Fringe FestGilded Serpent presents...

"Where the Fringe Meets the Fringe"

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2000 with Troupe Dhyanis

by Dhyanis


The rough and ready Scots do love a party! No coincidence then that they host the world’s largest performing arts festival in their capitol city of Edinburgh each August. Every available space is turned into a numbered venue for theater, music, dance, comedy or experimental works. There are simultaneous film, book and crafts festivals and the city comes alive with artists and aficionados from around the globe.

The atmosphere crackles with creativity and audiences can choose to be touched by the best from many cultures.

With 3,500 acts in town, competition for ticket sales is conducted in the street. A portion of the High Street, or "Royal Mile" between the prominent castle and the queen’s palace, is cordoned off for theater bytes and itinerant buskers. Daily, people of all ages speaking a multitude of languages, mill about sampling the pot pourri of entertainment. The enthusiastic performers do vignettes and hand out cards designed to hook folks in to see their show!

The experience of performing at such an event is unique and rewarding (and exhausting). Some college drama groups raise funds all year towards this goal. Many artists do solo shows, bunking in at the University dormitory, which charges a minimal rate to festival lodgers. Each company pays in advance to be listed in the Festival Program, for a timeslot in a theater space, and to have their handouts and posters designed and printed. The return depends on sheer numbers – "How many butts can you get in the seats?" One factor largely affecting the result is how you are rated by the typically caustic British Press. Soon the reviews are out and each show is awarded an arbitrary number of stars by each reviewer (five-star maximum).

I had attended the 1999 Festival as a member of Tuju Taksu Masked Dance, with whom I have performed for several years. My dear husband, the consummate producer, made all the arrangements, including finding the appropriate venue and accommodations, via internet and many 5 AM telephone conversations. We all paid our own airfare and share of the flat rental, while the director handled the show expenses.

We were required to go out in daily pre-assigned teams for street theater promotion, extra exposure media events, plus we were on duty "24/7" passing out cards and connecting with potential audience.

There were also rehearsals and various photo ops. Any free time was spent deciding which other shows or sights to see, or connecting with other artists, but the festival is an intense, absorbing experience – not a relaxed vacation atmosphere.

Naturally I inquired about the local belly dance scene and sought out shows with the vaguest Middle-Eastern theme. One highlight was a superb production of "Arabian Nights" by the Young Vic Theater of London including a lively dance scene. Also up from England was Wendy Buonaventura and Co. with a show entitled "Mimi La Sardine" about her personal dance journey. It was narrated by an actress, with dances plugged in, using minimal costuming (her students wore monochromatic princessline dresses throughout most of the show). One number spoofed the Arabic machismo with a moustached dancer impersonating a cigar-smoking, womanizing lout at a hafla, Wendy herself performed a "Salome" in an assuit gown with much emotion. Generally though the dances were too long and resembled group improvisation with random snake arms and undulations. I started to see the colorful costumes and complex choreography of Troupe Dhyanis wowing the Edinburgh audiences!

And so it came to pass…we kept some of our current repertoire and then busted our buns, using scheduled events like Rakkasah and my annual Summer Solstice Goddess Show as deadlines for new pieces. My husband contributed the idea of opening the show with a voiceover explaining some of the history of the dance, and he booked time in a sound studio to produce the track (my writing, my voice). I like the ensemble work best, but to cover the very quick costume changes, we added a couple of duets (including a Guedra) and my "Seven Veils" solo. We titled the one-hour show "Secrets Unveiled – The Passion of Bellydance" and included many styles from "tribal" to "cabaret", with samples of cane, sword, Turkish Rom, singing in Arabic while dancing, and a hot drum solo finale. Eight women loaded with costumes and a one-month supply of vitamins and sundries filed expectantly onto the plane. This time my husband opted to pay all expenses and accompanied us to help with tech and administration. The ultimate promise for each dancer was the richness of a professional experience and the individual opportunity for improvement to apply to future dance career options.

Since we knew that our theater in Edinburgh boasts no dressing rooms and a very small backstage area, we choreographed the quick-changes with a chair and small case each. We had booked the local Community Playhouse to premier the show and work out the bugs. We planned two nights in Edinburgh for tech rehearsals in the space (and to mitigate jet lag). Needless to say, from opening night to the end of the three week run the show ripened - the video footage shows the progression of comfort level in the dancing and on the faces!

We had hired a local publicist to help create our press kit and book us for media coverage. Hence the first few days were filled with ancillary events – we danced for a mile in the "Cavalcade" or opening day parade. At 10pm (our slot at "The Garage Theater") we opened our show to a small audience which included the make-ya-or-break-ya press. Then at midnight we did a twelve minute appearance at the coveted opening night Gala. We were rewarded next morning when the local paper announced us winners of "Best Walking Group of the Festival" with a beautiful color photo (and later a prize of 200 pounds). Pacing ourselves was a challenge; grabbing afternoon naps became important!

