The house lights dim, a hush comes over the audience. An amplified voice rumbles through the speakers above, welcoming the show’s attendees and asking them to please be sure that all cell phones are off and stored in their designated purses and pockets.
It's time for the show to begin.
To many bellydance enthusiasts, this is a now familiar scene. It would appear that bellydance-based shows produced in large theaters are becoming standard in our art form. We are seeing more and more professional-level shows in nicer venues with adequate sound systems, professional lighting, good dance flooring and stage space. We are witnessing dancers starting to exercise a level of creativity and vision that is truly inspiring.
From the professional spectacle-sized production such as Bellydance Superstars, Beats Antique and Bellydance Evolution, to more humble hometown creations that integrate multiple genres of dance, live musicians, use of film projections, storylines and characters… We have a myriad of possibilities for performers and audiences alike. This is an exciting time to be a bellydancer, as the possibilities are seemingly endless. We are happily deviating from the interminable introduction-dance performance-introduction loop that so many of us have found ourselves chained to. Show producers are creating fine arts events based on themes or stories which require performers to not only have a strong handle on their technique, but allow dancers to showcase additional skill set as acting, singing, or playing an instrument – performances that require excellent stage presence and a level of creativity that’s pushing past the boundaries of tradition.
DEFINING FINE ART AS IT APPLIES TO BELLYDANCE
Definitions generally help to bring a measure of clarification. So, what is a “fine art,” anyhow? According to Merriam-Webster, it is defined as follows:
Fine art (noun)
: a type of art (such as painting, sculpture, or music) that is done to create beautiful things
: an activity that requires skills and care
This is a beautiful definition with lots of room for interpretation. It seems to me that this particular definition is saying any art medium can be a fine art if its main purpose is beauty, and it is created with “skill and care.”
So what's happening to the dance today? Is bellydance becoming a fine art? Do we want it to be? How creative should we really be trying to get with all the stuff, anyhow? Does adding more dimensions to a show detract from the dance itself? These are important questions, and each dancer, teacher and show producer will undoubtedly have their own opinions on the subject based on personal taste and philosophy.
Because of the looseness of Webster's definition, I would argue that audiences may not know exactly what to expect from a “fine art” performance, even if they identify the show as such. Perhaps the term is accepted to mean that the performer will possess a degree of skill for their art form, or the performance itself will expression a measure of creativity based on the performer’s concepts of beauty. In contrast, classical art such as ballet or opera are strict in terms of how they define their art, what good technique is, and where it may be performed. For the purpose of discussing bellydance, I think it's important to draw a distinction between fine art and classical art.
: of a kind that has been respected for a long time
: of or relating to the ancient Greek or Roman world and especially to its language, literature, art, etc.
: relating to music in a European tradition that includes opera and symphony and that is generally considered more serious than other kinds of music
Classical art forms strictly defined in their aesthetic and have a systematic approach to their technique. They may be considered “more serious” because performers must dedicate years to studying and practicing in order to become proficient enough to be successful. Although bellydance has most certainly been around “for a long time” and in many circles it is quite respected (though I shall dodge the can of worms that exploring this could open… and save that as an article for someone else to write), there is not one single strict, systematic method of technique which has been developed and as universally accepted and recognized around the world as “bellydance.” And there may never be. It was originally a folk art; a relaxed dance to be enjoyed with friends and not intended for stage performances. It has traveled through time and many cultures and it has birthed countless sub-genres. Today, there exists many styles and approaches to the dance, some of them more “serious”, thanks to the myriad of festivals, intensives and certification programs now available. Now dancers are putting significant hours to training and their goal is to offer high-quality entertainment with solid technique, and this is evident in the shows we are creating.
In 2002, the Bellydance Superstars begin touring a full length professional bellydance “variety” show which included various genres of bellydance including Egyptian, Turkish, Tribal/Fusion and also incorporated dance forms such as Hula/Tahitian, Jazz dance, Hip-Hop Contemporary, and so on. According to their own website, this was… “the first concerted effort to take this ancient art form into the mainstream of international entertainment up there along with ballet and shows like Riverdance.” http://bellydance.one/about.php
Regardless of one's opinion as to whether or not this was done as tastefully as it could've been and whether or not it should have been attempted at all, their project did indeed introduce the dance form to many people worldwide who may not have otherwise ever been exposed to the dance form. Two other existing bellydancers, this show presented new possibilities for performance. This was most certainly not the first time where bellydance was placed on a larger stage for all of the public to see. In 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for example, bellydance had a very visible and significant role in the entertainment provided to its 700,000 visitors.* However, it is probably the first significant example of a modern internationally touring bellydance troupe. *Source: Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton
Some of the dancers of BDSS went on to create other performance groups, all incorporating bellydance as a centerpiece for larger shows. Into 2007, three of the company’s dancers: Mardi Love, Rachel Brice and Zoe Jakes (of the Indigo) created the touring vaudeville-inspired show Le Serpent Rouge which blended Tribal Fusion bellydance with live music and comedy. That same year, Zoe formed the band, Beats Antique, with her husband David Sartori and friend Tommy Cappell, which eventually went on the road presenting their original music with live bellydance and performance arts interwoven into the show. In 2009, Jillina from BDSS created another internationally-touring show called Bellydance Evolution. In 2014, they premiered a show based on the tale Alice in Wonderland.
