How the story of Aladdin transformed into a queer metaphor for Beirut-born dancer Chadi El-Khoury

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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As a young boy growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Chadi El-Khoury remembers how going out to the movies was a really big deal. He still vividly recalls when a family friend took him and his two brothers out to the cinema to see their first-ever movie: Disney’s hip, animated classic Aladdin.

“I was maybe 7; it blew me away,” he says. No uncomfortable feelings of condescension? No anger directed at cultural appropriation? Hardly.

“I have really fond memories of Aladdin — and our relationship to the storyline [as Middle Eastern kids] was the same as any kid growing in America.”

A few decades have passed since that first exposure, and El-Khoury is now in a position where he’s revisiting his understanding of this popular legend… and learning a lot about himself and the world we live in along the way.

It wasn’t really his doing, either. El-Khoury is a principal dancer with the dance troupe Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, founded by his partner of five years, Joshua L. Peugh. It was Peugh who first got the idea to adapt the tale into a modern movement piece with a queer twist.

“Josh and I have an understanding: When I am out of town, he can treat himself to buying as many books as we have bookshelves for,” El-Khoury laughs. (Peugh cheats a little — he just buys more shelves.) “He was in a bookstore and saw a copy of 1001 Arabian Nights, and I think it was the first line that caught his attention, something like, ‘There once was a boy named Aladdin who lived in China.’”

What? China?! Everyone knows Aladdin is from Arabia — it’s in the name! Well, not so fast. The story of Aladdin was a late addition to the tales of Scheherazade, and as Peugh researched its pedigree more and more, came to learn the Aladdin we think we know is not the one of lore. It fit into his vision for the company’s style.

“Josh has been working on reimagining traditional narratives which are disconnected from their origins,” El-Khoury explains. ‘[DCCD] has done fairy tales that are a lot more violent than [the popular versions]. So he wanted to excavate the literature’s origins and what is it trying to tell us.”

One of the things it was telling them was, this rags-to-riches story has universal appeal.

“All the dancers read the story — a version published [more than a century ago], where a Maronite monk [a Middle Eastern arm of Catholicism] tells the story to a Frenchman, who writes it down. But it has been adapted in all these different countries — China, Africa, places in the Middle East and all over Europe … but that adaptations [are always changed] to fit the culture. We started asking ourselves, ‘What is so important about Aladdin that all these cultures are trying to claim this narrative and feel the need to adapt it? What is so familiar about it?’”

The result is a world-premiere work by DCCD, as part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, called Aladdin.

And if the original is not the story you know, this one will seem even stranger.

Part of that is Peugh’s commitment to telling his art through the prism of a gay man living in contemporary society.

“We have 10 dancers plus Josh, and everyone but one person [in the company] is somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, and the one ally is probably the most queer of everyone — she even volunteers at the Resource Center,” El-Khoury says. So they are all at ease with the queer content.

But it’s more personal for El–Khoury (who serves as the company’s executive director) and Peugh (its founder and artistic director) because of their personal and creative relationship.

“I’m very comfortable being gay, so I don’t have any of those barriers, but I have a lot of straight people in my life, and I always underestimate their level of comfort with me [being comfortably out],” he says. “What resonated with me was [Aladdin] paints this world where these different cultures come together and it’s very cosmopolitan. I think, How do you fit in when you don’t really fit in? How do we apply this to the world we live in, which is a divisive environment? Even though we are all very different, we can all come together and exist in the same place.”

That’s not always easy. The political climate has made finding commonalities, even with loved ones, harder than ever.

“The work is about Josh and me — our relationship with our families and the struggles we have with our families as gay men, as gay men in a relationship, finding so much acceptance outside of the familial structure. Both of our families love and accept us and we are very close, but it’s earned acceptance versus an unconditional acceptance. We’ve worked really hard to earn that, but for me, it’s still not enough; it created a lot of friction [when you know family members love you, but still support Trump]. So it’s very personal to me — my life is full of some many people where you don’t even have to try they just give that to you. So those kinds of dynamics are very much in the work and how we feel about being gay men in today’s political climate.”

On the other hand, most of El-Khoury’s family (most of whom don’t care for dance and have never seen him perform) have committed to attending the performance… It’s all about incremental steps.