The Gilded Serpent presents...
Taking my quiet life in my hands, I flew to San Francisco from my home in thenot-so-frozen North for a weekend of nostalgia and the premiere of the New Bal Anat. My generous hostess saw to it that I had a VIP ticket so I was able to go to the pre-performance cocktail hour. The atmosphere was festive and full of anticipation. There was a fortune teller in one corner and an information table manned (or womaned!) by members of Suhaila’s school. A colorful buffet had been set out in the lounge and in the main stage area there was music and pre-show entertainment in theform of acrobatic gymnastics performed by three young girls.
Raised benches had been set up across the back of the stage for the musicians but the stage itself had little in the way of setting. At 8:00 p.m. the doors were opened to the general public. As I looked around, I noted that most of the front seats were filled with VIP ticket holders. These were former members or friends of the original Bal Anat. As people filed in, the main theater areawas filled but not packed.
The show began with a rope act consisting of a woman who wound herself up in the rope and let herself down, doing what rope acrobats do. This was performed to some quiet New Age-y music that was followed by some raucous strip music during which a woman in an evening dress and high heels was hoisted to the ceiling in a big metal ring.
She proceeded to go through an aerial routine, which was rather mediocre and those heels kept getting stuck in the ring! I got the impression she hadn’t worked with them much. There were lots of comments from the audience about this act, most of them salacious speculation and I kept wondering why it had been included.
On a sheet hung off the balcony, a film of Bal Anat flickered into view. This was a film no one in the audience seemed to have seen. It was in color and was obviously from a 16mm film put onto video, badly, so that it ran just a little too fast. Most of this viewing was spent with the audience trying to figure out what year it was, who thedancers were, and laughing or expressing frustration at the bad print, which is inevitable in these old films. Personally I love this stuff, even the bad parts, and think we are lucky to have anything at all from a time before we knew how valuable they would be one day and how much we would want them. The consensus was that this was a later performance, say 1974 or later.
She is a great favorite of dancers from the early years and one of Jamila’s very finest dancers. It was a real pity that the film was so jumpy and that it was speeded up because it did such a disservice to her dancing. In the midst of the usual dancer factionalism I am continually amazed that there seems to be such common agreement, even reverence, about Galya. I wonder if it is because she does not dance and does not teach and she is no longer a threat to anyone, but that is just my own speculation. At the end of the film as Galya jumped and bumped and flickered away, the new Bal Anat entered through the back curtains with much fanfare led by Ernie Fischbach on the zurna and a host of others…and I mean a host!
During the traditional procession up to the stage we were all on our feet zagareeting and clapping and crying. It was a very emotional moment.
One of the things that I found so impressive about the original Bal Anat was the sheer number of people Jamila packed on stage, and the non-stop wailing of the zurnas and beat of the drums. The show launched right in with this musical format, the signature of Bal Anat. The opening dance was "The Birth Magic Ritual". This is one of the more memorable pieces of the Bal Anat repertoire. It is a very powerful dance and stands the test of time. Finally performed bare-breasted, as the Goddess should be, it is a mesmerizing,stunning piece of choreography, although I have seen it danced better. I think this piece calls for a more zaftig dancer, one who specializes in drama and has an intricate understanding of just what it is she is portraying. However, it was wonderful to see it included. The karsilamas dancers were next. Once again, this piece has stood the test of time…great traditional costumes, excellent choreography by Meta Metal with adjustments by Suhaila, and good dancing. Then came the pot dancers…five of them, too many for the amount of room on the stage, but nice choreography with a very effective diagonal line where the dancers, who were on the floor, extended one leg and did an undulation and a freeze shimmy. During the rest of the dance, it was hard to tell if the hesitancy of the dancers was due to the size constraints of the stage or due to their unfamiliarity with the choreography, but the total effect of that many dancers was impressive.
The Moroccan dancers had the same costumes as the ones in the film of Bal Anat we had just seen. I’m not sure what dance they were doing but having seenquite a bit of Moroccan dance through the years, it missed the mark. The overall effect was confusing…pretty to look at but no one home. The dancers looked uncomfortable and in those costumes I can see why.
Then came the snake dancers! Obviously, these were new snake dancers with very small snakes. I would have left this out until I found mature snake dancers with mature snakes. Its not as if one could just run out, purchase a snake, and start whirling it around the stage. These things take time and effort!
The choreography was strained and the dancers seemed detached from it, “Oh damn, I have to be one of the Algerian dancers and be all covered up!” (One of the dancers was extremely vigorous, and I wondered if she really knew what she was doing or was just trying very hard.)
