Produced by Amara (Laura Osweiler) of Los Angeles, CA, "An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance" was presented in late summer. The dual purpose of this production was to open up new vistas in the art of Middle Eastern Dance, and to present the dance to a culturally literate audience who may not have previously encountered the art form. This show presented works not usually seen in traditional Middle Eastern dance venues because of their controversial nature (religious, sensual, and outrageous!)
Presented at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Amara's "Evening" promised from the start to offer something different from the usual showcase/recital fare. As a diverse crowd filed past the ticket booth early on a Friday evening, I was interested to note that there were few "belly dancers" in attendance. Most of the audience appeared to be adults of Euro-American descent with no discernible ties to the belly-dance world, although Saturday's show (which I did not attend) reportedly had a sizable Arabic/Iranian contingent.
The show opened with a striking piece by Anaheed of LA. Performing to "Egypte" from Cirque du Soleil, Anaheed's dramatically backlit figure was silhouetted behind a scrim in a piece entitled "Bare Essence".
As promised in the program, the dance foregrounds the form and shape of dance without the distraction of flesh. Anaheed opened with floorwork -- a disappearing art in this area -- and then moved on to covering the space with floor patterns and layered level changes. During the progression of the piece, the pure line of the dancer's body and shadow created mesmerizing shapes as she advanced and retreated.
"The Lighthouse of Alexandria"
The house lights dimmed, and Amara entered, balancing a shemadan (3tiered Egyptian candelabrum) upon her head and wearing a silver, crushed-velvet two-piece costume. Amara combined motifs from Pharaonic hieroglyphs with strong, graceful floorwork and torso articulations, as her shemadan cast its moody, flickering light and low swirls of foggy smoke billowed across the stage and into the dimly lit performance space. Music was "The Great Below" by Nine Inch Nails.
Troupe Ya Helewa followed with a improvisational piece performed to music from the "Nae Takseem" from Sahra Saeeda's CD and Natacha Atlas' "Dub Yaleil". This young group is under the direction of Amara and most of its members met through the World Arts and Culture program at UCLA. It was interesting to see the diverse influences of these dancers who have professional training in a broad spectrum of arts
One of the more theatrical numbers in the show, "The Jelly" fully exploited the possibilities of stage lighting and costuming. An otherworldly piece, "Jelly" starts with Amara in a shredded, hand-painted and jeweled, silk chiffon creation by Hallah Moustafa, alternately drilling and darting about the stage. The masterful combination of the oddly graceful, and somehow alien, movements with judiciously used strobe light was fascinating.
"Of Flesh and Spirit - The Oriental Feminine:"
The next two pieces, which book-ended the show's intermission, were performed by LA's Marguerite Kusuhara, and her husband Art. Both dances touch on male-female interaction.
Part One was subtitled "The Will of the Romany (Flesh)". Wearing a Silk Road-inspired costume by Anja, Marguerite's piece explored defiance, depicting methods which women use to subvert patriarchal society - appearing to succumb, while secretly managing to seem triumphant. Art Kusuhara played the male counterpart to Marguerite's wild woman. The proverbial "Battle of the Sexes" raged, peaked, and came to a draw at the end of the piece, as the couple embraced and left the stage.
Continuing after the intermission, the Kusuharas appeared in Part Two, "A Dream of Tara (Spirit)". Art Kusuhara played a Wandering mendicant, costumed in authentic garb from Inner Mongolia. Lame, tired and shivering, the wanderer lays down to rest for the night upon a heap of rags. As he dreams, a goddess appears to him, and works a blessing. Marguerite's costume, constructed entirely of genuine freshwater pearls, turquoise chips and faceted rock crystals, was created by Hallah Moustafa. The imagery which lingers from this piece is that of the archetypal goddess rising from the center of a lotus blossom.
Next, Amara appeared in "Instant Review". Entering
the stage to "Ah ya Zein", she offered a tongue-in-cheek
rendition of the restaurant dance who has been-there, seen-this,
done-that, and is tired of her music to boot. However, as
a patron breaks out the camcorder, this veteran finds reason
to preen, smirking and patting her hair as she mugs for
the camera. As the customer continues taping, somehow a
shift in dynamics occurs, and it becomes Amara who is holding
the camera, regarding the audience. Taking the camcorder
into the seats, she conducts interviews with some of the
theater -goers, asking for feedback on the show, sparring
gently and digging for compliments. Some members seemed
a bit dismayed to be put in the spotlight (literally)! It
was an interesting exploration of the balance of power between
the observer and the observed.
"The Lotus and the Cross"
Next, Anaheed and David presented a piece incorporating elements from Christianity and Hinduism. Anaheed was dressed in a classical Indian-style costume, and Daveed was garbed in white and red. This piece was notable for its juxtapositions of eastern/western spirituality. Anaheed seems as though she has had training in classical Indian dance, and her Bharata Natyam-style spins were skillfully executed. It is not often that we dancers have the opportunity to use male partners in our routines, and it was refreshing to see not one, but two, male-female duos in the show.
Dancing to "The Righteous Path", by Natacha Atlas, Troupe Ya Helewa appeared again. Music and choreography are well-matched in this turbulent piece. Amara appeared as a figure tossed between the opposing forces embodied by the other troupe members. The piece was evocative of a post-modem, abstract zar ritual. As the two opposing forces escalate, Amara's figure sinks beneath the surface of twisting veils pulled to and fro above her.
"A Love Story..."
Troupe Desert Sin (Tatianna and Djahari) closed the show with an impressive piece, employing music from Godsmack, Tori Amos, Paul Haslinger, the Prodigy, Legend, Delerium, Vas, and Juno Reactor. The pair began by performing a most unusual sword dance, in which Japanese kata swords are used and both participants are blindfolded. Body paint and alternative costuming combined to create a post-apocalyptic effect. Both dancers are skilled, and while the frankness of the dance would perhaps have been shocking to a typical audience of Middle Eastern dance aficionados, the audience for this show had come expecting to see experimental work, and received it quite well. The drum solo alone was lengthy, and it was remarkable to see that Desert Sin retained such synchronicity across the entire choreography.
Amara is a master's degree candidate at UCLA, where she teaches a Middle Eastern dance in the World Arts and Cultures program. Her "Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance" was nearly a year in the making. Amara is currently accepting submissions for next year's production, slated for Summer of 2000. The theme will be "Influence of Orientalism in American-Middle Eastern Dance'~ and will deal with the construction/"borders" of the East/West; the East as Feminine; the self as other; and recreation of "Oriental" dances. Interested dancers should submit a video, description, and bio.