These are some examples of bigger shows, whose combined audiences have exposed hundreds of thousands of people to bellydance is a creative form of entertainment. On a local level, there are a myriad of smaller non-touring shows, which have also dedicated themselves to presenting bellydance as a fine art by following a storyline, involving artists of other mediums, or by following a comprehensive theme.
In the past several years, I have had the honor of participating in several creative shows, such as “Versipellis” here in Portland, OR in 2012, and Amy Sigil’s “Reverence” in San Francisco in 2013. “Versipellis,” produced by Danielle Elizabeth and Bevin Victoria, was based on the abstract concept of evolution and man's relationship with nature. The directors assigned dancers a theme and a musician to work with for structured improvisations and also created group choreographies addressing these topics. “Reverence” recounted the life of Jamila Salimpour and included old video footage, photos, and interviews which were projected on a film screen in between dance performances. Dancers receive specific details about their role and the time period they were to represent in Jamila’s life.
Zoe Jakes’ “House of Tarot” is another great example of a show based on a theme, a variety show where each act is inspired by a tarot card and its meaning. Zoe pulled from the many talents of the dancers and artists around her. Because of the magnitude of the show, dancers wore various hats: performing in multiple pieces or helping sew the costumes, painting the set, and running the show.
Just this past weekend, as I wrote this piece, I was involved in Antonella Riccuti’s “Cinema Voyage” for her Tribal Fusion Express Festival. The concept of the show was to chronologically portray famous films through the decades. Antonella studied cinema at University and graduated in Discipline of Arts, Music and Spettacolo. For this show, she assigned dancers their roles and music, and collaborated with a friend who works in the movie industry to create little clips of films which play between live acts of dance and music for the audience.
This approach to bellydance and storytelling is not limited to live performance. Several videos exist that combine film, bellydance, and music together as a purely artistic expression. A few years ago, I was involved in a project headed by local Portlanders Elise Morris (Artistic Director) and Micah Reese (Director, Videographer) to create an underwater video with music from Beats Antique that included Zoe Jakes as one of the underwater “sirens,” along with a cast and crew of local artisans and dancers. https://youtu.be/uvYnIMv6YwE
Jennifer Faust of Oakland, California, is currently working on a video project called “DUST: an experimental dance film that will explore the concept of visual beauty, magic, energy and mortality with dance, film and original music.” Jennifer describes this project as her way of creatively expressing the beauty and harsh realities of the battle of life and death and is inspired by her work as an oncology nurse. https://www.facebook.com/dustdancefilm?fref=ts
I'm not certain where this drive to create more complex, original or unusual art comes from but I do know this: many of the dancers who are creating acts and shows with a more focused intention on creating serious “fine art” pieces are people who also studied acting, ballet, music, film, opera, politics, medicine, or other disciplines. And this dance we picked up is not so technically intense that it requires another three decades of study to master. What does this mean? We have an opportunity to combine our passions. And since we exist in a rich community of diverse artists of bellydancers and musicians, we can pull skills of all kinds together to make something beautiful and unique.
The possibilities are endless – one is only limited to their own imagination… and resources.
Financing large-scale professional shows is a major stumbling block for the elevation of bellydance into the fine arts world. Most of us would agree that bellydance has a history of being misunderstood. Through my travels and work both in and out of the US, I have spoken with several artists, hosts, and show producers who have tried and failed to secure better funding for their projects. Again, we are not considered “classical.” As of yet are art is not clearly defined. Sometimes it's difficult to explain exactly what we do. On the more unfortunate side of the coin, our dance maybe considered inappropriate, tacky, and low class. Try to get an arts grant with that reputation, why don't ya?
So a dancer/event producer comes up with a brilliant idea for a show. They can't get outside funding even if they do know where to ask for it, so what do they do? Tuck their tail and bury the idea for a more opulent future?
Hell no. After all, we are artists… Driven by insistent, illogical and often insatiable desire to create.
There are many tasks in a production that would best be left to a professional, but producers may not have the specialist available for those needs or they can afford to pay them. The only way most of us can manage to put on a large-scale show is because friends, family and the community at large is willing to come together to share the workload. And what a load it is. There's so much to do; from casting roles to writing or mixing music, from graphic design of the posters to securing an entertaining show host or narrator. So we get husbands to run lights, mothers to man the box office, technologically savvy friends to make the handbills. When we can, we hire professionals, but to some degree we still rely on our community: this wonderful rainbow of diverse human beings who are passionate enough about the art to participate in helping making the shows a reality. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
IS IT WORKING?
