Experimental Middle Eastern Dance Performances Go Beyond Tradition
WHATS ON - FRONT COVER FEATURE - AUG. 19, 2004
Groups of dancers intend to show that genres of Middle Eastern dance are not just about "dancing for your sultan," at an upcoming group performance in Venice, says dancer/show organizer Amara.
An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance is scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 7 p.m. Sundays until August 29th, at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Tickets are $25.
Amara has organized a show featuring Los Angeles- and San Francisco-based dancers who perform a variety of styles of Middle Eastern dance. The dancers plan to experiment and break barriers by fusing different cultures and types of music. They also intend to dispel stereotypes about Middle Eastern dancing, especially raks al 'sharqi or belly dancing.
The performances will showcase the different styles of belly dance, such as Egyptian or Lebanese varieties, and also distinctive folkloric styles, such as Moroccan folk.
Also showcased are Middle Eastern healing movements of the Sufi tradition, often considered sacred ritual rather than a dance form.
The Middle Eastern traditions will then be fused with modern American dance forms and nontraditional theatrics.
The Middle East is a region rich in dance culture, but also rich in laws restricting its practice.
Most often, fundamentalist interpretations of Islam frown upon belly dance due to its erotic nature. Public dancing is banned in Iran and Saudi Arabia, while a night club scene thrives in Egypt.
It's innate prurience aside, belly dancing and its practitioners often don't get the credit they deserve, says Amara. She says the dance form is often stigmatized as low-class, and she calls its associations with striptease unfair.
"We look at it as an art form. People don't realize the amount of training and energy and skill it takes to be a good belly dancer," says Amara. "For us, it's not about women dancing for men's gratification."
However, she does admit that in the Middle East it often is concubine dancing to please her man.
But she adds, "People are often segregated by gender in the Middle East. So it's quite common to see women dancing for other women and men dancing for other men."
Some American dancers choose to study Middle Eastern dance as a way of trying to learn about the Middle East and understand its various cultures, says Amara. Others romanticize ancient Middle Eastern culture, while others still see it as a feminine form of dance.
The Middle East, a vast area extending from Libya to Afghanistan, has too many nations with vastly different cultures and customs for its dance forms to all be similar.
But one essential trait of Middle Eastern dance is its torso movements. While styles like ballet and modern American dance rely heavily on hand and foot movements, the emphasis of many Middle Eastern dance styles is to move from the core (the torso) outwards.
Amara traces the emergence of American interest in Middle Eastern dance back to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where it was likely first displayed to the American public. Throughout the 20th century, there have been periods when Middle Eastern dance was a fad, she says.
Aside from organizing An Evening of Experimental Dance for the past five years, Amara has toured the United States as a Middle Eastern dance soloist and as a part of groups. She has taught Middle Eastern dance courses at UCLA and has also written articles on the subject.
Performers and troupes joining Amara for An Evening of Experimental Dance include Anaheed, Bast Dance Company, Cassandra, Desert Sin Dance Company, Djahari, Jenevieve and x-imagika Dance Company, Myths Dance Company, Perfumes of Araby Dance Company, Ricodancer, Sa'Elayssa, Subee Djinn Dance Company, Tandemonium Dance Company, Tatianna and Ya Helewa! Dance Company.
The performances will feature works produced exclusively for An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance, according to show organizers.
In a genre based on tradition, the performers seek to be "cutting edge" by making traditional borders, edges and standards visible and then pushing past them.
Many of this year's performers plan to add humorous bits to their works.
Ya Helewa!'s "Part One and Part Two" follows the course of five off-kilter and quirky characters who add their own set of rules to their movement sequences.
In the vein of Monty Python, Tandemonium's "Rumble in the Casbah" pokes fun at the war tactics of a Crusader and a Saracen.
Perfumes of Araby transforms Middle Eastern-based movements of isolating the gluteus muscles into a spirited and fast-paced contest in "Dueling Buttès."
Sa Elayssa's "Dragon" is said to express a spiritual state of being and self-acceptance.
Ricodancer's "Cut From Stone" depicts devotion and liberation, drawing from the musicality of Michaelangelo's slave sculptures.
Ya Helewa! also will perform "Volatile Bodies," a piece that draws upon movements from the Mevlevi Sema, Egyptian Zar and Moroccan Guedra, to "express the space between disharmony and support."
Other performers view their dance as an expression of spirituality. Jenivieve and x-magika's "Rapture" portrays a spiritual trip "from demonic debauchery and the chains of hell to faith, God, love and fearless abandon of tantric bliss."
In "Three Phases of the Moon," Bast employs imagery of the moon goddess in three phases of a woman's life: girl, mother and elder.
Others are meant to play on emotion. In "Drowners," Myths present the tragic story of a man lured into the beckoning sea.
Cassandra's "Grace" shows a woman transformed from a mermaid into a human by using "glass walking" as a rite of passage.
Inner psychological issues and relationships are explored in Tatianna's "Psychonarration," in which she creates discord between music and movement.
Subee Djinn's "Puppet Theatre" is a story about life-size dolls who teach two children a lesson about getting along and about the treatment of others.
In "Transference," Amara and Sa' Elayssa struggle with depression by transferring and diffusing it between each other.
Love is a strong element of Desert Sin's "Fairy Tale," in which a Fairy Court is infiltrated by goblins. Chaos ensues until the power of the fairy queen sets things right and her love restores the king to her side.
Anaheed's tribute performance "Loie Fuller" utilizes pioneering methods of veil manipulation and lighting design.