Photo by RJ Muna.
Afsaneh and Carmen Carnes Dance Ensemble
Full Circle Little Theater
Marin Civic Center, San Rafael, CA
February 16, 2007
Reviewed by: Rebecca
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
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
brings me to the other half of the show.
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.
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.
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.
might ask, "And why isn't this enough?"
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.
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.
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).
I wished for more movement completion rather than the rapid
going out and then withdrawing.
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.)
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,
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!
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.
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.
feel that CCDE's work has not yet matured in this respect, although
the raw material and the talent is certainly there in abundance.
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.
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.
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.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
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