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Original Photos by Michael Baxter
Gilded Serpent presents...
My Retirement
by Zaharr

Thirty-six years of feeling special, of dressing up night after night and of being “The Sultan’s Favourite Kadin” ended with such a quiet whisper that even I was surprised. I had expected at least a standing ovation for all those years of creative choreography, the imaginative staging and high level of professionalism I had achieved in every area of my dance performances. Where was the acknowledgement of the musicians I had worked with who had applauded my skills with my finger cymbals, my tightly-choreographed shows that had brought out THEIR best skills as well? Where were the restaurant owners and the party hosts who came to me, grateful that I had done an outstanding performance or defused some tension in the audience created by unruly or drunken guests? 

Where were the tears in the eyes of the old woman in Northern Japan who came to me and told me she had never seen anything so lovely in her life? 

Where were the magazine articles written about me, the television interviews I had done, the newspaper articles, the rave reviews of my shows? Where were the students I had taught, the other dancers I had trained and worked and commiserated backstage with? Where WAS everyone the night I said good-bye for the final bow?

Some years ago, when there was so very little to read about the dance, I had found a book about a few famous dancers in history. Not Oriental Dancers, but other dancers: ballerinas, modern dancers, innovative dancers of their times - times when there were no video cameras to record a dancer’s movements. 

The book’s author lamented that there were famous dancers we would never be able to appreciate fully, only through the reports of those who had seen them dance.

 “How could a dance be reconstructed?” asked the writer. “Who knew the magic of Isadora Duncan as she broke all known traditions with her innovative concepts and imaginative costuming?” – or lack of costume! – “Who could know what magnificent power had been portrayed on the stage by Nijinsky, or the delicate grace of Anna Pavlova?” Dance is ephemeral, this writer states, and lives only in the memory of the witnesses: the audience and the dancers themselves. And all who were present at a performance would see the same dance viewed from a different angle, a different perspective, a different point of view, a different set of standards. So no performance of The Dance could ever be appreciated in the same way once the performance was over. “How Zen,” I thought.  “How perfect that such hard-won beauty lived only in the present moment.” I was so young when I thought those thoughts…

For many years - fifteen to be exact (nearly half of my dancing career) - I was living in Japan and dancing all over the country. There were, at one time, up to seven agents based in different cities booking me into fabulous venues where I had total control of the sound, the stage, the lighting, and even what was brought to my dressing room for me while I prepared for my performances. Personal assistants would meet me at train stations and escort me to hotels, carrying my costumes and treating me like the star that I was expected to be. 

When I had to travel long distances on the trains across Japan, a female escort was dispatched to my home to escort me all the way to the hotel in the distant city where I would be staying for several nights: one night to rest up before the performance, one night to rest on the evening of the performance, and one night to relax after the performance. 

Posters with my photo often greeted me at the door of the venues that were usually elegant hotel ballrooms or theatres. Sometimes my dance would be part of an evening of individual performances given by a variety of different performers, and sometimes the main event of an evening of cultural events. I was booked into these venues for celebrations, inaugurations of buildings, companies, or as the special entertainment for the beginning or end of a Cultural Festival, a Musical Festival or even a seminar of doctors, physicists, or class alumni. Many times my performances were preceded by interviews with television, newspaper, or magazine reporters who wanted to ask me about everything from what sort of Japanese foods did I like, to what did I think of American Foreign Policy? I was especially busy with that last question during the “First Gulf War” when I was on an extended tour with a band I had recorded a CD with. One of my agents had found a musician who needed my finger-cymbal skills and zaghreet for an album of Rai-flavoured Japanese Music. Each night, before the performance, it was announced from the stage by the lead singer of the band that my political views about the current war were that there should BE no war, that I desired only peace for all sides involved in the conflict and that I had friends who were stationed in the Gulf. I had been terrified to do the tour unless this was done before each evening’s performance. The emotions of the Japanese were running high about America’s involvement in that particular war. I truly feared for my life as many of our audience members strongly opposed the war. It was well known that I was an American. 

So often foreign visitors to a country are expected to be well informed about every aspect of their home country’s cultural, historical and political events or beliefs. This can be problematic as many people are caught by surprise by this aspect of their visit. I had finally learned from experience what was expected of me and usually found the answers asked of me by various reporters from the media.

Once, while on tour, I was taken sightseeing to a cultural event which featured Tibetan sand painting. This technique uses grains of coloured sand to produce an intricate Mandala of extraordinary detail. Several of the monks work on a Mandala together and it can take days to complete. 

When the Mandala is finished, there is a ritual and then the Mandala is erased. Not a trace remains except what one remembers. 

In this concept of ephemeral beauty, I received the answers I had asked myself on March 19th, 2005, Saturday night, on the Richmond Festival Stage at 9:50 pm. I achieved the understanding of my own art as a dancer. The years of spiritual preparation, physical training and discipline to maintain the best condition for my body so that the rigours of performing would nor harm it; the careful nutritional discipline to insure that my body would be healthy and fully responsive to the physical demands of the Dance, the costuming, and the make-up: all were like the tiny grains of coloured sand which had composed my career as a performer. Like with the Mandala, now that the dancing is complete, my ritual has been performed.  The sands have been erased - scattered, until no trace remains. All that is left is in the memories of the witnesses.

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