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Part 2 of 2: The Performances


The NY Theatrical Belly Dance Conference 2010
A Five Day Exploration of Dance Styles, Intention, and Content

Review by Thalia
Photos by Sal Romano, Stacey and Clement Lespinasse, Brian Feister and Brian Lin
posted October 12, 2010

For the past three years, dancers Anasma and Ranya Renee have been developing the New York Theatrical Bellydance Conference. This July, the Conference evolved into a five-day event featuring instructors and speakers from across the United States, Canada, Spain, and Sweden, a full schedule of workshops, panel discussions, three curated programs at the Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) Theater, and less formal shows in local nightclubs featuring live music. The programs at DNA featured solo and company performances aimed to demonstrate a variety of theatrical treatments of belly dance. Performers included Dalia Carella and the Dalia Carella Dance Collective, Alchemy Dance Collective, Kaeshi Chai with Bellyqueen and PURE, Samara and her Mosaic Dance Theater Company, Dunya and the Core Alembic, the Not the Jamal Twins: Ranya and Roula, Fahtiem, and Angelika Nemeth.

Theatrical Belly Dance in Performance

I attended shows on Friday and Saturday night inspired by the lens of these two panel discussions.

Some of these "theatrical" works focused more on staging and aesthetics; some used narrative; others focused overtly on intention and meaning; and, a minority stayed true to traditional cabaret or folkloric modes.

Both programs benefited from the experimental pieces. As an audience member, I enjoyed having no idea what type of piece might come next. There was no danger of the evening turning into the exhausting "hafla" experience that churns out one solo dancer after another.

Mystic Hips

New York Gothic bellydance group JeniViva and Mystical Hips perform "The Broken Branch of Aeon." From front: JeniViva, Erica Joan and Karen X.
Photo by Brian Lin.

Among performances that effectively drew on aesthetics was a melancholy Goth presentation, "The Broken Branch of Acon" by JeniViva with her ensemble The Mystical Hips. They didn’t move much. Statuesque lines and facial drama (with the help of brightly colored contacts) drove this effective piece. (A side note: Our local public radio station reviewed JenViva’s weekenend workshop: “Silent Film Starlet: How to Give Great Face while Dancing.”) Andrea the Enchantress of Bioluminosity expanded her ethereal, light imbued solo act into a skittish and animal-like group choreography, "Light Charmers." Ayshe, master of the full-stage tableaus, offered the hypnotic "Flowing as One" with her group, Cult of Isis.

Ayshe and the Cult of Isis
Ayshe and the Cult of Isis perform "Flowing as One." From left: Nana Masuda, Brenna, Giselle (front), Masae, Ayshe and Miyoko (back).
Photo by Sal Romano.

Saturday’s solo piece " 00101101…2" presented by Boston’s Eugenia featured detached, robotic isolations synced to an electronic sound track and zany costuming: eye goggles and a hairstyle complete with chopsticks. Aepril Schaile, whose workshops presenting a “metaphysical approach” to theatrical belly dance were frequently mentioned as favorites by participants, performed the spare and dramatic "Gaia.” Her intricate make up made her appear half beautiful woman and half human skull. Blanca‘s group choreography and romantic costuming in "Escalate" resulted in quietly ethereal formations.

Blanca's group does Escalate
Blanca and dancers perform "Escalate." Dancers from left: Kaitlin Hines, Elisheva, Ayshe, Zobeida and Blanca. Yasmine with wand veil.
Choreography and concept: Blanca. Music: ‘Escalate’ by Richard ‘Moontan’ Jay. Costumes by Ayshe.
Photo by Sal Romano.

Kaeshi Chai explored a more narrative approach with both PURE (Pure Urban Ritual Experiment) and Bellyqueen Dance Theatre. The former presented "Relapse," an excerpt from the company’s full length production exploring the challenges women face in popular society regarding the body, personal addiction, and self acceptance. Bellyqueen Dance Theatre investigated the opposite side of the body love spectrum with "Mastika," a successfully humorous, alcohol-infused romp among Gypsy-styled women.

Bellyqueen Dance Theatre does Mastika
Bellyqueen members Christina, Bina and Kaeshi Chai in "Mastika," a piece dedicated to the Eastern European liquor of the same name.
Photo by Sal Romano.

