As director of the Tunisian National Ballet, Nawel Skandrani provided opportunities for ballet choreographers and dancers from across North Africa and the Arab world.

By Lindsay Alissa King

When Nawel Skandrani received a phone call in 1988 asking her to return to Tunisia, her home country, to start a dance program at the National Theatre, she initially said no. After years of dancing professionally in Paris and San Francisco—where she had ample ballet resources and access to a large dance community—she simply wasn’t sure that Tunisia had a future for ballet. But the person asking her to return was Mohamed Driss, the legendary Tunisian actor who had just been appointed the head of the National Theatre and planned to overhaul it completely. So at the age of 30, Skandrani found herself returning home to embark on a new role as a ballet teacher, choreographer, and dance director for the National Theatre of Tunisia. It was this move that would precipitate Skandrani’s role as a central pioneer in bringing ballet to Tunisia, something that as a young person she never imagined would occupy an important part of her professional career.

Skandrani initially became interested in ballet at the age of five. She took lessons from a Russian couple who had immigrated to Tunisia after the Russian revolution, and she eventually enrolled in the Tunisian Conservatory of Music and Dance. Skandrani isn’t sure what drew her to ballet, but, she says, “I felt really comfortable from the beginning. This is it.”

After seven years at the Tunisian Conservatory, when she was seventeen, she was advised to move to Paris to continue her dance education. It was there that she discovered contemporary dance and took her first classes in Martha Graham technique. “Some of my friends left, I mean went completely to modern and contemporary dance…I fell in love with Balanchine,” recalls Skandrani.

As luck would have it, her older sister, on a student exchange program in San Francisco, met the son of former New York City Ballet dancer Kyra Nichols, a coincidence that ultimately afforded Skandrani the opportunity to travel to California, where Nichols was the director of the Berkeley Ballet Theater. Skandrani ended up spending several years dancing with the company and as an independent dancer in the United States.

But in 1985 she returned to Tunisia to perform as a guest dancer in a production by a new company. The 1985 experience proved to be a turning point for Skandrani. After that year, she found herself returning more often to Tunisia for dancing gigs. Some months later she received a big phone call. Acclaimed actor and writer Mohamed Driss contacted Skandrani to convince her to return to collaborate on a major production with him. Skandrani ended up touring with the production for a year. Then, in 1988, Driss was appointed by the government as the new director of the National Theatre. That same year Driss invited Skandrani to return to Tunisia for good to build a dance program at the newly revamped institution.

While many Tunisian dancers had left Tunisia around the same time as Skandrani had, in order to pursue opportunities in places with more dance infrastructure, “I was probably the first that came back,” Skandrani reflected.

Skandrani spent the next four years completely transforming the dance education available to performers at the National Theatre. Prior to her arrival, actors had little in the way of dance training, but Skandrani began providing training in a variety of styles for free, getting the performers in touch with their bodies in ways they had never experienced.

Skandrani spent the next four years completely transforming the dance education available to performers at the National Theatre. Prior to her arrival, actors had little in the way of dance training, but Skandrani began providing training in a variety of styles for free, getting the performers in touch with their bodies in ways they had never experienced.

Then, in the early 1990s Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali suddenly decided he wanted to start a national ballet. Skandrani laughs, “I don’t know who talked to the president, probably a counselor or probably someone from the theater director at the National Theatre, but all of a sudden in one of his public speeches the president started talking about the creation of a national ballet!” Soon after the speech, the minister of culture contacted Skandrani and appointed her head of the project. Skandrani describes it as more of an order than a request. As a result, Skandrani received a presidential appointment as the first director of the newly founded Tunisian National Ballet.

Amazingly, Skandrani was given total carte blanche to do whatever she wanted to do with the new company. She made two major decisions. First, instead of focusing on classical ballet alone, Skandrani decided to open the doors to many forms of dance. Second, she decided to bring in choreographers from across the Middle East and elsewhere who were enthusiastic about helping her build a solid dance tradition and educate audiences new to international dance forms.

“I decided that the dancers and also the audience had to get some kind of education because at the time there was such a confusion between modern dance, contemporary dance. Modern dance could also be something [the dancers and the audience] saw on TV… so I decided to choose choreographers that were really going from contemporary ballet to dance theater—just having different colors and styles so that the dancers would be trained in different techniques and the audience would start seeing different things,” explains Skandrani.

Over the next four years, Skandrani also began to engage dancers and audiences on social issues. “I looked first of all for all the Tunisian and Arab choreographers I could find,” she said. She chose annual themes. One year she asked choreographers to focus on the work of a particular composer. Another year she focused on the city and history of Tunis, and she even did a year on natural and medical disasters, that featured pieces on issues like AIDS. In addition, she brought visiting dancers from across North Africa and the Middle East to the Tunisian stage. For example, Skandrani recalls how she “brought two dancers from Algeria because it was during the Civil War and actually Algeria had had a national ballet, Russian-style, that started in the ‘60s, and with the Civil War and the Islamists coming up, all the dance and even the theater just kind of disappeared.”

Over these four years, Skandrani brought a new appreciation for dance to Tunisians everywhere, and she built a forum for North African and Middle Eastern choreographers to meet, interact, and share work. However, following a National Commission that precipitated what Skandrani believed would bring disastrous changes to the National Ballet, Skandrani resigned from the role in 1996. After that, she says, “The company kind of collapsed.”

But Skandrani continued her own work with full force. In the past twenty years she has made richly expressive dance pieces that incorporate multimedia and address issues like water, political resistance, and oppression. Skandrani also believes that a new momentum for dance, and ballet in particular, is at work in Tunisia. In 2018 the Opera of Tunis founded a ballet company, and a grant has been established to fund Tunisian dancers and choreographers. The country has also started a national dance festival, which will occur for the third time this June. The festival incorporates international dance styles but also regional dance like forms that originated in Arab and other African countries. Much of the groundwork for the growing dance infrastructure was built by Skandrani, and she continues to be a central player in new developments both in her home country and across North Africa and the Middle East. Let’s cheer on this exciting artistic creativity.

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