Gilded Serpent presents...

The Evolution of Jillina

An Interview Regarding Change, Flexibility and Lessons Learned

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by Lauren
posted January 31, 2013
posted April 11, 2013 Español!, translated by Daniela Gomez

Making the transition from performer to producer: knowledge gained, lessons learned, and compromises met, to take artistic expression to the next level.

Anyone who knows Jillina knows that she is not only an infinite pool of creativity and ideas, but has boundless energy, often referred to as a "flash of red zipping across the room". With each performance, opportunity, and experience; Jillina pushes herself to provide a larger, grander, more spectacular experience for her audience. This, paired with a strong work and business ethic, proves that Jillina will push bellydance as far as she can, to the broadest audiences, on the largest stages. Her dance career began like many dancers; admirer, student, performer, choreographer, director, and now producer.  The transition between student and producer did not happen overnight. Many experiences shaped Jillina into the person she is today.

Working with Jillina for the last six years or so, I’ve been a fly on the wall for a lot of this transition. I’ve been there for marathon rehearsal weeks, brainstorming sessions, the stress of taking a show on the road, the flops, and the standing ovations. Recently Jillina and I sat down to chat about some of the lessons she has learned over the years. We hope you find these anecdotes enlightening, entertaining and a resource for developing your own performances and careers.

Lauren: In the mid 90s, you got your bread and butter from dancing at clubs and restaurants. What are the essential lessons you learned from dancing in the nightclub circuit?
Jillina: “When performing bellydance in a city like Los Angeles, it is very important to do some research about your audience. Showing up to the gig with just your “greatest hits” mix CD is like playing Russian Roulette, with more to lose than just tips. Your audience could be Armenian, Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, Saudi, Greek or Martian. It is very important that your music choice not only gets audiences excited, but also reflects and celebrates their culture. This seems obvious, but how many times has a dancer lost a gig for playing Turkish music for an Armenian audience? In addition to geographical compatibility, the theme and lyrics of the music should be appropriate for your performance. If you feel uneasy about bellydancing to your favorite hymn, then I recommend researching the lyrics to the songs in your set to make sure that they aren’t religious lyrics. Shaking your toosh to such songs will likely not get you the desired effect.” 

Lauren: How about performances with live musicians. How much say do you get with music choices and how do you recommend communicating with musicians?
Jillina: “I’ve been fortunate to perform with the greatest musicians in Los Angeles and these experiences helped me tremendously a few years ago in Cairo. Dealing with musicians in the United States is different, because they work for the venue NOT the dancer vs Cairo where they are hired by the dancer. Either way, when you do get the wonderful opportunity to perform with live musicians, it’s important to be respectful but firm and knowledgeable about the material. Learn the Arabic words and their meaning, the names and purpose for the different rhythms and how to use hand gestures to cue the band to play faster, slower & stop.” 

Sahlala Dance Co
Sahlala Dancers:
1-Stacey, 2-Peri, 3-Louchia,4-Jillina, 5-Shannon, 6-Larisa
Top of page: Jillina dances to the singing of Fidel Fayed

Lauren: Once you have your style, reputation, and nightclub career established, how do you keep things fresh to ensure a steady flow of employment?
Jillina: “In the 90‘s, perhaps at the height of my night club career, I found myself getting increasingly busy, despite an increasing level of competition. To stay ahead of the game, I had to come up with new concepts, shows, choreography, and costuming, everything short of plastic surgery, to keep my show fresh and to keep audiences’ attention.  My first major step with this was creating the Sahlala Dance Company. Nothing makes you stand out in a crowd like backing yourself with 4 amazing dancers. I could then incorporate more variety and costume changes into a seamless 30 minute show. Convincing club owners to go from paying one dancer to paying five dancers wasn’t easy. I had to prove the show was worth the investment, and I did. The Sahlala Dance Company has been performing at Carousel Restaurant every weekend since 1999. Not only do the Sahlala dancers have a wide repertoire to choose from week to week, they change their closing and opening numbers and costumes at least twice a year. 

This is so important as our audiences are always returning and want to see a variety. Also, I highly encourage hiring choreographers that specialize in different styles to add variety and legitimacy to the show. This is so important as there are so many distinct styles that fall in the category of “Middle Eastern Dance”. We want to celebrate all those cultures and be sure that our audiences are represented.”

