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Gilded Serpent presents...
Ballet Afsaneh and Carmen Carnes Dance Ensemble
Full Circle Little Theater
Marin Civic Center, San Rafael, CA
February 16, 2007

Reviewed by: Rebecca Firestone

A few nights ago I attended a show featuring Ballet Afsaneh, a well-known San Francisco area company directed by Sharlyn Sawyer that presents dances of the Silk Road and Central Asia, and the Carmen Carnes Dance Ensemble, who describe themselves as "experimental contemporary dance". This performance was not strictly an ethnic or a modern dance show, but rather a fusion that included some Central Asian elements with what looked like modern dance, Western ballet, and perhaps jazz dance.

Called "Full Circle", with a rather vaguely written program that layered new-age philosophy over Rumi poetry, the program consisted of alternating pieces by Ballet Afsaneh work and Carmen Carnes Dance Ensemble. The music was mostly Persian classical: beautiful ney playing by Mohammed Nejad, additional pre-recorded Persian music, and poetry read aloud in English and Farsi. The show took place in the Little Theater in Marin Civic Center, with approximately 300 seats. There were a HUGE number of Iranians in the audience. I couldn't overhear any English in the people around me!

The program included this description: "The Circle, sacred hoop or ring: An ancient, universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, the inherent power of the female. To earth-centered religions throughout history... the circle represents the feminine spirit or force... Mother Earth, or sacred space." True enough, but perhaps a bit trite. Juxtaposing a few snippets of Rumi didn't quite do it, either.

And since when was Rumi associated with Mother Earth? They're two completely different mythological systems, with different symbolism and imagery. I would have preferred just the Rumi, which would have gone a lot better with the beautiful classical Persian music, and I would have let the femininity of the dancers speak for itself.

The show upheld the ideal of elevating dance from mere entertainment to a fine or a classical art form. However, it suffered from poor staging and a lack of overall shared identity. For some reason, I could not really pay attention to the poetry, beautiful though it was, with the dancing happening simultaneously. Perhaps the poetry, being verbal, and the dancing, being visual, use different parts of the brain. It might have been better if they had alternated the poetic and dance performances, and added more of a stage presence by musicians, and perhaps included a few purely musical numbers.

The dancers from Ballet Afsaneh were extremely well-trained. They all looked like they were under 30, and most of them had very flexible and strong upper bodies - lots of backbends, beautiful shoulder and head movements, and the sharp, quick, precise movements that I associate with Central Asian dance.

They did two pieces that were purer Central Asian. The first one was titled "Atash dar Noor-e Maah" (Fire in the Moonlight), which I assume was Persian. In that one, about 10 or 11 troupe members processed out holding candles in their hands, and did pretty circle formations in beautiful, flowing costumes. Sharlyn is justifiably famous for her costuming, collecting authentic fabrics and costuming each dancer in a different jewel-like tone. The movements included beautiful hand and arm movements, and a lot of turns and spins involving the head and arms. I was hoping they'd do intricate passes with the candles around their bodies, since I've been working on that myself and I was hoping to get some new ideas or at least feel very jealous, but apart from a pass or two they left my hopes in that direction unfulfilled.

The second Ballet Afsaneh piece was a traditional dance of Tajikstan, similar to what I had seen at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival last summer. They appeared to have tightened the piece considerably since then. This rendition was really first-rate, in costuming, choreography and execution.

They have one dancer especially, Wan-Chao Chang, who pretty much stole the show in my opinion. She showed both total freedom of movement and also the right set of constraints to make her dance look correct for the form. She also had a fantastic stage personality.

The one thing I would have liked to see more of in the Ballet Afsaneh performance was... I can't describe exactly... I saw it a little while the poetry was being recited. The reciter, a troupe member, had her head tilted to the side just slightly in what I think of as a typically "Central Asian" way. There was an indirectness, a constraint, in her attitude, and also a feeling of distant regret that seemed to fit with the theme of the poetry. The poem described walking home in the moonlight while longing for the beloved with the speaker's entire body. This was not the jaded yet sentimental regret of Billy Joel's "The Piano Man", or the maudlin slapstick of old-time vaudeville, and it wasn't the passionate yet veiled longing of the Egyptian Raks Sharki, either. This was gentler, more modest, but equally poignant. I could not quite sense this aura of longing in the dancers' expressions or their gestures - either because I was too far away to see such small movements, or because these subtle body-language cues are the hardest part of any culture to pick up without years of painstaking training, and they might all have been too young to have mastered this level of expression.

I think one thing that seems to characterize Central Asian dance might be summed up in the word "constraint". Not restraint, which seems to be weak or straining, but a constraint that comes from within. Every regional dance form seems to have its own set of constraints that comprise the types of movements that a native just Wouldn't Ever Do. It's the unintentional inclusion of these Don'ts in a performance that makes the dancer look amateurish.

And that brings me to the other half of the show.

I'll start with a quote by Rachel Howard from the San Francisco Chronicle: "Carmen Carnes' emerging company melds her background in modern dance and ballet with Asian forms into a striking theatrical fusion." I would like the reader understand that I am not that well-versed in modern dance. I think of modern dance as abstract, primarily interested in pure form. It might even have its own set of constraints, which would be features that when seen together create a modern dance experience.

