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2006 program cover

Gilded Serpent presents...
Belly Dance Superstars
~Raks Carnivale!

Review by Dondi Simone Dahlin
Photos from Feb 3rd show in San Rafael by Lynette

DondiIt is February 1, 2006 and I am sitting in a beautiful venue thoroughly enjoying the “Belly Dance Superstars” show in San Diego at the Joan Kroc Theatre for the Performing Arts.   I toured as one of the star performers with the group around the US, Canada, Spain, Germany, Belgium, France, England, Italy and Holland.  Now I get to watch!   I am delighting in the high energy dancing, smorgasbord of costumes and dynamic music.  The opening number has all the performers that most people have only seen through video and photos.  And here they are right in front of us, shaking, swirling and smiling!  The audience is going crazy! 

But something is missing.  Are the dancers tired?  Bored?  There is a spark that is gone, though the grace and beauty of the dancers almost disguises it.

Am I jaded because I was part of the company for so long?  Am I unable to view the show from unbiased lenses?  How I yearn to have virgin eyes, seeing belly dance for the first time.  But I knew then what I know now, and what I recently heard someone so wisely quote, “Dance steps are cheap~ it’s the joy and spirit that are priceless.”  Tonight I am not feeling that joy and spirit from the dancers.  There are smiles on their faces, but the smiles seem false.

There are people in this audience who get to experience belly dance for their first time here tonight and, no doubt, they will feel this is one of the finest shows they have ever seen in their lives.  But what about the rest of us?  What about those of us who are dancers, belly dancers, theatre goers, and dance enthusiasts?  Is this show that good?  From several people I spoke to at intermission, my opinion was confirmed.  It was worth the ticket price to see the show, but we expected more.  

As I return to my seat I realize what is missing:  Support.  The dancers are working very hard and the costumes alone are worth paying $40 to see.  But the backdrop is stale, the lighting is average and the show has not risen to the triumphant title of “Raks Carnivale.” 

Good dancing needs good support in lighting, stage management (instead of a dumpy, overweight stage hand dressed in “grubbies” moving microphones and Issam’s chair), shifting backdrops and changes of atmosphere. Where was Adore (or anyone) flipping through the air?   Where was Kaeshi with her tray of lit candles or anyone balancing anything besides a stick for 30 seconds?  Where were the snake dancers?  The silk ribbons?  The fire poi?  The cover of the program is influenced by masks, so where was the mask dance?  These are all elements of “cutting edge” modern belly dance today that one expects to see in a show called  “Raks Carnivale.”  I even thought that someone might recreate a scene from the 1892 World's Faire with “Little Egypt” since it would be very apropos of a carnival.  Instead, this was a very similar show to the ones that BDSS have performed in the past, with a less interesting set and mood.  The title of this show should be, “Bellydance Superstars~ Modern Cabaret and Tribal, with a smattering of some other stuff that doesn’t really fit.”  What is unfortunate is that Raks Carnivale is an average show with above average dancers.  The above average belly dancers are working like fiends to carry a two-hour production with nothing to support their artistic, bold and talented efforts.  Is this why I sense false smiles?  A couple of the “Desert Roses” have lost their smiles altogether.

Jillina is a brilliant choreographer~ a true master, with a visionary appeal.  I always relish watching her formations and theatrical blocking, which was especially exciting in the opening number, “Ancient Ruins.”  The closing piece, “Raks Carnivale” is also good and I appreciate the choreographic complexity.  But except for Stevie's dancing on stilts, it is reminiscent of other numbers and not a carnival.  The closing piece should shake the roof off the house and it doesn’t.  Is it because Jillina has a specific dance style that is limited to “Modern Egyptian Cabaret, Jillina Style?”  It is not fused with any other dance styles to give it a little spice and when she does try to fuse it, it seems forced.  Jillina’s style is not “A little bit of Turkish, a little bit of Lebanese, a little bit of new style, a little bit of old style, a little bit of mystery.”  It is simply, “Modern Egyptian Cabaret, Jillina Style.”  And, for that, it is fabulous.  However, when every single dancer in every group number (except for the Tribal) starts looking like a bunch of Jillinas, the vision is lost.  And I guess I cannot even exclude the Tribal anymore, since Rachel Brice, too, is starting to do Jillina-style hands and arms.  Jillina is at the top of her field…a command performer, so why is it bad if the company resembles her?  After all, she is the choreographer of the show.  It is bad because a choreographer of The Belly Dance Superstars needs to be able to step aside and allow the dancers to bring forth their own style ~ the style that made them worthy of being Superstars in the first place.  Otherwise, they should just be a part of Jillina’s Sahlala Dancers~ her own troupe in Los Angeles.    