Lauren: How did your experiences with Sahlala prepare you for stage logistics on tour with the Bellydance Superstars?
Jillina: “Changing venues night after night with Sahlala, whether we were in a large banquet hall or small night club, I gained a lot of experience quickly re-staging choreography to adapt to stage size, audience, and time requirements.  This helped out, especially in the early years of Bellydance Superstars when the company was touring in rock ‘n’ roll nightclubs and small art spaces before making it on the large theater circuit. Stages were often oddly shaped, covered in carpet with low or uneven ceilings and little or no wings to hide entrances and exits. Tech rehearsal was often spent scratching heads and reorganizing basic logistics for staging the show. One essential tip was getting the stage specs a day in advance so that I got to the venue with at least a general idea of the challenges that were waiting for us. Though nothing could prepare them for our gig at “Trees”, a small rock club in Dallas that featured an actual tree – in the center of the stage.”

First BDSS
First Bellydance Superstars show

Colleen, Louchia, Georgiane, Kaeshi,
Jillina, Sonia, Ansuya, Amar Gamal
(w/ Sahlala dancers Collen, Louchia & Georgianne)

Lauren: What about the technical aspects of performing on stage:  how does this differ from a typical nightclub performance?
Jillina: “Performing on a professional stage in a professional production usually means that you get to add a whole other element of presentation to your performance; lighting. Lighting can add mystique, create drama, suspense, and add energy to your performance. When working with a lighting director it is important to be familiar with some basic terminology so that you are sure to get the most for your performance. For example, always request a follow spot, this will make it easier for the audience to follow and focus on you when you are on a large stage. The spotlight will also make your costume look especially sparkly. Request “specials” or a focused lighting from above. This is great for a dramatic or suspenseful part of your performance. Depending on the language of your venue, lighting directors will have different terminology for the same elements. For example, don’t get offended if you find yourself in Belgium and the lighting director continues to offer you a shower (Le Douche) during tech rehearsal. This is their word for an overhead focus.”

Cool lighting during Bellydance Evolution by Carl Sermon
Dramatic lighting during Bellydance Evolution.
Photo by Carl Sermon

Lauren: In addition to learning the technical and logistical aspects of performing on stages and in theaters with Bellydance Superstars, how did you grow as a director and manager with this new and larger project? 
Jillina: “Directing the Bellydance Superstars presented new opportunities, as well as new challenges. It was my mission to get the most out of my team while trying to satisfy the requirements of a mainstream producer without sacrificing my artistic integrity. This was no easy feat. I think one of the highlights from the BDSS experience was working with Tribal Fusion dancers. Creating pieces that incorporated the powerful mystique of Tribal Fusion with the explosive energy of Cabaret bellydance was uncharted territory. Luckily, getting to collaborate with talented dancers such as Rachel Brice, Sharon Kihara, and Kami Liddle, we were able to create pieces with beautiful counterpoint. It was the excitement and rush from these and other collaborations that really pushed me to think big, think outside the box and finally go all out with my own independent production, Bellydance Evolution.”

Lauren: At this point The Bellydance Superstars are performing at large festivals, and touring in venues such as large concert halls, historical opera houses, and 2,000 seat theaters. You are out of the rock ‘n’ roll club circuit and into professional theaters. Why did you decide to leave BDSS to start Bellydance Evolution?
Jillina: “While the Bellydance Superstars did a lot to propel my career and elevate bellydance to a new and grander stature, I was hungry to create something beyond the “Vegas Review” formula of the Superstars’ show. I needed to break the mold that my art had been confined to, and present bellydance in the form of a grand ballet with characters and a storyline. I wanted to be in charge of the creative direction of the show and that meant striking out on my own and producing my own theatrical touring company.”

Lauren: How has your new role as producer changed things for you? What new challenges are you facing, what more is required of you?
Jillina: “Directing and producing Bellydance Evolution is exciting. I am finally free to bring my imagination into reality and to work with some of my favorite dancers and artists that I’ve met throughout my travels. But with all this excitement comes a great deal of responsibility, and a long list of tasks; some easy and some very difficult, that need to be accomplished to get the show on the road.
There are so many facets to producing a show at this level such as finding and working with sponsors for the show, choreography,  storyline development, finding artists who will best fit the show, logistics and planning, finances, and finally bringing all of these elements together to create something spectacular.  

