Tribal Belly Dance Matures into its Prime
It All Unfolds at L’Amour de la Danse
Review by Kristina Nekyia
Photos by Brad Dosland
Review posted April 16, 2010
Event held Saturday, March 13 2010 at The Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland, CA
Something is happening in the world of bellydance… something exciting. As the belly dance style known as American Tribal enters its third decade as a major player, it has inspired numerous splinter styles. This opens up a whole new world of belly dance called fusion and theater. As the genre matures, more and more virtuoso performers emerge with their own interpretations and skills. Now shows like L’Amour de la Danse are possible where different generations of Tribal dancers share the stage and make each performance both dazzling and unique.
L’Amour de la Danse is the latest incarnation of the San Francisco Rakkasah After Party following in the footsteps of Ultra Gypsy’s Undulation and Taboo Media’s Nouveau Nights. This event was produced by L’Anonyme Collective, a Bay Area-based belly dance troupe lead by Abby Star, Tanja Odzak, and Erin Harper. It took place at The Oakland Metro, a boxy warehouse venue in Jack London Square, on Saturday, March 13th after the close of this year’s Rakkasah festival.
Although the show was not intended to be a Tribal show, because the Bay Area is the cradle of Tribal style, the line-up did a marvelous job of presenting this genre’s rich variety.
Below is a review of each performance. My one disappointment was that, on arriving at the venue about 15 minutes before showtime, all the room around the stage was packed, and only VIP ticket holders had seats. Also the venue was set up more for a band or dance event than a sit-down show.
I was forced to spend most of the night hopping around on the cement floor trying to watch the dancers, and missing all the beautiful floorwork. I do wish these shows would be held in theaters where the audience could be comfortable and have a clear view of the dancers. That said, all of the dancing that I did see I enjoyed. I am pleased to report that there was not a dud in the bunch.
The show opened with Bal Anat. Bal Anat, founded in 1968 by Jamila Salimpour to showcase the many folkloric and “tribal” styles of dance from North Africa and the Middle East, was reborn in 2001 under the direction of Jamila’s acclaimed daughter, Suhaila Salimpour. Many of Jamila’s original choreographies were recreated by Suhaila. The movements and aesthetics of Bal Anat’s dances inform the modern incarnation that we call Tribal Style belly dance. This group is widely credited with providing the initial inspiration for a return to a more earthy, folkloric style of dance. Starting off the evening with a performance by Bal Anat was a respectful tribute to the roots of all that was to follow, and was an eye-catching surprise.
Although I had seen Bal Anat perform before, never had I seen their most powerful piece, the “Birth Magic Ritual”, done with such a sensuous and voluptuously pregnant pair of goddesses as the lead. Front and center was L’Anonym’s own Tanja Odzak. She wore a mask but the taut, bronze-colored belly could belong to no one else, and it was difficult to focus on anything else as she moved through the highly ritualized hand and torso movements that make up this ceremonial dance. Though the piece was a long one, and contained no footwork or complex layering of movements, it was absolutely captivating. It was the perfect way to start the show.
Following Bal Anat, Malia DeFelice, who is another mainstay of Bay Area belly dance, took the stage. Malia, a storehouse of information, drew on the traditional dance forms based on her travels and studies in the Middle East. But her piece had an undeniably modern twist. Sweeping onto the stage with Isis wings flowing, she performed a Zambra style number to a heavy metal flamenco song. It turns out the Isis wings lend themselves beautifully to the thrashing, soaring riffs of heavy metal, and Malia’s expertise in Zambra and her patented hair flip grounded the piece in some solid, authentic technique.
She rounded out the act with a solid, technical drum solo. In all, her piece was entertaining and unusual and hinted at the sense of humor I have always admired in Malia’s performances.
Finishing up the first act was Gibson Pearl, a former principal dancer in Ultra Gypsy who has been a major player in the Bay Area belly dance scene both on stage and behind the scenes. Ms. Pearl and I took our first dance classes together, so I always enjoy seeing the innovative and smoothly confident dancer she has become. She performed a very theatrical piece to Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” It couldn’t have been more different than the two preceeding acts with her costuming, movements, and music reflecting the cutting edge of Tribal Fusion. However, it rounded out the first act by showing the full progress of the genre into the present day.
Moving into intermission I was starting to feel my one real critique of the show — the timing. We were promised a 15 minute break to refresh our drinks, mingle, and shop, but it was over half an hour before the MC took the stage to announce the second act. It is a bone I have to pick with so many variety shows that never seem to run according to schedule. Time lags between sets, the audience dwindles, feet start to hurt.
However, my aching feet were temporarily forgotten as the second act fired up when perhaps the most well-known of the Tribal Belly dance founders took the stage – FatChance Belly Dance! It was FatChance’s Carolina Nericcio who coined the moniker “American Tribal Style” and spread the gospel of lead and follow improv. FatChance’s style has changed little throughout the years. They still rock with the cholis, cake skirts, and heavy coin bras that flabbergasted the cabaret community in the 1990s. The now iconic troupe has refined the cues, steps, and zil patterns that make up their lead-follow repertoire to the point that only the most hawk-eyed observer can detect the lag time between leader and follower. Carolina herself appeared to float over her cake skirt – her unearthly belly isolations and serpentine arms hypnotizing as always.
