Gilded Serpent presents...

“Where the Middle East Meets the Frozen North” Show

Eva by Keith Darkchilde

Review of Eva Cernik’s Performance on Friday, October 2, 2009

by Melissa Wanamaker
posted May 13, 2010
Photos by Keith Darkchilde

The last frontier and the largest state in the union might be a surprising place to find a thriving Middle Eastern Dance community but look again.  Alaska boasts significant populations of dancers in Anchorage, Girdwood, Palmer/Wasilla, Chickaloon, Kodiak, Seward, Fairbanks and Juneau.  A diversity of styles including regional folkloric and traditional, American Vintage Orientale, Golden Age Egyptian, ATS Tribal, ITS Tribal, Urban Tribal/Tribal Fusion/Tribaret, Eastern European, Theatrical, Healing Belly Dance and more coexist more or less peaceably supporting each others efforts, and collaborating and competing in a manner that is raising the bar for all of our efforts.  The last several years have brought a plethora of successful workshop instructors but perhaps none so rewarding as the recent one by Tundra Caravan in Fairbanks who hosted Eva Cernik.

The Bellydance Communities of AlaskaDue to family obligations I was only able to attend 2 days of a 3-day workshop but Eva’s workshop ranked at the top of the more than 25 weekend workshops I have had the pleasure of taking.  Sword is one of my strongest skills and I spent two solid hours adding new skills to my repertoire.  We ALL need to work on our zills to even play in the same room with virtuoso’s like Artemis and Eva and her Turkish Romani workshop was rock solid.

Besides the content being fresh and fantastic, Eva is as authentic, quietly funny and personable a woman that I’ve met in this business.

A Star without being a Diva (reverse-osmosis-filtered bottled water anyone?), we got a giggle when I bought a CD from her and she immediately used the money I gave her to get a CD from workshop host Susan who returned to Eva’s table with the same money to buy yet another CD all in a matter of 2 minutes.

On the topic of aging gracefully in this form, Eva who has reigned as the Queen of props and the “spectacular show stopper moves” for much of her career gave me this beautiful advice that I’d like to share with you all.

“Back then, I felt like I knew almost everything and that my body strength could support any risks I took  … now I know how much there is yet to know … and that "strength" is in knowing how to guide your movements, alignment, and posture, like "sailing" rather than "motoring" through a dance.”

It is my pleasure to share this review focusing on just one of her outstanding dances to remind you of one of America’s best-kept secrets.

On a darkened stage, the lilting sounds of an energetic Turkish Romani 9/8 rhythm fills the air.  It is often referred to as Sulukule rhythm, after the neighborhood in Istanbul where large numbers of Romani families settled hundreds of years ago.  Sulukule is being bulldozed as we speak with tenants given insufficient relocation sums leaving them homeless with nowhere to go.  This is just the latest chapter in the dramatic history of this small segmented marginalized minority often referred to by Westerners as “Gypsy”, thought currently to have left Northern India in a series of migrations between 400 and 1000 A.D. through Syria to begin their worldwide diaspora.(1)

As the lights come up and a couple of 9-counts go by (1, 3, 5, 7-8-hold 9, 1,3,5,7-8-hold 9) suddenly a tiny fit dancer bursts from stage left adorned simply in a full red skirt wrapped with a black and red flowered shawl with the triangle in front, worn fairly high on the waist just over the navel.  She also wore a simple lightly adorned choli, a scarf in her hair, and a chunky silver metal necklace.  A few inches of bare midriff, cutout shoulders and small amount of sparkly embellishment on the skirt and choli were minor theatrical embellishments.  She danced her solo on an unadorned stage with simple background and only basic theatrical lighting.

She entered using simple steps with heel drops accenting the “7-8-hold” to spiral a circle around the stage ending center and allowing the spiral to continue into her body with a large hip circle into small hip and rib circles corkscrewing up and launching her dance.

Presenting a regional, ethnic, folk dance in a theatrical setting to a Western audience can be a challenge.  Keeping the audience enthralled as a solo dancer for over 10 and a half minutes with such a dance without resorting to flashy tricks, interesting props, elaborate music, lighting or stage effects is an even larger challenge.

Eva had her audience by the heartstrings from the first in this simple, unadorned, prop-free dance for reasons that are difficult to put into words.  Where does the magic live that makes a performer a master? Is it her focus? Her expression, persona or acting ability? Her posture?   Is it her technique? Her beauty?  Her strength, flexibility or balance?  Her acrobatics? Her sexuality? Her humor?  Something else?

Portion of Performance from October Show

Part 1 of 2009 Gilded Serpent Interview with Eva

While her gaze occasionally landed on and included members of the audience, much of her dance was internal and her gaze was equally likely to be up or down as out.  Her expression varied along a gamut of emotions.  She wasn’t the Priestess, the Goddess, the Matriarch, the Pretty Princess, the Coy Girl, the Mother, the Queen or any of the archetypes so familiar to our form. She was never the “scary”, angry Flamenco persona that many interested in presenting Romani dance theatrically try to adopt. She smiled, relaxed, used humor, and occasionally used emotions to spice and accentuate her body positions and gestures (“oh my aching back” or the perfect expression to show the drudgery of doing the wash while really wringing her skirt).  She was the girl next door, your best friend, with a story to tell.  A story where she can see the humor of her own crazy situation even though she isn’t happy about it.  A story I didn’t want to ever end.