Their costumes were tacky and suffered from a definite lack of imagination. It was obvious that most of these dancers had no stage and little balancing experience. No, Virginia, you can’t just plop that sword on your head and bounce around. If there was choreography, I couldn’t see it, and I was so nervous for them. This is one of my pet peeves, dancers who make their audience uncomfortable. The whole sword-on-the-chin thing is a delicate operation at best, only looking good on a very few. Mostly it just looks awkward and silly.
Last (of the group pieces) were the cane dancers.
While it was a perky dance done in Assuit dresses, the style of dance was an obvious departure from the tone of the rest of the performance. The choreography uses traditional steps, and the dancers were good. However, once again, it seemed like a missed opportunity. There was something "off" about it. Maybe it was the see-through dresses? Let's cut the fluff in performances that purport to be something else. I know, I know, it was “Ancient Art with a Modern Vision”, but enough already! I feel like the guy in “Strictly Ballroom” “No new steps!” Do we have to have T & A and jazz in EVERY piece? It’s obvious Suhaila is capable of “shock value”, but Let's get through one performance without the bits of cheese, and see what she really has to offer in the way of serious contribution.
Rashid did the tray dance and he was delightful! He was not as great as John Compton, in my view, but really fun. His dancing was better than his tray balancing, but his obvious experience and ease with the audience was quite entertaining and a real highlight of the show.
Unfortunately her costume seemed to unravel as her dance went along, and I was disappointed in it, not in her. Once again, I had hoped the New Bal Anat would be the “New Improved Bal Anat,” not merely a re-creation, and her lack of imaginative costuming was disappointing. She brought her daughter Isabella out to dance with her. What can I say? She is the same age Suhaila was when I took classes, and you can’t possibly be critical of that sweet innocence on stage. The end of the show was poignant. Jamila was ushered onto stage, and they stood together, Jamila, Suhaila and Isabella. It was one of those rare moments, three generations of dancers carrying on the tradition, and it made me glad I traveled all that way. After that, the band played everyone onstage, and there was a lot of visiting and catching up.
It’s hard to tell if this performance was staged for the general public or was primarily for family and friends.
I expected more from Suhaila and there may be some reasons that she didn’t or couldn’t deliver, or maybe my expectations are just too high. First of all, Bal Anat the original was really unique. From a production standpoint, this adds a great deal of risk to a project at the outset.
Bal Anat was the first of its kind, the first “tribal” group, and as such, lots of liberties with the dance styles were acceptable back then. We didn’t have access to videos of what folkloric dances really looked like so we relied on what our teachers told us and sort of made up the rest. I think the idea was to invent what it might have been and make a bow to the original, not exactly re-create it. Jamila’s original Bal Anat spawned many dancers who went on to research the true origins and styles of the dances they were supposed to be doing. So much well documented footage is easily accessible to us now that there is no excuse for sloppy homage, and even at the time of the original Bal Anat, other groups were incorporating authentic folk dances into their repertoire with great success. Patty Farber’s group Patagouli comes to mind, and for a truly academic approach, the Los Angeles mega-group, Aman, was doing terrific work. It’s fairly well known what Moroccan and Tunisian dances look like.
With all the incredible tribal costuming that American Triabal Style (ATS) has made popular, it would be nice to have seen some of that fantasy on some of the dancers. If you want to extrapolate from strict ethnic style and take liberties, why not borrow from ATS? With a better stage set, better costuming and better dancers, all readily available to Suhaila, its too bad she didn't avail herself of same. She could have done "Tribal" with real substance. I really hoped to see Suhaila show the ATS community how to do it right. There was definitely an opportunity missed here and that is from where my own personal disappointment comes.
I don't dance anymore, but I direct lots of productions, not just Middle Eastern dance. One thing I know, and know well, is what makes a good performance.
I don’t know. The first thing I would do is get rid of the dancers who can't. There are too many good dancers around to waste time withinexperience, at least when you are charging $25 a ticket! All those novice dancers will get their chance at some point, but not in a professional stage show. Let's hear it for dues paying… We’ve all done it!
As much as I love the zurna and drums, even live tribal-style music has come a long way. An hour and a half of zurna will wear anyone down, no matter how much you love it! There can be variety in this too, as witnessed by the wonderfully textured performances of Hahbi’ru. We needn’t bludgeon our audience with masses of mediocre dancers and uninspired choreography. Sometimes less is more. Two or three really good dancers can look like 5 or 6, although the five pot dancers with more rehearsal and more room could have been truly impressive.
That’s my final point.
It has potential. As an exercise in nostalgia, it was a definite success. As the “New Bal Anat,” I would say it is a work in progress. It may be that before Suhaila ventures into the tribal venue, she needs to do a little more work. Nevertheless, thanks for the memories!
by Janine Ryle
IN YEMEN by Jalilah Part 2 - EL AROUS