One of Toronto’s most successful dance companies is devoted to forms of dance that have entranced devotees and audiences alike for thousands of years. Under the direction of Yasmina Ramzy, the Arabesque Dance Company takes Middle Eastern dance vocabularies and showcases them, for the most part respectfully, and to the delight of their fans. Their bellydancing beauties and wailing on-stage Egyptian orchestra are just as likely to fill the Premiere Dance Theatre for a four-night run as any established Toronto dance company. And those packed houses have a great time, clapping along and shouting out encouragement to the performers in an array of languages. “Asala”, Arabesque’s full- length show in November 2006 was my introduction to the company and though my head is still spinning from the cross-cultural implications of the presentation, it was mostly a fun and thought-provoking revelation.
The opening work, “Darwish”, sets the tone for the lengthy proceedings to come. Performed against a backdrop of musicians lined across the back of the stage, the work references the devotional spinning of the Sufi Derwishes. The five dancers wear heavy coloured skirts that they manipulate as they spin, creating exhilarating effects by simply raising and lowering them at top speed. Pilobolus meets Vegas meets the ancient Middle East. The music, under the direction of Bassam Bishara, soars and it becomes abundantly clear that this concert is going to be as much about music as it is about movement. It’s a strong and dramatic entrée into the sensual and inspirational world of Middle Eastern culture.
This opening number also introduced the first inklings of unease with the continual mashing up of cultural tropes and traditions (most of which I know absolutely nothing about, it’s true), a feeling that tempered my enjoyment of show. It’s not a criticism of the work Ramzy is doing; it’s worthy of mention only because I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
At times, the company seems to be trying too hard to be winning — in the pieces called “Walauu” and “Kalaatny Ta Booy”, for example. According to the program notes, the former was designed to display the individual strengths of the female members of the company as they work through the various body isolations inherent in these dance forms. And it does — Emese Dosa, Mary Petsoulas, Maya Al Samry, Melissa Reber, Saba Alemayehu Asfaw, Samara, Suzanne Kimball and Voula Zisis are awesome in their articulations of pelvis, hips and arms. The work is very playful but at times it feels a bit like a pop video, with the women stepping into the solo spotlight to show off what they can do. This was followed by a chance for the company’s men — Khaldoun Al-Romaih, Kwasi McKnight, Robert Halley and Valizan — to shine. Here, the talent pool doesn’t run quite as deep but the performers are charming as they wage stylized stick battles and generally pump up the machismo factor. It’s not subtle and neither is the music, a completely exhilarating percussion heavy arrangement overlaid with Bishara’s riveting vocals. Time and again, I would tune out the dance and turn on to the music. Is this a good thing? It didn’t feel like a default setting at the time, but what I’m writing about here is a dance show after all.
Other works on the program proved inaccessible to me due to an implied sexual politic that I found troubling. “Binti Bahri” — a narrative dance about the wearing of the veil — was one such. It’s not the sexual segregation and the tradition of the veil I find distasteful. Rather it’s the coyness with which the women use provocative poses to overcome the veil’s limitations on their sexual expression that I find weird. Concert dance of all stripes does this often — plays up female and male sexuality in a way that is almost cartoon-ishly broad. I never find it sexy. And I always wish that popular mainstream North American media culture wouldn’t perpetuate these cheesy, unsubtle, inherently chauvinistic portrayals of human sexuality that seem to have been adopted (or maybe they originated?) world-wide. Is it just me who finds it irritating?
It’s also irritating to have a head full of cultural stereotypes yammering away at each other while I’m trying to enjoy a show. But that is just me. The din reached an apex of sorts with the appearance of Yasmina Ramzy herself near the close of Act 1. We don’t need the attendant changes in the music — the sound suddenly becomes more epic, amplified – to tell us that this is the star of the show. Intensely blonde, Ramzy resembles a Valkyrie more than a princess from the “Arabian Nights”. And that makes her obvious skills in this form of dance all the more intriguing. Bellydance (just to reference the best known Middle Eastern dance form for the sake of argument) is all about fecundity, corporeal concerns, the life cycle, revealing/not revealing the body, female sexual expression and power; it’s not really surprising that it prompts an internal comparative study of cultural tropes and identifiers. I find myself wondering to what degree Ramzy considers this aspect of her practice as she puts a show together.
The second half of “Asala” was more somber in tone and featured the remarkable vocals of guest artist Najwa Tannus. For this part of the evening, the music definitely took centre stage. Both the choreography and the staging were less flamboyant, the performers dressed in more muted colours, the sequins and sparkles stashed off-stage, the lighting more subdued and subtle.
For me the most exhilarating moments of the evening occur in this second half. Particularly in “Percussion Mania”, musicians Bassam Bishara, Suleiman Warwar, Walid Najjar, Eernie Tollar, Kathleen Kajioka, Milad Daher, Najwa Tannus and Sebastian Gatto finally cut loose with duelling drums and no darting distractions dressed in chiffon. Here, the genius of the drum line blows away just about everything that came before and, sadly, everything that comes after. When the vaguely burlesque-y dancing resumes for the final numbers of the show, I found myself wondering what would happen if a really great guest choreographer, one versed in contemporary dance and theatre, a Christopher House, say, or a Marie-Josée Chartier, were commissioned to make a work for the company. What if you could keep the centuries old shapes and traditions of these forms and lose the show biz? What if you could hang on to the purity and power of the music and find its real equivalencies in the movement? Now that show would really rock my world.