"I feel like I'm at the top of the Ferris wheel. You know the Ferris wheel: At the top, the best. But the future," Lebanese-born dancer Elie Chaib laughs, "is obviously, clearly, downhill."
Critics disagree. Last winter, Chaib was hailed by The New York Times as "Dancer of the Year" for his "astonishing focus and control" in his solo performance "Epic." The same year, the 43-year-old avant-garde artist was featured in the Emmy Award-winning PBS film "Speaking in Tongues."
This year, Chaib performs for an unprecedented 20th season with the legendary Paul Taylor Company.
Chaib's renown stems from what dance writer Lillie F. Rosen described as "the rugged irregularity of his features, his handsome, hawk-like austerity" and his "hair-trigger, disciplined virtuosity."
"Charisma..." wrote The New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff. "Mr. Chaib's stage presence is as formidable as his sense of acute timing."
Elie Chaib is a quiet man whose solitary nature contrasts with the boisterousness of younger dancers. Before each performance he methodically works through a two-hour ritual of stretching and mental preparation with an acolyte's devotion. He is a seasoned master.
"I have wanted to cultivate a cat-like quality, the way big cats move in their stillness, with flowing muscles. When the cat is stalking, and then stands still, its energy is still moving. Its body is charged with controlled tension. The cat is in touch with every muscle."
Elie Khalil Chaib was born in July 1950 to a family from the Chouf mountain town of Deir al-Qamar. Growing up in Beirut, he went to see American dance movies at the cinemas along Hamra Street.
"West Side Story" profoundly moved him. At night, he danced in Beirut's discos. At age 17, Chaib began studying under Annie Dabat and Gail Waterman, and soon became principal dancer in Dabat's Beirut Dance Ensemble.
Because Lebanon lacked schools for advanced dance training, Chaib decided to leave Beirut and study abroad. He felt that, to achieve the focus required of a world-class performer, he needed to separate himself physically from his family and its expectations.
Chaib found the inspiration to take that huge leap at the Baalbek Festival. Among its Roman columns, he saw a performance of the Alwin Nikolais Dance Theatre and later met the ensemble members, who encouraged him to pursue his career abroad.
In 1970, at 20, he left Beirut for New York. His parents believed he went there to study electrical engineering.
In the daytime, he studied at the Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham schools. At night, he worked in a New York bakery. Three years later, he spotted an announcement that Paul Taylor was selecting male dancers for his company. Chaib auditioned for the job and was picked over a hundred other, more technically accomplished dancers.
Then 23, he was the youngest dancer ever selected for membership in Taylor's legendary company. Now, two decades later, he is the company's oldest dancer and its longest-performing member.
Asked about unfulfilled dreams, Chaib, the first Lebanese to make a distinguished mark in the international dance world, looks away, nods and says simply, "To dance at Baalbek."
Photojournalist George Baramki Azar is the author ofPalestine, A Photographic Journey, published by University of California Press.