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Gilded Serpent presents...

Tarot:

A Fantasy Belly Dance Concert

by Thalia

posted 2-15-09

New York City buzzes this time of year with costume balls and a famous Halloween parade that shuts down its central artery.  This year Venus Uprising and a large cast of guest artists joined the esoteric fray with a performance of "Tarot: A Fantasy Bellydance Concert" at the Merce Cunningham Theatre in Manhattan's West Village on November 1-2.  For the unfamiliar, the Tarot is a deck of cards used primarily in the Western world for divination. Card readers offer "querents" or questioners insights on their current life phase or where their energies might lead in the future.  Among the seventy-eight cards in the standard deck, twenty-two trump cards or "Major Arcana" have come to be associated with specific qualities and archetypes, each with potential for reversal, a capacity for both lightness and darkness.  Venus Uprising's "Tarot" offered skillful interpretations of seventeen Major Arcana.

Blanca as the fool
Toshi as Emperor
Irina "Judgement"

Blanca opened with "The Fool" the first card in the Major Arcana, representing the foolishness required to begin any venture or jump into the unknown.  This Joker covered a shadowy stage keeping a tentative eye on a seductive overhead light.  Neon and Angel's melancholy "Lovers" illustrated conflicting desires and partings.  Sarah Johansson Locke and her Alchemy Dance Theater interpreted the High Priestess with a choreography marked by Indian and tribal style dance elements.  As the group flowed between precise, circular floor patterns and pauses of dramatic, angular tableau, Locke's Priestess moved through and blended into her group of adherents, suggesting the role of effective guidance (the Tarot's higher intention) as a subtle flow rather than domineering force.  Martial artist/modern dancer Toshi Hamada presented the futile reverse of this ideal with his "Emperor."  Breaking from belly dance form, he stamped and chanted the names of the four directions with strained pomp, staginess effectively self-mocked by his lone, mute attendant and then his smaller, everyday voice stating: "Emperor" before a final blackout.  Sarah Skinner's admirably ambitious multi-act choreography renewed the often told story of that clash of cultures between Egypt and Rome in her "Wheel of Fortune." This unabashedly Orientalist piece began with three Cleopatra devotees fronted by the lithe and charismatic Kazja heralding the entrance of a 1920s style imagining of the Queen (Sarah Skinner) carried in on a litter.  This theatrical and often comical sweep through Cleopatra's reign raced through her meeting with Marc Antony and finally her encounter with the Oracle who predicted her suicide and the end of the reign of Egyptian Pharaohs. 

The large, well rehearsed cast--musicians, temple maidens, acolytes, and servants with a variety of props--deftly played up the campy quality of the piece, contrasting the work's darker messages about the fickle cycles of gain, loss, and impermanence

Though belly dance and Tarot seem an odd pairing, the standard deck of Tarot cards, the Rider-Waite deck, became popular around 1910 when Orientalist fashion was near its peak in Europe and the United States.  Sphinxes, wings of Isis, Hathor crowns, and other Egyptian motifs are mixed into the Rider-Waite deck along with those of many classical and occult traditions.  Earlier, questionable claims relate the origins of Tarot to the influence in Europe of the Islamic Al Andalus and the romanticized "mysteries" of Isis and the "Book of Toth."  Regardless of cultural "accuracy," these symbols remain embedded in the cards' use.  Like the earlier Orientalists in their era, our popular culture has recently experienced renewed fascination with myth, multicultural icons and symbolism, and archetypes.  Critics question the depth and intentions of the use of these often sweeping and vague cultural theories and appropriations as they are loosely applied to many fields such as the self-help and healing industries, music, and literature. Anasma "The Devil" 

However, cultural appropriation has always been a reality to reckon with for Western-based viewers and performers of "Middle Eastern" dance or belly dance.  Fantasy Belly Dance, a recent subgroup of belly dance, seems to embrace rather than deny the use of these broad strokes of symbolism and cultural myth.

In New York City, Jehan's Goddess Dance productions, Zodiac Dance, and Venus Uprising are the most visible groups working under the fantasy label.  Tribal and Goth, other subgroups working in the same vein, were also present in this show.  It will be interesting to see where these new styles, with their romantic nods to the past, drive the field.

Venus Uprising took on a unique challenge with "Tarot."  Practitioners of Tarot feel strongly about their personal interpretations of these cards.  During and after the show, I overheard knowledgeable questions about the "accuracy" of this or that dancer's interpretation and whether the order of the acts might have been stronger if they had been presented in the traditional order of the Major Arcana.  It was a compliment to the show's organizers and artists, however, that the discussions remained philosophical.   Good interpretations should spark questions.  No one doubted the technical prowess and wide emotional reach of this cast.  For this viewer, the most successful interpretations conveyed a clear relationship with the specified card without being too literal or obvious.

The second act included "Magic," an intertwining of darkness and light by Blanca and Neon. Irina Akulenko wore a gauzy blindfold for her introspective "Adjustment," a well executed saber dance with drops, acrobatic postures, and long limbed undulations and reverse undulations. Andrea Anwar's sustained, fluid veil work in "Temperance" illustrated subtle restraint before she impressively funneled off stage.  Anasma playfully channeled "The Devil" with a compact, curious story line full of scraping hooves and clawing. "Death" followed in slapstick fashion:  Fayzah's caped prowler backed by two skeleton henchmen tromped Chaplin-like around the stage ending with a sudden turn toward the audience and the dreadful flash of a mirror.  Other standout performances in lengthy roster included  Ayshe's "Empress," Autumn Ward's darkly humorous "Judgment," the duo Uyum Dans' wistful "Star," and Tanna Valentine's "Hermit," a lonely seer clad in the most talked about costume of the evening--a glittering white Romanesque gown and matching veil that doubled as a hood.

Among graceful asides were detailed programs and the use of recordings by many local musicians including Raquy Danziger, Djinn, Mal Stein, and Pete List.  Venus Uprising's impressive list of sponsors--the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation-- and the group's thoughtfully stated mission assure more quality performances will be organized by this ambitious, edgy, and intelligent network of dancers.

Sarah as Cleopatra
Sarah Skinner, Kazja & The Sisters of Salome - "Wheel of Fortune" - "Cleopatra"
Death
Fayzah & The Aurea Dancers (Sangeeta Vallabhan and Zahra Hashemian) - "Death"
Lovers
Neon and Angel "The Lovers"
Empress
Ayshe - "The Empress" - "Parvati"
High Priestess
Sarah Locke & Alchemy Dance Theater - "The High Priestess"
(Irina Akulenko, Renata, and guest artists Sophia Ma, Dhyana)
curtain call
Curtain call

 

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