While her upper arms had excellent carriage, her posture was in no way stiff or frozen.  No evidence of holding kegels while sliding her scapula together and down or hugely defiant “Flamenco” posture with elbows unnaturally high.  Kinesthetically her dance was perfect.  Earthy but not bound.  Energy radiating forward and back.  Never losing her posture, never approaching the edges of her considerable ability.  She was easily in her comfort zone and she helped the audience be there too.  Lower back long and crown chakra proud and reaching towards heaven with arms framing her every movement, she absolutely owned her space.

Her technique was flowing with her breath, like a jazz improvisation on a theme, decorating, embellishing, repeating phrases and circling around in an almost hypnotic fashion.  The movements and combinations rang true as authentic to the Turkish Rom genre.  Minimizing the “mudra” hands I’ve learned from other Turkish Romani dance instructors, she kept many of the common “day to day” gestures: punches, slices, sawing, pregnant belly “Kathak arms”, bracelets, prayer hands,  “Roma blood in my veins”, “oh, my aching back” and the ubiquitous skirt wringing/washing. 

In fact she used gestures much more intensively than has been fashionable in recent years when the mantra has been “Turkish Rom is not a gesture dance”.  It’s kind of funny how an expert will say something, perhaps to criticize another dancer and we all follow, repeat it and ape it like sheep until someone else goes, gets a different teacher or has a different experience and we find out we were wrong, or at least not right in a blanket sense. 

Eva heavily used gestures in much of the second part of her dance when the music slowed down and got heavy, still in a 9/8 time signature.  The gestures accented the one, one-three, one-three-five and she’d stretch the rest of the phrase.  She used the heel drop/hops so iconic to Turkish folk dance and changed the accents around from 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 to 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2 playing with syncopation.  She accented pelvic drops similar to the common “Göbek Atmak” (translates as “Toss Your Belly”) moves and made small contractions and tiny “tossed” circles on the sagittal plane with her heart/rib cage.

On stage an ageless, timeless beauty, her 30 years as a professional dancer have given her poise, wisdom and a huge range of emotional expression.  Her great expressive eyes dominate an elfin face that will pull you into her pain or disgust one moment and crack you up with a sparkle, head slide and lip shimmy the next, all washed down with a wink and natural smile that says not to take that too seriously either.

Eva didn’t keep it a secret in the workshop that she had one fairly serious knee injury (from skiing).  It wasn’t evident in her performance, though, looking back at the video, she kept “big tricks” to a minimum in this number.  She really didn’t need them to have us all on the edge of our seats.  She did levels to the floor and back to standing like curling drifting smoke.  She did much of this hoppy athletic dance on the balls of her feet and went into releve several times contracting and balancing with her weight off center to stretch or accent the music. Her flexible supple spine was constantly tracing barrel turns while she traveled in circles in gorgeous fluid mandalas.  While strength, balance, and flexibility were all her assets, none of them alone were the secret to her Duende (2), a Spanish Gitano word that I understood to roughly translate as “spice that makes life worth living” (or for my purposes a dance worth dancing or watching).

Though she didn’t overplay it, Eva wasn’t afraid of dancing her sensuality.  I don’t believe Turkish or Turkish Rom style could feel authentic if “cleansed” of this energy, despite the Academicians’ need to distance themselves from it to prove they are “serious researchers and ethnologists”. Feminine sensuality was beautifully, naturally, organically present: fingers on tummy to accent stomach and pelvic isolations and shimmmies (in the typical Turkish style), eye contact and lip shimmy, lifting the skirt and flashing a little leg on floor work. Not contrived, not overdone, not ignored.

 I think perhaps her “magic” lives in her abandon and fresh “in the moment” interpretation using movements she knows in her bones (I confirmed later my gut feeling that she was performing an improvisational dance over a skeleton or spot choreography).

I felt that I was in the presence of a fleeting art that would never again be seen in exactly the same way (just as it was meant to be performed in it’s natural state).  Eva’s excellence/perfection of musical interpretation made me feel like the music itself had taken form.  Her ancient gestures, many whose meanings have been lost to time had me straining to catch a bit of the story, a story as old as time whose smoky wisps danced on the edge of my memory but certainly resonated the feeling and heart of the dance.

The dance of the Turkish Roma is at risk, as are many of the ethnic, folkloric and traditional dances of the Middle East, to being lost to time, rising religious conservativism, modernization, and globalization.  I feel l was given a special gift, seeing it performed so authentically and beautifully by one of our American dance masters.  Thank you Eva for this gift. 

1- Ian Hancock, “We are the Romani People”, 2002
2- Eva questioned my use of “Duende” and I could not recall my source so I researched a bit more deeply.  I heard a variety of inadequate replies from “Leprechaun” (from a Central American student) to “charismatic goblin” to “the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm” (Meriam-Webster).  The reason it popped into my head as I was writing about Eva was best captured by Wikipedia:
 “The meaning of duende as in tener duende (having duende) is a rarely-explained concept in Spanish art, particularly flamenco, having to do with emotion, expression and authenticity. In fact, tener duende can be loosely translated as “having soul”.
El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as physical/emotional response to music. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive.”

Eva Triplicate

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