Syr­ian Billy El­liot dances his way to a new life

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

From Palmyra to Paris: "Syr­ian Billy El­liot" Ah­mad Joudeh is set on show­ing the real im­age of his na­tion and eras­ing the hor­rors of the Is­lamic state group. Joudeh was in­vited to Paris by singer Sanga, his friend and admirer, for a spe­cial one-off per­for­mance, us­ing a song spe­cially writ­ten for him. Thurs­day's show at the Eif­fel Tower was the first in what he hopes will be a se­ries of col­lab­o­ra­tions, said the 27-year-old, sa­vor­ing his first visit to the French cap­i­tal.

"Ac­tu­ally I am try­ing my best to show the real im­age of the young Syr­ian peo­ple and not the fake one" pro­jected by the Is­lamic State group, he ex­plains in pol­ished English over a beer. Joudeh has come a long way from his child­hood as a Pales­tinian refugee grow­ing up in a camp in Yar­muk, Syria. The story of Joudeh, who like the boy dancer in the 2000 Stephen Daldry film "Billy El­liot" re­al­ized his dream of be­com­ing a dancer against the odds, is al­ready well known far from his war-torn home.

He had his first break in 2014 in a television tal­ent show "So you think you can Dance?" for young hope­fuls from the Arab world. His pro­file rose fur­ther when, two years later, he was the sub­ject of a Dutch television re­port that has clocked up mil­lions of hits on­line: "Dance or Die". He has had those words tat­tooed in San­skrit onto his neck, and they carry a spe­cial weight for him.

Footage of him danc­ing in the an­cient Syr­ian city of Palmyra ap­pears to have en­raged the Is­lamic State group so much that they have threat­ened to kill him. The sight of him danc­ing in the ru­ins of the Ro­man city the Is­lamists cap­tured and sacked-be­head­ing, among oth­ers, the city's 82-year-old for­mer head of an­tiq­ui­ties-was ap­par­ently too much for them. But the tale Joudeh told in the Dutch doc­u­men­tary, against a sound­track of nearby gun­fire and in­ter­cut with scenes of him danc­ing on rooftops, touched hearts around the world.

Pur­su­ing his dream

"Dance changed my life to get me from all the bad sit­u­a­tions around me," he ex­plained. "Even in Syria, I danced to feel free from all the chaos and de­struc­tion around me. I felt I was in a big jail." He was sur­rounded by the con­flict, but as a refugee and a state­less ci­ti­zen there seemed to be no way out. Even as a child he had to fight to pur­sue his dream, not least against the op­po­si­tion of his own fa­ther, who could not ac­cept his cho­sen path.

But for him, dance was the so­lu­tion, not the prob­lem. "When I dance, if I'm sad, I get it out. If I'm happy, I get it out." "They call me the Syr­ian Billy El­liot," he added. He trained for years with the main dance com­pany in Syria at the Higher In­sti­tute for Dramatic Arts in Da­m­as­cus. In his spare time, he gave danc­ing lessons to chil­dren. And he pur­sued his dream de­spite the war and the loss of loved ones. Each per­sonal drama, each tragedy only fu­elled his art, he said.

It was the doc­u­men­tary that led to the Dutch Na­tional Bal­let invit­ing him over to join their com­pany. While it was a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity, it has been dif­fi­cult to ad­just to life there know­ing that his fam­ily was still back in Syria en­dur­ing very dif­fer­ent con­di­tions-es­pe­cially his mother, with whom he lived un­til his de­par­ture for the Nether­lands.

He has been train­ing hard to catch up for the lost time dur­ing the con­flict in Syria. But nine months af­ter his ar­rival there, he says: "I feel guilty for be­ing happy." But he also dreams of re­turn­ing to Syria to help the peo­ple there, much as the ac­tor An­gelina Jolie has done, some­one he ad­mires for her hu­man­i­tar­ian work. And one day, he said: "I will go back to Syria to cre­ate the Syr­ian na­tional bal­let." Be­cause Syria needs art, not guns and con­flict.

— AFP photos

Syr­ian chore­og­ra­pher Ah­mad Joudeh per­forms on the Hu­man Rights Square in Tro­cadero, near the Eif­fel Tower, in Paris.

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