In the past I have had friends and family tell me, “We don’t know the difference between the Desert Roses and the Superstars.”  So, at this San Diego show I looked for the differences.  And, in my opinion, here they are:

  1. Confidence.  There is a calm, powerful air about the Superstars that the “Roses” don’t always have.
  2. Posture.  Rachel Brice was the “Superstar Tribal Dancer” at this show and the only “Tribal” dancer who didn’t morph into that weird “Tribal Quasimodo”  stance.  I guess it is because the Tribal dancers often hold the carriage of their arms so high that they start to raise their shoulders, concave their chests and resemble hunchbacks.  I have seen this more and more lately.  Likewise with the cabaret performers~ a relaxed, solid, upright posture is key.  Bozenka and Sonia were perfect role models for good posture on this evening.  Something for me to emulate…
  3.  Consistency.  The “Superstars” were always “on,” even in group pieces.  The Desert Roses were “on” most of the time but sometimes seemed sloppy.  But, then again, how can I blame them?  I know that they are the hardest workers in the show. 

    While the “Superstars” are resting back stage on their “off numbers” the “Roses” are still dancing, rushing, changing and remembering intricate dance steps for almost every piece.  They practice and drill more than all the “Superstars” put together.  Could they be over-practiced? 

    Is it humanly possible to stay “on” for every moment when working as hard as they do with choreography, quick changes, and dancing, dancing, dancing?

PJWhat worked for me and, I believe, the rest of the audience in Raks Carnivale:
  1. Tribal dancers wearing harem pants and playing zills.  Nice way to add some variety…the saturation of  “Urban Tribal” pops and locks needed a little old school to mix it up.
  2. Whirlers Jayna and Stevie accompanying Petite Jamilla and her quadruple veil. “Behind the Veil” was my favorite piece in the show.  At first I was a little put off seeing young Belly Dance Superstars whirling, knowing that this was for entertainment, which whirling is not.  Whirling is done specifically for the experience of a union with God.  I have seen whirlers in Turkey and Egypt and know that this is a high form of meditation and spiritualism.  But this piece  works!   The blocking would work better for the whirlers to be upstage, with Petite Jamilla downstage center, but all three women were strong.  I have never seen female whirlers but I know they exist.  It is quite a controversy in Turkey today.  The piece is phenomenal, and the music is appropriate.  Petite Jamilla flawlessly becomes one with the veils while Jayna and Stevie whirl as if they are on clouds.  As a side note, legitimate whirlers follow the teachings of  the 13th century poet and mystic Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Rumi (1207-1273) rejected orthodox Islamic teachings and saw women and men as equals. I like to think that Rumi would like to see women whirling and would be proud of this piece. 
  3. Ansuya’s keen ability to mix strong, “old style” with bold, modern technique.  She retains being Ansuya in this show.  This is a very good thing and a breath of fresh air.
  4. Group drum solo~ a wonderful community feeling.  I would love to see the rest of the cast on stage with tambourines, zills and percussion instruments.  What a perfect part of the show (just before intermission) for the audience to embrace the whole cast and highlight a few of the dancers.
  5. Rachel Brice dancing “down stage” to the lip of the stage and penetrating the audience in her solo.  Very effective.
  6. The Raks Assaya performers entering through the audience.  Nice touch.
  7. Creature Comfort.”  A fantastic piece with a dynamic entrance on opposing sides of the stage.  This routine was not predictable like so much Tribal is, and that is why it shone.
  8. Sonia.  When I worked with Sonia for over a year, I never really had the opportunity to see her dance.  I just thought, “She’s the beautiful one.”  Her Belly Dancing is dreamy.  If a person can get over the addiction of “wham, bam, give it all to me in the first 20 seconds” type of performing, they will love Sonia.  Though I feel she is overexposed in the show (Ansuya and Rachel know that less is more), I drank up every minute of her velvety, satin style.
  9. Specific off-stage focus.   When each dancer in the group was looking in a different direction with a different feeling on her face, it became confusing.  When all the dancers were in synch and all smiling, or all serious, or all looking to the right or all looking to the left, the unity was exhilarating. 
  10. Issam. His smile is infectious and his energy excites the audience.  Of course he is one of the best tabla players in the world.  There is never too much Issam. 

    Although I would like to see more musicians.  If  Miles Copeland really wants to compete with the big boys, he needs more musicians and not Issam drumming to canned music. 