After FatChance we were treated to wunderkind Gina Bruno, Suhaila Salimpour’s first Level 5 certified dancer. For those of you unfamiliar with Suhaila’s level system, achieving level 5 requires an almost superhuman ability to layer devilishly difficult movements at speeds a hummingbird would envy, while playing a dizzying syncopation on zils, and looking gorgeous, all at the same time. Gina does this without seeming to break a sweat, tossing her burnished curls artfully and beguiling the audience with her smile. Her performance was more American Cabaret than Tribal, but this girl could perform anything. She is impossible not to love from the moment she steps on stage, and did I mention that she is insanely sexy?
Following Gina, another masterful artist of the isolation with an aesthetic that could not be more different, was the dark gothic goddess Ariellah. Ariellah slid onto the stage in simple black pants and halter top, her waist-length black dreadlocks captured beneath a black blindfold. What has always impressed me about Ariellah is the quiet, smoldering confidence of her movement and this was not diminished by the fact that she was dancing blind. It was a compelling beginning, but I still enjoyed the piece more once she removed the blindfold and gave the audience one of her sly smiles out of the corner of her eyes as she stalked, catlike about the stage. She represents one of the most stylized offshoots of Tribal, Gothic Bellydance, without compromising the rigorous technique and dynamic stage presence that I saw in her back in her days with the Indigo.
At this point in the show my dogs were really starting to bark and I found myself draped at the bar with a gaggle of similarly hobbled dancers already blistered from a day or two of wandering around Rakkasah. We grumbled through another lengthy intermission, but there was no way anyone was going to leave before the star-studded finale.
At long last our hosts of the evening, L’Anonyme Collective, took the stage. They opened with another solo from my favorite dancer of the evening, Tanja, this time in her bedlah performing a Suhaila Salimpour drum choreography with zils. This was no simple choreography, being both technical and athletic, and Tanja must have made that baby in her belly seasick with all her undulations, but it looked fantastic. The crowd roared as she was joined by the rest of L’Anonyme’s dancers including Erin, Erica, Kristen, and Keri. Their act was a saucy, upbeat, series of choreographic vignettes that drew from burlesque and included a comedic tango between Kristen and Erica. It was bold in its blatant sexiness, and I particularly enjoyed Erin’s role as the smoldering temptress in the middle, tossing her hair and winking at the audience.
All of the acts up until this point in the evening I would consider, at least loosely, to fit under the Tribal umbrella. But if you were going to break that trend by throwing in a cabaret act, you couldn’t do better than Shabnam Pena and Ooh La La. The four ladies of Ooh La La, dressed in white and alight with genuine smiles, performed a truly impressive acapella zil choreography that absolutely blew me away. Their synchronization was flawless, even without a beat to anchor them. I can only imagine the hours and hours of rehearsal, and the kind of trust and connection necessary to pull off a piece like that. Shabnam herself entered alone once her troupe had exited. Known as the hardest working woman in belly dance she confirmed her title with a short solo on three wine glasses that showed off her signature, muscular style and included a slide down into middle splits and, amazingly, back up to standing without so much as a wobble. Very impressive.
No Tribal tribute show would be complete without the next performer, who has earned the right to be called the Mama of Tribal Fusion, Jill Parker. Jill has trained or directed so many of the top Tribal performers working today (including your humble reviewer). As director of Ultra Gypsy she was one of the first to push belly dance in the realm of dance theater, and to experiment with costuming in a new way. She appeared at L’Amour without her new troupe, the Foxglove Sweethearts, in a solo from her Ultra Gypsy days with a more flirtatious style. Watching her dance, it was clear where so many of the other performers on the stage that night had gleaned some inspiration, stylistic and technical.
The final act of the night was a new piece from the powerhouse of Tribal, Sacramento’s Unmata. I was very curious to see this choreography because director Amy Sigil had mentioned that it was very, very personal. This is a side of Unmata that is perhaps less known than their turbo-charged quad-cruching fist-pumping standards. I do not know the story behind the piece, titled “Funeral”, but the love and sadness was clear in the movements and faces of all four dancers. The group’s belly dance skills were still apparent, yet the expressive lines, the interaction between the dancers, the music, and the phrasing were reminiscent of modern dance. It was a perfect example of the future of Tribal Fusion, where the boundaries between genres disappear and the audience forgets about technicalities, overwhelmed by the emotion of the dance.
Unmata was a perfect ending to a long evening on my feet, and as it was after midnight and my friends had a long drive ahead, I must confess that I did not stay to watch the finale mash-up.
For those planning to head to Rakkasah next year, I recommend rounding out your experience with an evening at L’Amour de la Danse. But unless they change the venue to a more comfortable theater setting, wear comfortable shoes and plan to get there early.
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