Being creative is one thing. Possessing the skills and resources to pull off your vision is another. When we attempt to make something “bigger than life”, it can feel like we've bitten off a little more than we can chew. The music skips, the spotlight comes on stage left and you’re stage right, a costume explodes, the microphone feeds back, someone is late for their entrance. Ah, the thrills of live performance…
All blunders aside, we have to ask ourselves: if what we are attempting to make is unusual, will it be well received? Will it work in the eyes of the audience? We should be careful here. Whenever you take a tradition and modify it publicly, there is the chance that your innovations will be interpreted as distasteful or even offensive. I find myself discussing this topic over breakfast while in Greece with my host Eva Chantzichristou and her friend Eleni. Elaine mentioned a show she saw in Greece, which was produced by non-Greeks but incorporated a Greek folk dance that’s traditionally performed on the street at festivals. Her reaction to the performance: “I felt sick.” To her, it was completely wrong to put this casual dance on stage and perform it with such “upright posture.”
Conversely, Eva brought up Mardi Love’s performance last year in Greece. According to Eva, Mardi performed to a Rebetiko song, which is traditional Greek music. When she danced, she did nothing that referred to Greek dance or culture. In Eva's opinion, because Mardi did “completely her own thing” and did not attempt to do anything traditional, it was regarded by the Greek audience as creative and beautiful, not disrespectful.
This has happened historically, throughout the ages. It isn't unique to bellydance. After all, whether it's good or bad, change is uncomfortable. Take the debut of Stravinsky's “Rites of Spring” with Vaslav Nijinsky’s cutting-edge choreography, for example. It literally caused a riot in the theater. The audience’s reaction ranged from violence to elation. Perhaps one of the reasons this happened is because it was unexpected. People thought they were going to a typical ballet, and what they ended up seeing was something unlike anything anyone had ever experienced. Did it work? If you're measuring the success by shock value, absolutely. If you're asking if everyone loved it… Definitely not, somewhere utterly repulsed. Of course, it is now one of the most renowned pieces of classical music paired with ballet in history. So if you measure its success by its ability to endure the test of time, it was incredibly successful.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING THIS FOR?
One of the key ingredients to success, whether you're aiming for the fine arts or performing at a hafla, is knowing what you want to present and how you're going to present it. Is it a family show at a restaurant or a Halloween show at a bar? Do you want to make an internationally touring spectacle complete with contortionists and a rock band or do you want to tell the life story of a famous dancer in a box theater? Knowing one's audience is key. Being masterful at one’s art is essential. Having the right venue and promoting the show in a way that tells the audience what to expect is always helpful – unless you're going for shock value.
In the end, we're still bellydancers. We can perform at a wedding, a nightclub, or a hafla, but there are also opportunities to create bigger shows with bellydance as a centerpiece. I doubt we will change so much that we’ll quit appearing in weddings. Frankly, I hope that the art form never become so formal that it is limited to the stage. For now, what we choose to create is entirely up to us. This is a unique and thrilling opportunity. One would be surprised to see a ballet dancer performing at a nightclub, or internationally touring full-length all-Hula show. Does every connoisseur and practitioner of bellydance feel ecstatic when our shared art form crosses over into the fine arts realm? Certainly not. But many of us are thrilled to exercise our imaginations and dream big.
Sharon Kihara has toured with both BDSS and BDE. In her words, “I am delighted that bellydance is gaining a more widespread exposure and appreciation, particularly as presented in theatrical context. I've been witnessing and participating in this movement for the last 11 years, and what I'm loving to observe is the audience responses, especially audiences that are accustomed to the dance and performing arts – they have largely found us refreshing… BDE had the honor of performing this year at Lincoln Center for New York’s APAP convention, and it was quite the experience to be sharing rehearsal studios with young professional contemporary dancers and ballerinas, and to see them get up and start clapping and dancing along while we rehearsed in our spangly costumes! We are part of this Zeitgeist, and the world might be ready to perceive our art form differently now. I feel more at home in a beautiful theater than anywhere else in the world.”
I believe we are refining ourselves both as technicians and as creators of art, and we are starting to spread our wings. Fine art, to me, is not just defined by beauty or skill. Of course, great technique is beautiful, but that's not a goal. It's a stepping stone. The next level is communication: leaving the audience feeling something, giving them something to think about, to talk about. Fine art is powerful enough to make a statement; it has emotional, social or political relevance, and it endures the test of time.
I am proud of our budding ability to reach larger audiences and touch more people's life with this art form. I'm also proud to be able to drop the “seriousness” and dance among friends at a hafla in a studio. I don't personally think that one is better than the other. This, to me, is what makes our art form particularly special. We have tradition and we have vision. We are adaptable and I believe our art form will continue to grow and flourish if we are authentic in our approach and highly skilled in our technique, if we are creatively original and respectful of what we borrow.
So what are you inspired to make? What do you want to say? In the words of Thoreau:
“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.”