A mid-day teaser performance on the World Art Stage in Princes Park got us a date for a TV special. The camera crew met us in our spectacular costumes at the top of High Street and followed us as we stopped to play finger cymbals and dance with pipers or flautists, interacting with mimes or the crowds. They captured the swirling color and movement amidst the stone buildings and cobblestone streets. They led us through an ostensibly normal restaurant to a basement bar piled with oriental carpets and pillows where we decoratively sprawled (grateful for the rest) for an in-depth interview about the dance. We were pleased that the young media-type woman asked us about the origins, health benefits and sacred aspects of bellydance and wanted to learn a couple of moves on camera. We utilized this and other media opportunities, including three radio shows, to educate and spread the word!

The press treated us well and we garnered three "four star" reviews.

They turned a clever phrase like referring to our sword-work section as "a band of female contortionist pirates". We received epithets including "Blimey!, "great show", "passionate and honest performances", "enough to impress even the women in the audience", and one reviewer called me "Middle Eastern dance guru" and the seven veils dance "masterful". However, in spite of our high profile in town and diligent street performances, we did not sell out the seats. Audiences ranged from 10 to 80 appreciative people, but on doing the math we only filled an average 20% of the total house.

I taught workshops at the reputed "DanceBase" and several private classes to local instructors. We were introduced to an organization called Northern Arabic Dance Association, which publishes NADA Quarterly Magazine and has sponsored Nadia Hamdy and Shareen El Safy. Their enthusiastic members were very receptive to the classes and inspired by the Troupe’s diversity. One night after our show we joined this fun-loving bunch to go out boogying at the "Bongo Club" (we rejoiced in their warm humor and marvelous accents). There we also watched a performance by a group of dancer/singers from Zimbabwe who in turn inspired us with their "juice". We discovered many enclaves of Middle Eastern dancers alive and well in Scotland. One instructor, Lorna Gow, had teamed up with a salsa guy and gal to do a lovely afternoon show with beginning workshop to follow. Another teacher, Hilary Thacker (who also attended Mendocino Dance Camp this year) invited us to the waterfront restaurant where she performs. She first escorted us downstairs to her fabulous bazaar/dance space for shopping! During her show she pulled us up to dance – so we swarmed around the tables to the delight of customers and the very hospitable owner who videoed the scene!

Some unforeseen problems did arise within the group. As any professional knows, it takes an immense amount of sacrifice, discipline and focus to make art. Dancers learn to conserve energy, rest and insure proper nutrition to meet the stressful demands on the body. I spent five years dancing exclusively in Europe, Greece and the Mid-East and can fill books on the subject (e.g. how I learned to sleep directly following a high-adrenaline performance). Too much clubbing and pubbing dissipates energy and adds more toxins to be dealt with by the already overtaxed body.

A few of the troupe members seemed more interested in their personal agendas and a fun vacation than empowering their inner dancer, so a polarity rapidly developed, people were overtired, and tempers sometimes flared.

When everyone is relying on everyone else for the smooth running of the group, personal outbursts are inappropriate and erode the group dynamic. (One friend who works with groups says that there is a typical phenomenon called "kill the leader", and I felt everyone took their turn at this game! Too bad "Survivor", the TV show, wasn’t on before our trip!) There was also a curious pull on several of the married women by their "abandoned" husbands (we thought everyone had that sorted out before the trip). One of these believed that his wife was being abused and disrespected, so he actually flew to Edinburgh and took her home.

She left with no notice and we had two hours to rechoreograph the entire show from eight to seven dancers. The troupe rallied admirably and after a few nights the holes were seamlessly closed.

Not so our psyches. Everyone felt betrayed by a woman who we had considered a friend and truthful being. While she may have been suffering greatly (which did not appear to be the case) she owed us all accountability and fair warning. Also the investment of approximately $5,000 for each dancer’s expenses was fair "pay" for total involvement in the full three weeks onstage in an exciting foreign milieu. Now a warning to other intrepid troupe leaders – this couple has gone to a lawyer to litigate against us for "breach of verbal contract" and sue for trauma and expenses incurred. My husband says this is one for Judge Judy! (And next time we will have signed contracts.)

I was gratified by our reception at a global arts festival and the positive spin we put on belly dance with so much of the world watching. And I am always happiest dancing and sharing the joy of it. This has been my passion for over 25 years and I felt the distillation of this "lifetime" work was validated.

Those in the troupe who were there to hone their art certainly did and I appreciate their contributions to the show. It is also wonderful to have a husband who believes in the work and supports me so tangibly. I would have liked for the troupe as a whole to stay together and move forward as a more professional entity (e.g. open for Carlos Santana’s New Year Show or something wild like that). Perhaps some other more cohesive group will achieve that coup for us in the near future. There are also other performing arts festivals to explore, such as Avignon France every July, as well as in Australia – and even in San Francisco! Soon I hope to produce a video of the one-hour show for all to see. And who knows, we may hold auditions for a new show for next year in Edinburgh!


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