The Gilded Serpent

photo by Mia Moy

Gilded Serpent presents...
Elena Lentini and Carvanserai Dance Theatre:
“Argumentum Ornithologicum”
November 7-10, 2007, Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City
Report and Review by Elaine
most photos by author, show photos by Mia Moy

When I made the decision to return to belly dance classes in New York City, I made a number of inquiries regarding various instructors in the area. All of these inquiries—including one of my former instructor, Julia, a young Egyptian specialist presently on maternity leave—resulted in a unanimous, “ELENA LENTINI!”

This resulted in a certain amount of curiosity and, coupled with the fact that Elena teaches at Fazil’s Times Circle Studios, a mere two blocks away from where I work in mid-town Manhattan, I made the decision to check out Elena’s classes.

Fazil's studio
the door is right in the middle of the picture. You can see a banner with the Times Circle Studios, and beneath that there is a black sign with Fazil's in white letters. The door is right next to where the guy is standing.

a busy day at Fazil's
photos below by Mia Moy

Echoes of Eleanor Powell and a chorus boy named Jimmy Cagney
Fazil's is located in an ancient Times Square area loft building. It prides itself on its long history, which includes having been the rehearsal space of such iconic dancers as Eleanor Powell, Honi Coles, Jose Greco, the Nicholas Brothers, and Jimmy Cagney in his chorus boy days.  If those walls could talk, they would offer a Ph.D. in dance history!

After walking up several long, vertical flights of time-worn stairs, I landed in a small vestibule where the old "School of Acrobatics" letters were still visible on the wall. Another flight up and to the left of the landing I found Fazil’s, where the manager, Joe, sat at the front desk taking cash, selling bottled water, and directing traffic between various classes, most of them flamenco. Joe answered my questions in a flat, but courteous, staccato style—very "old New York”—then his eyes went back to the TV screen he was watching. There was evidently some kind of mix-up and Joe was unaware there was no class, due to Elena’s assistant Marie Aguirre taking ill. So, I changed and waited for the class to begin


The ladies' dressing room still had the original sign with 1920s-style lettering above the door. Inside, the dancers seemed to avoid eye-contact, much like actors at a competitive audition. Outside, the narrow hallway contained bulletin boards full of information about actors’ headshots, voice coaches, holistic health services and such.

I waited in a medium-sized rehearsal room with a mirror running along the right-hand wall. The only lighting was a strip of fluorescent lighting above the mirror that barely made it to the rear of the room.  The window overlooked a parking lot with hydraulic lifts.  I imagined the tenement backyards that had once existed there, and the millions of dancers and other performers who had passed through here over the years in the pursuit of their dream of performing on the Broadway stage.

Suddenly, from the upstairs studio came the furious, rhythmic stomping of the flamenco class that was taking place above me.  I glanced up and saw that strips of wood had been nailed across the ceiling tiles to prevent them from falling.  Still, I thought, it's only a matter of time...

However, before you imagine I am unfairly criticizing this space, let me offer this: Fazil’s is a serious New York dance/rehearsal studio. The dancers and actors who come to these spaces to study and rehearse are driven by passion and longing to make it in New York. You have to have a tough hide and real confidence in your talent to "hang" here. Fazil’s offers an opportunity for affordable classes and rehearsal space, while providing substantial appreciation and moral support of artistic endeavors.

Eventually, a tiny, slender woman with beautiful bone structure approached me: it was Elena Lentini herself. Elena graciously informed me that Marie, her assistant, was ill and that evidently no one had told Joe. She said she was on the premises to rehearse and, inviting me to “please come again next week,” she placed in my hand a brochure announcing an upcoming performance by her company, Caravanserai Dance Theatre, entitled "Argumentum Ornithologicum". I immediately got the impression that Middle East dance here in New York was on the fringe of some kind of avant-garde art scene, and I was curious to learn more about it.

I returned the following week and found that Elena’s assistant Marie Aguirre had returned to teach. Her class demonstrated Marie’s extensive professional dance background, coupled with her experience in the modern dance discipline and her current dance therapy practice. She proved to be both a graceful and sensitive instructor, immediately pointing out my occasional tendency to suspend breathing! It was a new experience for me and I wanted to return to see what more I might learn from this woman.

The Fates Lead Those Who Will, Those Who Won’t They Drag*
The title of Elena’s program, “Argumentum Ornithologicum,” is drawn from a thought-provoking poem by Jorge Luis Borges about nature and God. I had an inkling that I was going to see something exceptional and I was not disappointed. The choreography incorporates Elena’s background in mime and experimental theatre into Middle Eastern dance, bringing the audience to a new level of, let me make that dimension.  

