Brice Goes Balkan:
by Brad Dosland
March 12, 2006
2050 Bryant St., San Francisco
Cost: $15 and worth every penny
all these years of hearing about her, I finally got to see Rachel
Brice perform at San Francisco's CELLspace on
Sunday March 12, in a three-band extravaganza that included The
Toids, The Brass Menagerie, and a guest band from
Oregon called the Inkwell Rhythm Makers. Dancers included
Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, Elizabeth Strong, and
Mira Betz, all well-known local Bay Area dancers.
Inkwell Rhythm Makers
experience made me think "Balkan bellydance is here! It's
the next big thing!" In a departure from the grating "industrial
tribal" music CD that bears her picture, Rachel and company
all did first-rate Tribal ensemble work to... well, The Toids
aren't really old-school Balkan, exactly... more like "How
Berkeley Can You Be" gone even more eccentric, if that
Yes, the town
that was the epicenter of the Vietnam anti-war movement and has
been in the vanguard of cutting-edge progressive culture ever
since, the town that gave us the Punk Rock Orchestra
("classic punk songs that are specially arranged for symphonic
instruments") and Rosin Coven ("The World's
Premiere Pagan Lounge Ensemble"), has also given us the Toids.
opening band, Inkwell Rhythm Makers, came all the way from Eugene,
Oregon, and I would describe them as a modern weirdo version
of a jug band. Think "vaudevillian farmboy with facial
I seem to
remember the guitarist as sporting a big beard divided into two
delicately braided strands. They played a bass made out of a washtub
and a broomstick - sounded pretty good, actually - a guitar that
looked like it was made from black cardboard, while an antique
washboard with a kitchen timer on it was the rhythm section. They
were masterful and ingenious musicians. It wasn't long before
people were dancing around like fleas, including me. (Next thing
I remember, I woke up in the middle of a field in the dead of
night wearing only one shoe.)
The Toids were
the second band of the evening, with musical interludes interspersed
with group and solo dance performances by Rachel and company. I
can't even begin to describe The Toids, but here's what their own
web site has to say about them:
Dan Cantrell of the Toids
Their music bordered
on the eerie. The band had a slipshod art-school look to them, including
an accordionist with curled waxed mustaches and a flower in his
hair, and a violinist in a floor-length stretch lace dress.
Roberson, a local drumming prodigy, played doumbek and
Toids are a group infused with a diverse modern aesthetic ranging
from Bulgarian to Bluegrass to Indie Rock. Dazzling virtuosity
and deep emotion mark their intricately crafted compositions.
With influences as ranging from the traditional musics of Bulgaria,
Greece, Romania, and Turkey to John Zorn, Eric Dolphy, and Aphex
Twin, their performances are always full of surprises for themselves
and the audience."
all the dancers showed good grasp of the Toids' complex and challenging
music, including the many odd meters. But their dancing looked,
to me at any rate, like the same Tribal stuff that I've seen other
places: sharp hipwork, great torso undulations, snappy, multi-layered
isolations, deep lean-backs, and snake arms where the shoulders
appear to be crawling independently around on the dancers' backs.
was best-of-breed, but it seemed a variation on a theme rather
than something new.
I had originally
been curious about Rachel's dancing because I had heard that she
had studied classical Indian dance - can't say I really saw much
of that. The Indian classical dance I've seen uses totally different
postures and has a staccato rather than a fluid quality. Her yoga
training really pays off, though, in terms of strength and flexibility.
soloist included some slow, snakelike taxim, with beautiful
arms, each to a differently marvelous instrumental solo. They
changed their pacing to match the melody very well, and showed
real feeling for the music.
a solo to a musical saw, which looks like a carpenters' saw, but
is played as a bowed instrument... they're used in Appalachian
music. Mardi kept pace with the saw player's slow, theremin-like
wails as if she were telepathic.
One thing to
add here, is that I do not consider myself a Tribal dancer. My perspective
on Tribal style is as an outsider looking in. I'm probably prejudiced
against it as a genre, having been to some notable shows which had,
to me anyway, a weird and perhaps an unfriendly vibe. It may be
erroneous of me to even describe this show as "Tribal",
since that word means so many different things to different people.