    This is the one part of Issam’s involvement that I think brought him down.  He should never be playing with a CD.  He is a “stand alone” drummer or a drummer for other musicians to collaborate with.

this years bollywood movesWhat I missed from shows in the past:
  1. Bozenka’s drum solo with Issam.  She truly was on reciprocal fire with Issam’s tabla playing and, in my opinion, together they had the most exciting and skilled drum solo in the history of the show.
  2. Belly Queen~ or any strong duo.
  3. Sharon Kihara and Mardi Love.
  4. Khaleegi.  It was a highlight of Jillina’s drum solo and has been modified so it’s almost non-existant.  If the dresses are awkward for a drum solo, the “Roses” can enter with them and then take them off “Khaleegy style” during the rhythms.
  5. The “Indian Bollywood” piece.  If you never saw it, you missed one of Jilllina’s greatest choreographies of all time.  I know it could be kept in the show and it would never become old or boring.  It had incredibly complicated foot and hand work, fabulous costuming, fun facial expressions, perfect music (“Narin Narin” by Hisham Abbas) and choreography fit for an award.

In my opinion, what didn’t work in the show:  

  1. Strong white lights on the dancers.  There should always be an amber gel in a stage light when there are very white women showing a lot of skin.  Because there was a warm hue on the Tribal dancers, their skin appeared more attractive and flawless.
  2. Colleen’s tattoos.  To be the only Desert Rose showing huge tattoos is distracting and not “glamorous” which is what the cabaret image is in this show.  Although if she were featured as a “Superstar” (which she should be) maybe she could get away with it.
  3. Georgianne handing Petite Jamilla her veils.  Petite Jamilla should have them wrapped on her body…she is skilled enough to do this and although I think Georgianne is great in the show and the audience loves her smile, here she is distracting.
  4. I am a big fan of “cut-outs” and Jillina definitely has the body to do them justice.  But when Jillina had cut-outs on her crotch and butt crack, they were misrepresenting, even if they weren’t see-through.
  5. The thinnest belly dancers “en masse” that I have ever seen.  They are skinnier now than ever and the flesh just doesn’t shake the same.  They could all gain 10 lbs apiece and have nothing to worry about.  Jillina and Bozenka, especially, have fantastic hips and curves with a few added pounds.  Bozenka’s tummy in particular doesn’t ripple and vibrate the same as when she had more weight on it.
  6. The Polynesian piece. It never has worked for me and has always been out of place.  It is less dynamic now than ever. 

    I understand Miles Copeland’s insistence on why it should be in the show and read in the program about the “Polynesian-influenced” number.  But, what makes it “influenced” and not legitimate?  Is it because it is not highly skilled Polynesian dancing?  Because the costumes are plain?  Because it is a shallow interpretation of Polynesian dance?  I am not sure, but if Miles wants to show a link between Polynesian and Middle Eastern Dance because of the hip movements, he needs to do more than throw an average Polynesian number in.  It would yield more clarity to also include dances of Africa, Spain and Brazil which all have strong hip movements.  Perhaps this could be done in a “pastiche” piece with dancers flowing in and out.  Perhaps this could be a “round the world” piece and include the Latin number, “Baila Belly” which doesn’t work well on its own.  As I listened to other audience members, I overheard that Polynesian didn’t work for them, either.
  7. Jayna and Stevie wearing their hair down in the whirling piece.  For some added variety and minimalism for whirling,  I would have liked to see it put up.
  8. The unsightly black duct tape around the bottom of Stevie’s stilts that looked more “ missing-a-limb-pirate” than glamorous dancer.  She is a belly dancer - hasn’t she heard of gold sparkly stuff?
  9. The Latin piece.  The concept was perfect.  But it reminded me of when I saw “Aladdin” at Disneyland~ the dancing wasn’t real, the costumes were a bit K-Mart and though it pleased the “under 10” crowd, to me it was a sad knock-off of real Arabia and all of its magic.  In this piece the Tribal dancers try to fuse Flamenco into their costuming and steps.  Ugh.  The Can Can boots are strange and so is the unskilled Flamenco footwork and floureas.  Jillina attempts Samba, and Sonia and Bozenka throw in some light Salsa?  Or is it Rumba?  I cannot tell because it is rather watered down.  They are both of Latin descent, so why does it look so “vanilla?” And, why does Bozenka do Arabic hand clapping with a flat palm as opposed to the Latin hand clapping (Toque De Palmas) with a curved palm and obviously different sound, look and culture.  Are they representing Brazil?  Spain?  Mexico?  Cuba? The Middle East, which is also thrown in?  Aye, yai, yai!  Not sure, and it seems that the “Roses” aren’t either.  Could they be thinking, “This is a lame piece…”   That was the look on their faces while wearing those costumes that resembled Zambra Mora style but lacked the fabric and richness of true Zambra.  But, again, the concept of this piece is perfect, especially for a show of this magnitude.  I would like to see some REAL Latin dancing with REAL Latin attitude and saucy, seductive, steamy steps which are so reminiscent of Latin style.  I think the performers have it in them and this is a GREAT aspect for the show to focus on, especially if they had some hot Latin male dancers partnering the Superstars. It worked in “Riverdance” because Michael Flatley  hired a REAL Flamenco dancer. He didn’t make his Irish step dancers pretend they were Spanish dancers.
  10. Issam’s black clothes.  He looked fine but he would look radiant if he wore colors to match the dancers.  He has a drum solo with Sonia and Jillina~ he could wear the colors they have chosen for their costumes.  Everything would be more cohesive.
  11. Jillina’s narration at the end of the show.  This is an important aspect of the show and should be kept in.  It is informative and fun and gives the audience a personal connection to the dancers.  However, Jillina is inexperienced in public speaking and this is obvious when her voice raises to a high pitch and it sounds as if she is yelling.  Additionally, I want to know more about the dancers than, “Colleen is ridiculously good looking.”  We can see that for ourselves.  It is wonderful to know that Jayna and Ansuya are second-generation belly dancers but how about saying, “Daughter of the well-known dancer Marta Schill” or “Daughter of Jenaeni Rathor.”  It would add more credibility to the show.  “Inside jokes” like “Tribal Town” are fun for me to hear because I toured with the company, but they should be kept out of the narrative~ this is a time to draw the crowd in, not alienate them.  

