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Rachel Brice
Gilded Serpent presents...
Rachel Brice Goes Balkan:
Pogonometric Revue
Reviewed by: Rebecca Firestone

Photos by Brad Dosland
Sunday, March 12, 2006
CELLspace, 2050 Bryant St., San Francisco
Cost: $15 and worth every penny

After 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

This 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 is possible.

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.

The 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 piercings."

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.)


Dan Cantrell of the Toids
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:

"The 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."

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. Tobias Roberson, a local drumming prodigy, played doumbek and frame drum.


Tobias Roberson

Generally, 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.

It 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.

Each 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.

Mardi did 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.


Elizabeth Strongs smiles with Rachel behind and Lila Sklar on violin
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 Chance Bellydance.

As 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.

This 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.


Liz does Rom

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.

In 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.

Mardi Love 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.


Mardi Love backs up Rachel Brice
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.

All the dancers showed exceptional rapport with the musicians during their solos.

There's something 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.

Still, 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.

Rachel did 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.

Rachel 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 boundary completely.


Liz drains her glass of whiskey

Elizabeth 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 this.

Kerri 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.


Mira toasts
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:

"The 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."

Everyone cleared 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.


Kerri Kresinski, aerialist

Compared to 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.

The 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, counterculture vibe.

Unlike a 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.

REFERENCES AND LINKS

  • The Toids- http://www.toids.org/
  • The Brass Manazeri- http://brass.menazeri.com/
  • The Inkwell Rhythm Makers- http://www.myspace.com/inkwellrhythmmakers
  • The Punk Rock Orchestra- http://www.punkrockorchestra.com/
  • The Rosin Coven- http://www.rosincoven.com/index2.htm
  • Kerri Kresinski- http://www.skysiren.com/
  • Circo Romani- http://www.circoromani.com
  • CELLspace- http://www.cellspace.org/

The Toids: Lila Sklar on violin, Dan Cantrell on Accordian, Tobias on drum and Ryan Francesconi on tamboura, bouzouki, strings

 

One more photo of Mardi Love,
this one by
Mark Rahmani
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