with his brother Abd Al Hadi Abunahleh and Xiaoman Ren and Ren he founded Studio 8 and IDEA festival. Studio 8 is a non-for-profit company active in the field of dance and performing arts with the aim to shape and humanize dance art through innovation, experiment, development, exchange, education, and research. IDEA Festival is the bi-annual international multi-disciplinary dance festival organized and curated by Studio 8. IDEA aims to put Jordan in the global dance scene and to create bonds between dance professionals from Jordan and abroad.

Studio 8 and IDEA festival will be the hosts of the 25th edition of the Global Atelier For Young Festival Managers in Amman, Jordan

The Festival Academy had a chat with Anas about his career, the story of Studio 8 and IDEA Festival, and about the contemporary dance scene in Jordan.

The Festival Academy: Hello Anas! You are not only one of the founders of the contemporary dance space Studio 8 and the festival IDEA - International Dance Encounter Amman, but also a dancer yourself. Could you please tell me about how your history with dance?

Anas: I always liked dance. But when I was kid, it was rare to see dance. So, what I did was to go to weddings, because weddings were the only place where you could see people dancing. In our culture people do a small ceremony before the wedding. These ceremonies are taking place on the streets, and everybody is dancing Dapke* and other dances together. I really liked to go there even if I was not related to the people getting married or anything. I went there just to see the dances, not because of the weddings. I went very often. I really enjoyed being at these events and just observe the dancing.

And then, at some point I started to try it out, to dance myself. I started practicing all by myself in the streets because there was no other place for dancing. And also in my house - which was kind of annoying for my neighbours. - And for my family as well. They took it like: ‘he’s just a child, it’s only a hobby, he won’t take it up seriously - when he grows up, he will become something else.’ So, they left me alone with my dancing. But day by day, I started to take things more and more seriously till it became a vision for my career and clear to me that this is what I want to do.

I don't really know why. Why I started dancing actually... I think I just felt myself there and as I said, I just really enjoyed it. I think it is based on a lot of curiosity. And that dancing has a lot of power, I think. When I started I was like: ‘I like to move, I like to jump, I like to explore my body, I like to explore myself, I like to explore my movement.’  And then, with practice and with training, it builds up. Then, I also wanted to choreograph, to explore how to use different bodies for different movements. From the beginning on, for me dancing was out of curiosity, and it actually is until now. I am always curious! If I have a new idea, I like to try it out and just express it with my body. And I think I also dance out of the need to share a story. You know, I think sometimes it's more powerful to share certain stories through dance.

The Festival Academy: How did you and your brother Abdul Hadi come up with the idea of opening your own dance studio?

Anas: We grew up in a very poor area in Jordan, like a refugee camp. One day, there was a commercial dancing studio that opened in the city. So, me and my brother went there for an audition. But they refused to take us because we look like we come from a different area - which, of course, is their right - because as a commercial dance studio they had a certain standard and wanted their image to look in a certain way, and be representative for a certain class of people and so on.

But, yes, out of this experience, out of this rejection my brother and I had the idea. We sat together and had a talk and said that one day we will have a place like that ourselves.

We were around 12 years old at that time, and we kept dancing and also started choreographing. And then one day, when we were performing a contemporary dance performance in the National Gallery Park, we met Ren, our colleague and co-founder of Studio 8. We met her there, we talked, and we made a project together called “Live and alive”, with dance performances in the streets. But we all felt that we would need a space. So, the three of us rented a house. We slept in that house - it was like our home. And at the same time, we organized it to be a studio. This was in 2014 and people felt very excited that a dance space had opened. It was like a collective. Our friends would come and say: ‘I want to offer a salsa dance class, hip hop dance class, etc.’ And this is when we started to welcome everyone to offer their dance classes in our house.

The Festival Academy: And when did the idea to organise a festival come up?

Anas: We started to practice a lot in this place. And of course, we were producing a lot of material for dance productions in this time. As a next step, we felt that we would need to develop real productions, so we started to work more on making full-length shows. But then, we recognized that we had productions ready but there was no place to show them. We were not performing them, not showing them anywhere. This is where the idea of a festival came up.

So, to understand the context: there were a few commercial dance studios in Jordan at that time where you could learn to dance. But there is a difference in dancing and performing. So, people were dancing now, but didn’t know what to do next, where and what to work. And this is where we came in.

We are filling a gap here in Jordan. With Studio 8 we go out and find talents. We bring them in our studio and train them to perform in the festival. And the dancers see: ‘Okay, there is a studio that prepares us to develop our productions and perform, and with IDEA there is a festival where we can find an opportunity to perform and to tour and so on.’

The Festival Academy: How do you find talents in Jordan?

Anas: Usually out of open calls. Sometimes, we go and watch performances in other venues and when we see an interesting show or interested people, we start a conversation with them, we  introduce them to the work of Studio 8. We give them the opportunity to try it out and then we see together how it goes and if they are really interested or not.

As the contemporary dance scene in Jordan is not that big, we still have to go out and watch shows in other venues, even if we have an open call. Because it is often the same people who apply because for others it's hard - for most of the people it is still hard to dance in Jordan. It is hard to be a dancer in Jordan. It is a conservative country. So, if you are a dancer in Jordan, it means that a lot of people think that you are working in a cabaret or that you are doing drugs or other bad things or that you have just nothing to do in your life. This is what they imagine about dance. So when we do our open calls, a lot of dancers feel ashamed to say: ‘I'm a dancer’. And because of this prejudice, we prefer to replace the word ‘dance’ with ‘performing arts’ in all our communication in Arabic.