Actually, what Elena did was not only unique, but remarkable.  She took traditional bits of Middle Eastern iconography, dance and the human form and examined each separately in space—introspectively, using primarily traditional music (and, on one occasion, YoYo Ma), incorporating modern interpretive dance to free it up.

Take a traditional veil and imagine a woman's inner relationship to it sits lifeless on a chair, lacking any political or religious significance, as she stands silently beside it.  Notice how she slowly and respectfully lifts it, covers herself with it and gazes toward the sky—how it shields and envelopes her, then gracefully slips from her hand. Examine its fabric and structure, how it is caressed, crushed in the hand and made small, how it separates one dancer from another, and then connects in intimate confidence. 

The following piece performed by the company involved the iconography of the tribal headpiece—its intriguing presence, the gleam of its metal, its mysterious power—and, employing gigantic puppetry, tribal costumes and primitive-sounding music, invoked how they might have been used in ancient rituals. 

The next dance piece alluded to the naked human body...unfolding from birth and entering the world, its relationship to other human beings and to space. Watch it expand, contract, bend, and fall. In separating each of these individual layers, an entirely different energy and meaning is revealed that touches on a very primal level. 

After a brief intermission, began the second half of the show, and with it came the necessary resolution. Elena began with a spellbinding solo performance that incorporated both modern and traditional movements as she seemed to float in liquid space. A darkly lit female dancer followed (Anne Hitchcock), invoking the goddess image, her beautiful and graceful naked back to the audience, like a statue come to life.

In the next number, entitled “The Blue Odalisque,” the dancer Kerri O'Neill pulled many of the preceding elements together and performed a graceful and feminine dance in modern beaded bra and belt and, swirling a diaphanous blue-green veil, creating an effect that was simply heavenly! Marie Aguirre followed, elegant and gracefully enveloped in chiffon. She evoked grace, wisdom and healing in her dance, entitled “Mythica,” adding yet another layer to the goddess experience.

The last number, "Enchantress of Bioluminosity" was conceived by Andrea Beeman and staged by Elena Lentini. It was performed by Andrea in total darkness with luminescent, glow-in-the-dark strips. It made a fittingly grand finale to a truly unique performance experience.

Not to ignore the other members of the company, who all showed outstanding talent, I especially enjoyed Cynthia Elmas. Her movements, the angle of her head and arms, her graceful falls, really called to mind classic Martha Graham style, although Cynthia’s bio was one of the few that didn’t link her with that particular discipline.

In experiencing Elena’s dance program, I arrived at the conclusion that we have become too accustomed  to viewing two-dimensional performances of Middle Eastern dance—and by that I mean the dancer and her relationship to the audience, with everything else serving more or less as props. Becoming more consciously aware of the deeper meaning of each of the underlying layers involved in the art of Middle Eastern dance, which are often overlooked or taken for granted, resulted in a much deeper, more dynamic and beautiful performance.

"Introspective" is a word that is frequently used in describing Elena's work, and I was very impressed with both her insight and creativity. We have heard so much from dancers who espouse certain rules and who claim to be authorities on "who does what better and more authentically." Refreshingly, Elena’s approach seemed to come from a whole other direction, and because it also incorporates modern interpretive dance, it suggested to me that Middle Eastern dance was also, at some point in time, a “modern” interpretive dance that used relevant contemporary cultural elements and iconography to achieve specific objectives. I read recently that belly dancing is based on a birthing ritual, but it now seems like a rather simplistic statement, because through Elena's interpretation I saw so much more. I experienced it as spiritual and psychological as well, and was able to visualize how it may have been used in initiation and healing rituals, as well as in spell-casting, in ancient times.

In conclusion, I believe that any dancer owes it to herself to experience a performance by Elena and Caravansarie Dance Theatre. Elena breaks down barriers and in so doing, enhances and broadens the Middle Eastern dance experience.

Elena celebrates with dance friends after the sold-out show.
L-R: Maury Sherman, Elena, Susan Harding, Rula De Clermont,
Najma Ayashah, Naila, Aziz

Hudson Guild Theatre

Fazil hosts the reception

* The title of one of the dances on the program performed by Cynthia Elmas, Elizabeth Ewald and the Company

Fazil's closed in February 2008. Here is a NY times article about the closing

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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