Fighting Through Art: A Kurdish Dancer’s Journey to New York Stages

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Hussein Smko’s encounter with an American soldier in Iraq led him to become a dancer. This week he performs in Pontus Lidberg’s work at the Joyce Theater.

When Hussein Smko was 9, the American military arrived in his hometown, Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. It was 2003, and Smko, already a survivor of the Kurdish civil war, would chase the American Humvees with other kids. One day a soldier beckoned him over and demonstrated a simple, beguiling gesture: He held out a straight arm then made it ripple like water, a classic hip-hop move.

“I thought it was like a big sparkle,” Smko, 30, said in an interview. “And I was like, How could you break your bones like that?”

That brief encounter loomed large for Smko, starting him on an unlikely dance journey that eventually brought him to a small, sun-dappled theater in Tarrytown, N.Y., where he was rehearsing with the Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg last week. The dance they were preparing, “On the Nature of Rabbits,” opens Wednesday at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan.

Lidberg was working with Smko on a small moment of improvisation. “It has to be yours,” Lidberg told him. “It has to feel right.” Smko prowled the stage to some spiky Shostakovich music, displaying an uncanny mix of intensity and naturalness.

A rehearsal for Lidberg’s “On the Nature of Rabbits,” with the choreographer on the ground.Amir Hamja/The New York Times

“Pontus has been really asking me to be free,” Smko said during a cigarette break outdoors. “I’m trying to move more with gentleness and ease.”

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