The Festival Academy: What are the main achievements of IDEA festival since its beginnings?

Anas: We had the problem that most of the visitors that came to our festival - artists and choreographers - were coming from European countries. Maybe because this is where the funding and support is coming from. And we didn’t manage to bring people in who are closer to us. Last year though we had three Jordanian productions in the festival as well as guest performances from Egypt, from Palestine, Tunisia and Syria. This is a huge step for us. We start to feel like we succeed in involving Arab countries more –this is a big achievement.

Another achievement was that in the last edition the Minister of Culture came and opened the festival.The Festival Academy: You were talking about a conservative society and annoyed neighbours. Who is your local audience and how do you make your festival accessible for Jordan audiences?

Anas: Our main audience are other artists. And it is a bubble. All artists in Jordan live in the same area. I don’t even talk about the situation outside of Amman - already in another area in Amman people wouldn’t understand what we are doing.

At IDEA we are thinking a lot about how to diversify our audience. In the festival, we also offer workshops. We collaborated for example with the Children Museum; we performed there and the artists also give a workshop for children. So, what we doing is to not go only into theatre venues but also make site-specific performances. And this gives us the opportunity to grow our audience.

I remember the first edition of IDEA: there were two or three rows of people in the audience. Now, we are always sold out, we have full house with all shows. And every show has their own audience somehow, with every show we reach another audience.

The Festival Academy: How did you hear about The Festival Academy and why did you apply?

Anas: The training of the Festival Academy was first recommended to me by DROSOS. I thought it’s a great opportunity to learn more and meet other festival directors. To discuss about our topics, hear about the topics of others, to network, to meet people with similar visions and challenges, people who would listen to me and understand me.

I came to the Atelier with a lot of concrete problems that I found a solution for at the Atelier by talking to people, by sharing stories.

The Festival Academy: What were the main problems you wanted to address in the Atelier?

Anas: Touring, touring, touring – lack of facilities, lack of equipment. The Atelier gave me the opportunity to think about these problems from a different perspective, to think differently about them. It gave me energy to go, to see and to try and not remain stuck. It made me focus on the solution of the problem – And sometimes, just a single word I took from conversations in the Atelier, could open a big road for me: to explore the problem, to maybe close that road, to open another one and so on. To name one concrete example: The light equipment is very expensive here in Jordan. And the solution we found is that we now ask every invited artist to come and bring two lights with them.

The Festival Academy: Studio 8 and IDEA festival will host the 25th edition of the global Atelier for Young Festival Managers in 2025. Why do we need an Atelier in Jordan?

Anas: First of all, Jordan is a beautiful place for festival managers to come and explore. A lot of people think that Jordan is dangerous, some people even asked me “Is Jordan a country?”. So, first of all, the Atelier is a great opportunity for people to explore, to see what is going on here, that it is a safe country. There are a lot of beautiful things to see, a lot of great food. And, of course, the Atelier will be an opportunity for participants to discover the festival. And, very importantly, it will allow local artists and people with creative spaces here to find out more about festival management, topics, problems… Because a lot of them are in a small bubble, and they don’t really have the exposure to other festivals and what is going on in the rest of the world. It is important for the Jordan cultural scene to discuss a lot of topics and to bring as much people as possible to the table. Lastly, the Atelier in Jordan is a big achievement for Jordan. It is something rare in Jordan, maybe even the first time in Jordan to have this amount of festival directors in the country. This is something really rare to happen in Jordan.

The Festival Academy: Which topics do you expect to be discussed in Jordan Atelier?

Anas: For me there is one repetitive topic that keeps on reoccurring all the time. No matter what is happening the country, any conflict that is happening in the region – the first thing is that Jordan closes its culture and arts institutions.

Right now, there is a war in the neighbouring country, between Gaza/Palestine and Israel. At the moment, we are not allowed to put music, to dance, to go party because we need to solidarize with Gaza. Dancing is related to parties and these kinds of events, so we are losing our work. We are not working at the moment. Venues and space that offer artists a place to present their works are closed at the moment, everywhere in Jordan and other countries in the Middle East. And of course, I am in solidarity with Gaza. But this is a huge problem, the problem of continuity and consistency. This is one of the topics that I would like to discuss in the Atelier.

Sometimes, we think about opening a studio outside of Jordan. Because every time that we are doing things and we feel energy and the momentum, suddenly something happens and cuts down the momentum. And then, we have to start all over again to rebuild that momentum.

A lot of people are leaving the country, to Europe, to the US. But our place here is important. We need to continue to work here for sure. Our festival will stay here. But for us as artists who want to promote and present their productions… Me artistically, I am getting bored of adaption… I started dancing because I want to be a dancer. I don’t want to be an activist.

But also on a funding level, for example: We have problems with funding approvals – sometimes it takes months or years to receive funding payments. So, If you have your base outside of Jordan, this helps to keep the momentum and makes you keep on going. So, we could have our base here and a base outside for emergencies. Here we sometimes just don’t feel safe to do our work. And now look at all the work we do without feeling safe. Imagine what we would do if we can feel completely safe.

The open call for the Atelier For Young Festival Managers 2025 in Amman is still open. Find more information here.  Deadline for applications: 19 May 2024.