The Carmen Carnes Dance Ensemble looks to me like a modern dance company that has lifted a lot of movements from Central Asian, modern, and ballet dance systems, and then applied these movements as abstract forms. They wore long, simple, form-fitting dresses with big swirly skirts a la Martha Graham. The costuming echoed the Ballet Asfaneh's traditional costuming in its figure-flattering, flowing outlines and in the use of jewel tones, but without the embroidery and pearls.

The problem is that each of these systems has its own set of constraints, and the choreography that I saw showed no consistent application of the constraints of any of them. The CCDE choreography was eclectic to say the least.

If we use the "dance as language" metaphor so popular among Middle Eastern dancers who like to talk about non-natives who "dance with an accent", I would say that the CCDE choreography appeared to be a random mix of beautifully pronounced words from different languages with no attention to syntax or coherence.

A modernist might ask, "And why isn't this enough?"

I really don't have a good answer. I have played with language as abstraction myself, enjoying the sounds of words I didn't understand, and sometimes the mystery created a very aesthetic experience.

However, I feel that borrowing from a traditional or classical art form implies somehow retaining the spirit of that form in the resulting product. That spirit may be communicated in several ways: as set of constraints that then creates the "movement signature" of that form; as a style of expressiveness - fiery or gentle, for example; and also as a set of acceptable personalities, characters, or archetypes to choose from.

I didn't get a sense of spirit in the CCDE work, possibly because this emotional layer was absent. This is somewhat surprising given that Carmen Carnes' background includes several classical Asian dance forms as well as modern/contemporary dance, ballet, and yoga. Rituals, particularly those of Earth-centered spiritual systems, also tell their stories through archetypes who are more than just abstractions. The archetypes can either be enacted symbolically, or through visual pageantry.

To me at least, the choreography didn't know where it was going, appearing hesitant and undeveloped. It might have been better if she had picked one system as the "base" and then added other elements into that structure (similar to picking a language and then adding other words in). The dancers were certainly athletic enough. They did quick falls and rolls (modern), arabesques (ballet), and tight swirly arms (Asian, not sure which country).

Often I wished for more movement completion rather than the rapid going out and then withdrawing.

For example, they would put their hands on the floor and lift their leg high and then quickly return, when I would have liked to see them at least do a handstand, and maybe a walkover. Must be the circus in me. If it were a ballet-style arabesque, they wouldn't put their hands on the floor and they would float more. (Somewhat subsequent to writing this review, I saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform a Twyla Tharp choreography that had many of the same characteristics, and it was also unsatisfying to me. So maybe I just don't like that style of modern dance.)

Then there was the dance duet where one dancer had a ribbon and the other one didn't... what's up with that? Did the other girl lose her ribbon or what? Another number also featured some abortive-looking ballet-style lifts, which really didn't go with the Persian music, especially girl-on-girl.

The choreographies did not unfold or develop in a logical fashion, but appeared to be strung together in collage fashion, randomly jumping from one style to another. Dancing to Persian music does not make your dance a Persian fusion!

The signature piece from CCDE was "Circle, Cycle, Spiral, and ....... Stream" implying that it was related to the "sacred space" mentioned in the program notes... this one needed work on staging as well. At the end of each section, the dancers would exit the stage, the music would stop, and the stage would go dark. The audience would clap, thinking it was over... and then the dancers would come back on again and do some more dancing. After 3 or 4 repetitions of this, the audience didn't clap anymore and appeared to be confused. I know I was.

One thing about comparing fusion dance with a vernacular language such as Creole, which has roots in several very different languages, is that vernaculars evolve over time through daily usage. Fusion dance is usually a conscious and creative effort on the part of one person, or sometimes a group of people. It's the daily usage over time that gives the dance style its coherence and direction.

I feel that CCDE's work has not yet matured in this respect, although the raw material and the talent is certainly there in abundance.

The show opened and closed with a pair of pieces titled "Invocation" and "Resolution", both improvised dance with one representative from each company (the same two people each time), with poetry and ney accompaniment. Although these were intended to anchor the show, and the dancing itself was very good - all the more impressive because it was improvised - it didn't quite gel. There wasn't enough synergy between the dancers, and again, they shouldn't have been moving while the poetry was being read. One dancer's style looked a lot more Central Asian, and the other's looked a lot more modern. They were not speaking the same language, although there were times that they echoed one another.

While it is possible for a traveler to visit a foreign country and make herself understood without words, it is a lot harder to have a meaningful conversation unless one is clearly IN one place or the other, rather than a neutral space owned by no one, with insufficient contextual clues as to place, and no clear purpose for being there.

Conversations in the shared language of humanity often center around basic and universal situations such as hospitality, or rendering aid in a crisis. The poetry as an intellectual pretext wasn't quite enough. It also seemed to be hanging in empty space. Ritual by itself is also not enough, unless the people doing ritual together have previously established some common ties around shared homes, families, or survival. In my opinion, you can't create meaningful relationships on the mythic level without first building a foundation on the mundane, material plane. Maybe an evocative scenario could include some furniture, plants, food, or more people? It was a good idea, and a very daring one, so I'd tell them to keep it up until something evolves, hopefully by the next joint performance.

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