To me, the movement vocabulary looked similar to what I have seen
from well-known Tribal troupes such as Jill Parker's
Ultra Gypsy and Carolena Nericchio's Fat
Strongs smiles with Rachel behind and Lila Sklar on violin
an audience member, I want to participate, by dancing and interacting
with other people. I feel as a performer, that it is important
to welcome people in to your space.
welcome, which had been absent from some of the Tribal shows
I've seen in the past, was definitely extended here. So maybe
I will change my tune about Tribal style, and be able to evaluate
shows based on specific elements which are present, rather that
dismissing an entire genre.
Back to the
show. The dance performance was during the Toids' musical set.
I don't have any liner notes for the Toids, or their current CD,
but my seat mate, a longtime folkdance aficionado, sat there identifying
different genres during the Toids' set, at one point saying "Oh,
that's Greek..." and generally really appreciating the music
as something familiar to her. I listen to quite a bit of Balkan
music, so I was also reacting to familiar elements in the music,
and was wishing I could see some Balkan flavor to the dance, too.
With one small
exception, none of the dancers had any kind of Balkan "attitude"
or used any Balkan folkdancing steps. I would have liked to see
that. Their stage personalities were a big improvement over the
cold, standoffish attitude of a lot of San Francisco "Urban
Tribal" shows, where the audience is treated standing-room-only
to a voyeuristic, edgy fascination.
this show, the dancers all projected a gentle, serene radiance,
with beaming smiles for the audience and for each other. Finally...
Tribal dancers as human beings!
A Rom fusion
solo by Elizabeth seemed nuanced but restrained. I couldn't help
but prefer Artemis Mourat's Rom interpretation,
which has an in-your-face sauciness and street attitude that somehow
seemed more congruent than the understatement that I saw here.
Elizabeth is very meticulous about respecting the Rom art and
culture that she studies. I know she can do better because I've
seen her, taken class with her even. It could have been the band.
They were playing awfully quietly at that point, which made it
hard for her to be outgoing.
I remember from Gold's Gym, where she taught for a short time.
She's supremely supple, has a sweet and winning stage presence,
and good musical interpretation.
I really liked
Mira Betz' dance style. Her shoulders were more relaxed, more typically
"Raks" I guess, and her solo had deep feeling. She had
the best comedic presence out of any of them, sassy and sharp.
Love backs up Rachel Brice
the dancers showed exceptional rapport with the musicians during
about that Tribal posture that bugs me. The suppleness and control
of the dancers is almost freakish, and the body distortions border
on the grotesque. Displacement of the center of gravity from the
center line is severe. And yet, bellydance has always been a freakshow,
a contortionists' dream. Snakes, swords, goblets, fire-eating,
and other circus tricks and gimmicks are part and parcel of it.
The body sculpting was amazing and compelling to watch, and was
a real crowd-pleaser.
the deep back arch seems to require the shoulders to be suspended
and almost hunched, elbows close in to the body, leading to
a tendency towards "chicken wing" arms with broken
wrists. The arm thing may be more a matter of taste than anything
else. I think the postures sometimes look broken overall, and
wonder about the wisdom of allowing the belly muscles to go
slack when the back is so arched.
a drum solo with Tobias, maybe the most powerful one I have ever
seen. She popped each part of her body in a series of rapid-fire
isolations, with a range of motion that looked all the more impressive
due to her height. I don't really care for the high-shoulder chicken-wing
syndrome, but she has extremely supple shoulders, which allow
her to sculpt her arms like a Hindu goddess.
had flashes of a stage presence that I have seen on a few older
Indian women dance masters - an inner strength, a feeling of
physical power, rock-solid core alignment, that conveyed a sense
of great authority. At times, she reached out of her reserve
to communicate with the audience, but never really broke the
her glass of whiskey
and Mira did a Greek men's drinking dance. They ceremoniously
poured two glasses of whiskey, placed them on the floor, and then
picked them up with their teeth and downed the contents, staggering
off the stage to roars of approval. (This was the one small exception
to my statement above that none of the dancers had a Balkan attitude
or used any Balkan steps - when they staggered off to roars of
applause, they staggered in tandem.) This was also the closest
thing to "character" and I wish they had done more of
Kresinski, a local aerialist who recently starred in
the Circo Romani dinner theater show, did a spellbinding
tissue act to a great 9/8 rhythm. If she ever learns to belly
dance she'll be so killer, even more than she is already.
