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Nacera Belaza, choreographer who seeks to meld stage and audience, brings ‘L’Onde’ to the Walker

Part of the work has to do with creating movement that’s experienced by more than just the eyes. “The movement is something that you listen to,” Belaza says.

Nacera Belaza
Nacera Belaza’s work, “L’Onde” (The Wave) is coming to the Walker Art Center this weekend.
Photo by Isabelle Lévy-Lehman

Nacera Belaza is creating not so much dance, as an experience for the audience. “They are involved in the process of the performance,” the choreographer tells me in our conversation over Zoom a few weeks ago.

Employing stark contrasts between light and darkness, as well as repetition, Belaza is seeking ways to shorten the distance between the stage and the audience. “The audience is not just a witness to something on stage, but is part of it,” she says.

Belaza, whose work, “L’Onde” (The Wave) is coming to the Walker Art Center this weekend, was born in Médéa, Algeria, and raised in France and Europe since the age of 5. She founded her company, the Nacera Belaza Company, in 1989, and has toured extensively internationally, in addition to winning top awards like earning the title of “Chevalier” in France’s Order of Arts and Letters.

The performance at the Walker is the last stop on a three-city tour of the U.S., with earlier performances having taken place at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and at REDCAT in Los Angeles. It’s part of the Albertine Dance Season, an international dance exchange between France and the United States.

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Belaza brings a ritualistic quality to her work. Her choreography is marked not just by movement, but an inner strength in the performers. She’s interested in “the invisible,” she says — both the invisible inside the body, and beyond the body.

She describes her work as “an attempt to reach a place that you can barely reach.”

Often, when she’s creating a piece, it starts with a piece of intuition. For “L’Onde,” which first premiered in 2020 at the Festival de Marseille, the spark began with a different piece she created called “Le Cri” (The Scream), which premiered in 2008. For the earlier work, Belaza found inspiration from traditional Algerian ritual dances for a work that grappled with the infinite.

“I saw them one day, and they were just shoulder to shoulder and they moved very slowly,” she describes to me.

While creating “Le Cri,” Belaza found moments that opened a window. “I had the intuition that it could be a starting point for another exploration,” she tells me.

Specifically, Belaza was surprised by how strong the bond was between the Algerian women and the audience watching them. She wanted to capture that connection between audience and performer, using stage lighting, sound and the body to break down the barriers between them.

Part of that work has to do with creating movement that’s experienced by more than just the eyes. “The movement is something that you listen to,” she says. “When someone is really moving from inside and is listening, he makes you listen to what’s going on,” she says. “By using all your senses, the bond is much deeper.”

Working on “L’Onde” early in the pandemic, she understood at the time that she was attempting to clarify that very strange moment.

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In the piece, the dancers stay in one place, and only move to different places on stage during blackouts. She does this to reveal the light in the deep darkness.

“Exploring this kind of movement while we were trapped at home was a very strange coincidence,” she remarks.

The work utilizes a repetitive movement — the dancers swirl their arms and undulate their torso and legs. For Belaza, the repetition helped her to go deeper into the movement, because your mind is not busy. “I can allow myself to do a certain inner journey,” she says.

Nacera Belaza: L’Onde is presented Friday, Oct. 27, and Saturday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m. at the Walker Art Center ($25-35). More information here.