What I would like to see in BDSS and what people will come to expect:    Professional, voice-over narration between the pieces telling us what the pieces are and what they mean.  In other words something like, “Tribal style has been birthed in modern day America from the traditional dances and clothing of the Middle East.”  One or two lines is all it would take to add a whole other level to this show and one that is screaming to be there for people who know nothing about the dance.  Before the Latin piece, a voice can come over the speakers about how Latin dances are connected to the Middle East.  Any trained dancer knows how much influence Flamenco has had from Belly Dance and how Zambra Mora and Belly Dance intertwine.  But the average person does not.   Lastly, I read the beautiful, glossy color program which is well worth the $3 price (which could be twice as expensive) and is a real collector’s item.  But I was dismayed when the editorial by Miles stated, “We have never pretended to be traditionalists.  This is not a 'folk show.'”  Miles doesn’t have to pretend or take on the label of “folk show” to add some exciting Turkish, traditional “American Tribal Style,” (as opposed to Urban/Modern Tribal) or “old style" Belly Dance.  In fact, he could throw in some adorable Melaya Lef (Colleen and Petite Jamilla) and group Debke (Ansuya can choreograph some of the sexiest female Debke I have ever seen) and this would take him closer to remaining true to the essence of Middle Eastern Dance, which he says he wants to do.  Miles writes, “We see Belly Dance as greater than a mere narrow cultural expression of one land.”  Huh?  One land?  I looked at a map and can count at least 10 countries that claim Middle Eastern Dance has its roots in their land.  There are a handful of others where it has flourished.  “Narrow cultural expression…”  What? 

The reason Belly Dance is so popular for women all over the world is because it is a testament to beautiful, alluring, exciting, exotic, fascinating, vast movements that make women come alive and are anything but narrow. 

He continues to say, “Great art grows, it does not stagnate.”  Then, by Miles's own standards, he must look at his show through open eyes and perhaps ask others to look with him…men and women who are seasoned in the world of dance, commercialism, marketing, theatre and belly dance.  Otherwise his show, which has brought such a positive boon to the dance community, will perish.  He must make sure that the show grows and expands or his own statement about great art will be his downfall.   

Is the show worth the ticket price?  Yes.  Will the average person be impressed by it?  Yes.  Will Middle-Eastern people be impressed by it?  Probably, although they will certainly question some aspects of the show.  Will dancers enjoy it?  Yes.  And, the Belly Dance Superstars will continue to receive standing ovations because they deserve it.  However, there will be many of us left wanting more depth, more authenticity, more variety and more “realism”  than we find in a group of beautiful, skinny, young women all dancing very similarly.  There will be many of us coming away from the show and asking ourselves, “Is that all there is to Belly Dance?”  There must be more…  


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