The third band
of the evening was the Brass Menagerie, a local brass band well-loved
in Balkan folkdance circles. Here's how they describe themselves
on their web site:
Brass Menagerie is the Bay Area's premier Balkan Brass band,
performing high-energy, sometimes stretchy, always exciting
music of Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Balkan Roma &
friends. We specialize in Serbian brass repertoire, as well
as brass music of the Greek/Macedonian border region. In the
tradition of the great Rom brass bands, we also exhibit influences
from many other musics of the world."
the chairs and there was free dancing - not line dancing, like
there would be at a folkdance session, but a crazy and beautiful
mishmash of everything from bellydancing to breakdancing. There
was an 18-year-old Tribal drag queen in full regalia, including
dreads, dancing almost as well as the girls on the stage - and
he told me he'd learned it all from watching Rachel's DVDs! So
much for my "you
can't really learn anything from a video" theory. He
told me he'd moved down from Seattle the day before to study with
Rachel. He sure was fun to dance with - playful and game for anything.
the Circo Romani show, in which I had performed a minor role a
few weeks before, the overall execution was more polished, but
on the other hand, they only had one type of act - which I would
describe as "Tribal style bellydance" - repeated over
and over in different costumes. Unlike a circus, vaudeville, or
musical drama, they didn't do any character work or have any sort
of a narrative theme.
I must say
a word about their costumes. They opened in what seemed like familiar
Tribal gear, coin decorated bras and long bell skirts with elaborate
coin and tassel belts, but with a white base rather than the more
standard black... gave a much more spiritual feeling to the vibe.
Their costumes were, like the bands, quaintly and romantically
slipshod but with exquisite attention to detail. Smaller coin
chains and a lot of antique and handmade items put together in
new but old ways. And they must have changed costumes at least
five times. They kept their headgear, though. Pearlescent hairpins
stuck out like spiny fish in elaborate head-dresses that showed
the hair, up in combs with flowers.
crowd was pretty varied, not at all staid. It wasn't all Tribal
bellydance fans, although they were in evidence along with more
than a few daffy males in top hats tearing up the dance floor
six ways from Sunday. The event had a very inclusive, arty,
lot of other local counterculture shows, which rely heavily on
DJs, this one also included first-rate acoustic musicians who
played very complex yet exhilarating music; CELLspace, the venue,
is an artist-run warehouse cooperative that does community outreach,
hosts classes in everything from digital music to metalworking,
includes an art gallery, and is generally a mainstay of the San
Francisco art scene. A couple of acquaintances of mine from Santa
Cruz, 30-year veterans of both the Mendocino
Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp and the Balkan
folkdance community, were there. I had a glass of wine and
tried to get them to do The Worm. I got most of the way down myself...
I guess my backbend is getting better! Then we both crashed into
the drumming section and had to calm down.
Brass Manazeri- http://brass.menazeri.com/
Inkwell Rhythm Makers- http://www.myspace.com/inkwellrhythmmakers
Punk Rock Orchestra- http://www.punkrockorchestra.com/
Rosin Coven- http://www.rosincoven.com/index2.htm
Lila Sklar on violin, Dan Cantrell on Accordian, Tobias
on drum and Ryan Francesconi on tamboura, bouzouki, strings
a comment? Send us a
more photo of Mardi Love,
this one by Mark
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
What You Can't Get From Instructional Videos by Rebecca Firestone
able to withstand honest opinions is crucial. If one never communicates
directly with one's peers AS PEERS, that is, not as sycophantic
students, one can develop an insular and self-referential mindset
without ever realizing it.
Giza Awards 2005, A Cultural Odyssey,
by Rebecca Firestone
it be that the West has been so involved in learning technique
and choreography that the very soul of the dance has been left
to those in the Middle East who are desperately struggling to
keep their art alive?
Articulating the Collective
Dream: The Giza Awards, and why the legacy-making process is important
to you. by Amina Goodyear and Gregory Burke. "We
embrace change however roughly it appears. With video we feel
secure in the knowledge that the legacy of the past will never
with the Touareg by Linda Grondahl
was my 5th trip to Algeria since 2000 and I have been amazed at
the rapid economic development. The government is working very
hard to make Algeria a very popular tourist destination once again.
Photos of Friday Evening show from
Aida Nour & Magdy El-Leisy Workshop 2006 Photos by Lynette
Harris & staff sponsored
by Little Egypt held on Feb 24, 2006 in Los Angeles, California,
Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2005,
Cairo a review and diary by Leyla Lanty
Monday night, the opening gala was a great success in all senses
of the word! It was one of the best large scale events I've attended.