The narrative approach was incorporated interiorly with Zoe Anwar’s melancholy flamenco styling in "Amar Rasgado" and not-so-interiorly on Saturday in a work by the Not-the-Jamal Twins: Ranya and Roula. Their "Rhapsody on Death” incorporated clowning and miming of traditional lyrics of "Amar 14" by Mohammed Abdel Wahab and won the loudest laughs from both evenings’ programs. Their unique, comic approach offered reflection on the macabre seriousness of the traditional song, which is one of the valuable aspects of an experimental approach, the opportunity to take a new look at the old.

Elishiva in military camo
Elisheva in "Peace, Love and Understanding," about the experience of serving in the Armed Forces.
Photo by Stacey and Clement Lespinasse.

Among works that delved into an underlying meaning or intention, two works on Friday evening incorporated text and voice. Elisheva, wearing military camouflage, based her movements on the rhythmic repetition of the military’s basic training exercises, ending with a shout: "Freedom isn’t free."

This is brave as the American belly dance scene, and our artistic culture at large, typically avoids such obvious mix of politics and art.

However, this piece exemplified well Morocco‘s earlier reference to the concept of "meaning" in traditional dances that relied on communal knowledge and context. Despite possible varied reactions, we all understood Elisheva’s piece without needing to be told more.

Dunya and the Core Alembic
New York’s Dunya and the Alembic perform dance/poetry piece "Dirty Pockets." 
Photo by Sal Romano.

One of the most engaging and deeply considered pieces was "Dirty Pockets" presented by Dunya and the Core Alembic. More site-specific than the others, this choreography organically expanded viewer’s awareness of the shadowed stage. Three dancers crawled toward and away from the floor-level audience. Sharp hand movements and a desperate search through "pockets" lent an experience of not just loss but exposure. Dancers spoke various texts, adding a vocal element to the energetically charged piece, which evoked the feeling of both a 1970s style "happening" and the traditional aspect of folkloric dances that push the boundaries between performers and audience.

Hanan dances Egyptian style to "Enta Omri."
Photo by Stacey and Clement Lespinasse.

Alongside the best of the exploratory pieces, the traditionally presented solo and group choreographies felt one dimensional. Obvious skill and prowess brought illuminating moments–Hanan‘s sensual joy, Pierre Khoury’s haunting spin, Mosaic Dance Theater Company’s impressive, stage- packed "Raqs al Said," Fahtiem’s amazing belly contortions–but these works had less of the vitality and freshness that made the rest of the program more satisfying.

Pierre Khoury, Identity Number 2!
Photo by Brian Feister.
Mosaic Dance Theatre
Samara and Mosaic Dance Theater Company get folkloric in "Raks al Said."
From left: Samara; Standing: Morgiana Celeste Varricchio, Dianna Dwyer, Nahoko Sugiyama, Rie Sueyoshi; Seated: Ayana Alexis, Nina Brewton.
Photo by Sal Romano.

My preference for the experimental works presented should be juxtaposed with a different audience member’s less enthusiastic summary of this approach. She dryly observed "theatrical" belly dance appeared to mean less emphasis on physical dancing and left longing for the traditional hafla. A more technical complaint I encountered was that in some pieces, the acting skills were not at the level of the dancing skills.

This comment does bring to mind Friday’s panelists’ agreement that successful fusion relies on grounding and experience in all forms. If theatrical belly dance aims to fuse belly dance with theater-based concepts, more advanced study in acting techniques and staging skills should perhaps be considered. However, the development of these skills is the very point of this Conference.

As the field of belly dance evolves and continues to reach for audiences of wider numbers and cultures, more overt theatrical techniques and technology seem an inevitable shift to ensure the form’s future. This conference offers the possibility for theatrical techniques including staging, special effects, acting techniques, and or story line to infuse traditional pieces with more of the immediacy and "aliveness" that make exploratory pieces so refreshing. Balancing this, the more experimental pieces must retain the grounding and technique that can be gleaned only through the study of traditional dance and music and the naturally theatrical context this work comes from. The strongest experimental pieces in the shows I saw incorporated folkloric or traditional elements such as cultural context, audience involvement, and interpretation of lyrics or text.

Ranya Renee and Anasma’s collaborative project, the New York Theatrical Bellydance Conference, big in aim and still in the stages of defining itself, has much to offer all levels of dancers who wish to develop and deepen their performance abilities as well as their dance.


Los Angeles legend Fahtiem in "Oriental Fantasy."
Photo by Brian Lin

Part 1: The Panel Discussions

More photos coming of the DNA Shows, dinner shows, workshops, the shopping trip.

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Ready for more?

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