REhearsingin Mexico
Rehearsing in Mexico
Backrow: 1-Louchia ?, 2 Sakura(Japan), 3 Rin (USA), Alissa (Italy), 5 Brad, 6 Margarita (Spain), 7 Heather, 8 Kaeshi,
Bottom Row: 1. 2 Ingel. 3 Corel (Argentina) . 4 Ashmina (Mexico) . Corel Argentina  (Mexico)., 6-Lauren. -Jillina7. 8. 9. 10 Daniella (Mexico). 11 Natalya ( Mexico) . 12.Daniela ( Mexico)  13 Danielo 

Lauren: What are some of the biggest challenges with producing Bellydance Evolution?
Jillina: “International contracts and agreements are always risky. Not only do you have language and culture getting in the way of understanding and negotiations, you also don’t have the security of the US legal system to back you up and hold parties accountable with contracts and agreements. It requires a great deal of trust and mutual respect to organize a bellydance festival tour. In general, I have been really lucky and I have a long history and good relationship with many of my sponsors. However, our tour logbook is not without a fair share of drama. 

One of the red flags for me is when someone does not reply to emails within 24 to 48 hours. Organized sponsors normally reply quickly to important emails.

I smelled something fishy when our sponsor in Venezuela wasn’t responding as quickly to my emails as our tour approached. My suspicions were soon confirmed as half my cast showed up to the airport and found out their tickets were canceled.

My sponsor completely dropped the ball and didn’t tell me. The week progressed and everyday was a new catastrophe. We ended up being locked out of our hotel rooms after breakfast because the sponsor didn’t finish paying for our reservation, workshops were canceled because the sponsor didn’t pay for the rest of the workshop space. The final blow came when we discovered that the venue hadn’t been paid for and was locking us out. I couldn’t believe it:  all these women who had traveled and been there for a week of rehearsals were beyond disappointed, we were all furious. One of my local dancers actually petitioned the government to open the venue for our show. And they did, with only 3 hours until curtain we were allowed in the venue. It was one of the most emotional performances I have ever done and definitely a hard lesson, and expensive, lesson to learn.”

Travelling with BD Evolution
Traveling with Bellydance Evolution
1-Sharon, 2 Aya ( Japan) , 3 Angella (Korea) , 4 Samira ( China) , 5 Nutnicha  ( Thailand) -Jillina, 6 Sherlyn ( Malaysia) , 7 Lenka ( Czech Republic), 8,- Kaeshi, 9 Jacqueline  ( Taiwan) , 10.Gift ( Thailand) 11. Danielo

Lauren: What new lessons have you learned about collaborating with dancers and choreographers on the level of Bellydance Evolution?
Jillina: “ Patience! I have learned to be more patient. When things don’t happen as fast I would like or not according to plan, I have learned to go with the flow. And frankly working with other people’s scheduels has opened me up to more creative possibilities. For example I like to do things really fast (1,2,7,8 no time for 3,4,5,6). When working with Kaeshi, I enjoyed how she really likes to spend time developing characters and I feel that this has helped me artistically, especially when trying to tell stories through dance. This requires patience, thoughtfulness, and time to be sure our story reads with the audience.

I am lucky to have a good team that has been loyal to me since the beginning and are motivated by their passion. Working as a solo artist is much more financially rewarding so I feel especially honored to have such great artists be part of this group. There is no room for diva’s in Bellydance Evolution. The show is a team effort and each cast member is responsible for bringing their best ideas and positive energy to the table. Rehearsal time is extremely limited and requires everyone, from the lead cast to the troupe dancers, to bring their A game, and to share the stage, space, and time with their fellow dancers. To me, casting a big name is not as important as casting a team player. For the first run of “Immortal Desires” I originally hired a big name who wanted to monopolize rehearsals, and limit the amount of supporting dance roles in which she participated. This did not work. My dancers have to understand the flow, pace, and limited time we have to get the show ready for the stage. Rehearsals are for the troupe, not soloists. With very few exceptions, my team; from my lead core dancers, to the local dancers that are cast for the ensemble roles, have been amazing, open to new ideas, and the hardest working dancers in the industry. I feel so honored and blessed to a part of this amazing experience and can’t believe how amazing my career has been thus far.”

BDE Dream Team
Bellydance Evolution Dream Team
1 JD Twixx , 2 Eglal, 3-Kaeshi, 4, -Sharon, 5-Louchia, 6 Danielo, Heather, 8-Jillina, 9-Ozzy

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MaryEllen Donald