The Gilded Serpent

Gilded Serpent presents...
Suhaila Salimpour's
review by

of Santa Cruz

 This past July 31st, 2004, Suhaila Salimpour unveiled her one-night-only extravaganza, "Sheherezade," at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco.  After a satisfying pan-Arabic dinner at Amira restaurant, highlighted by a performance by Mary Ellen Donald, I was ready to cap off my San Francisco bellydance excursion with a sensational finale.

 The first thing I noticed was that the cast was wearing their "Britney" inspired green cabaret outfits.  They were quite flattering, and I thought it was cool that they were getting some more use out of them.  After a few more pieces, the undeniable entertainment value of the dances was not enough to distract me from the fact that I'd seen some of them before.  Though I've only seen Suhaila before at two Rakkasah festivals, I recognized a good portion of the show.  Overall, I decided the premise of "1001 stories" was a facade for recycling their standard repertoire of choreographies. However, while I can't comment on what percentage of the show was new material, it kept me very well entertained nonetheless.

Most of the dances were ensemble pieces with Suhaila and the young women of her company. There were also intervals of balletic veil solos, often with a backdrop of harem-girl Suhaila projected on a screen, as well as some feats by male dancers.

A sequined spinning dervish made an appearance, and Rashid did a virtuoso solo followed by a tray dance. A "crone" who wandered on stage, when hooked to a dangling line, sprung from "her" garment to reveal an acrobatic man (Angelo Rodriguez). The fabric streamers hanging from the line were his means of support, and trailed behind him like wings. He repeatedly landed, wrapped his arms in the fabric, then ran and took off in circling flights out over the audience.

 Another show-stealing piece was the fire-eating bellydancer (Alison Johnson). The ensemble danced with little fire pots in each hand, while she did tricks with flaming bowls and wands of fire. Sometimes she would wipe the wands across her body, leaving flames briefly rippling on her skin. Her most interesting feat was probably the part where she would bend back and dip the wand in her mouth, leaving a residual flame hovering above her mouth for a second. Quite sensational!

 Suhaila's daughter, Isabel, also made an appearance. From my seat I could see her waiting with Grandma Jamila in the wings, following the music with

Suhaila's taksim at Rakkasah Festival '03

little head isolations and hand movements. When she came out for her solo, dressed like a mini-Suhaila, she had the audience wrapped around her finger. I think we're all impressed with her rhythm, torso control, and graceful arms, as well as her budding-star stage presence. I used to wonder if she was just doing it because mommy did, but now I see that she's a true performer.

 I thought Suhaila was at her best in this performance when she let loose after an extended taxim solo accompanied by a violinist.  As the rhythms became more upbeat, she engaged the audience by getting them to clap to the music, while she improvised with signature moves and an apparent joy in performing.  Which brings me to my other slight problem with this show.

 Suhaila and friends were certainly technically impressive, yet their manner was often a touch undramatic. For the most part, a certain diffidence rather than passionate projection was the norm. There was no real sense of storytelling to support the program's Sheherezade-ish descriptions for each dance, e.g. "the passion between Sheherezade and the Prince grows stronger." Which guy is the prince, and when does he interact with Sheherezade?

So, although I definitely was entertained and glad I saw this show, the recycled content and weak storytelling didn't fulfill the promise of the Sheherezade premise.

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