Dancer explores Arab-American past
BY LAURA HAYES
When Sharon Mansur’s grandparents immigrated from Lebanon, they brought a grapevine. Somehow, she said, it survived the boat ride and made it through customs. Stuffed grape leaves is a common Lebanese dish. The grapevine is still alive, currently growing in her aunt’s garden.
Mansur and some of her cousins took leaf clippings and plan to grow their own vines. “That’s Lebanon to me,” she said. Mansur was born in Boston, Mass., and grew up in a suburb. As a child, she was involved in a number of activities, but dance, she said, felt the most satisfying. “It was so freeing and creative, but also athletic … I felt really at home,” Mansur said.
Mansur recently received a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council that helped her develop her most recent project, “Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree,” which will be performed at Outpost Winona starting on September 9. She calls the performance an invitation for the audience to learn more about her experience as an Arab-American. Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree is a mixture of a performance, an installation, and a meal and conversation.
“We’re living in a time in our world where people are very aware of their cultural identity. I felt like I had something I could add to the conversation,” Mansur said. While the United States has historically and recently had connections to Middle Eastern countries and conflicts, she said people often have stereotypes or misconceptions about people who live there. In her upcoming event, Mansur offers audience members a glimpse into the lives of Arab-Americans from Lebanon.
Outpost Winona — headquarters of Art of the Rural— owner Matthew Fluharty said that artists such as Mansur have reached out to use the space. “We’re interested in the everyday living culture of this region,” Fluharty explained. He was excited when he first heard about Mansur’s project. “There’s the dynamic nationally to think through the questions she’s raising, but in particular in small communities, it’s important in different ways. Her piece comes at a time when a lot of things are happening in Winona and really powerful initiatives are taking place,” Fluharty said
Mansur’s grandparents settled in Lowell, Mass., when they immigrated to America. There, they worked in textile mills. Her grandfather was able to open his own market. Her father didn’t talk about Lebanon a lot when Mansur was growing up. He did talk about the history, though. “It wasn’t so much personal stories. I don’t know that his parents said a whole lot,” Mansur said. “I think it’s emotional to [recall] the stories because there’s gain and loss when you leave your country.” Her sense of what Lebanon was came primarily from her aunt’s traditional Lebanese cooking dishes such as stuffed grape leaves.
“I didn’t see a lot of Arab-Americans outside of my family. That created a sense of otherness to some extent,” Mansur said.
She wondered what her grandparents dreamed about before they came to the United States and when they arrived. “They never went back,” Mansur said. The performance/installation, Mansur explained, gives her an opportunity to connect with her family over their Lebanese heritage. “I wonder if anyone has a dream of a place that sustains us — a place they hold dear to their hearts or a place that they can’t go to, but long to,” she said.
Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree is an event which includes a solo dance performance where Mansur will dance in little vignettes, interacting with different visuals such as an old photo album, her father’s oil paintings of Lebanon, and various scents such as cedar and fresh jasmine, and welcome the audience for a meal and conversation.
This is the second event at Outpost Winona. The space, Fluharty said, is designed to be used in whatever way is needed by each artist. For photographer and Minnesota Marine Art Museum Curator Jon Swanson, the space resembled a gallery to house his photos. For Mansur, the space will be transformed for her to perform.
Rural America, Fluharty said, makes up around 80 percent of the country. “What motivates me is a deeply personal feeling that rural communities have not been given their equal due for what they contribute and the powerful forms of culture that are present in rural communities,” Fluharty said.
Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree is free to attend. The dance performances will take place on September 9, 16, and 23 and on October 7 at 7 p.m. at Outpost Winona, 119 East Third Street, Winona. The visual installation will be on display from September 15 to October 7 from noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Space is limited. RSVP to Sharon Mansur at email@example.com.