Revelations Further Revealed
By Wendy Buonaventura
Middle Eastern, Oriental, Arabic dance, Raqs Sharqi — call it what you will — evokes a passionate response from its practitioners and audience. Dancers spring to its defence, and their own, with a fervour which I have not seen equalled in relation to other dance forms. Its chequered history is partly the reason for this. But I believe this passion stems mostly from the fact that Arabic dance deals with what is, for many women, the most difficult question of all: our relationship with our own sexuality. Who defines this sexuality? We ourselves? The men in our lives? Or those men who are strangers to us but who largely control the acceptable media images of female eroticism?
This question is one which my co-author, Deirdra Morris, and I touched on in “Revelations,” a play which premiered at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh in August, 1992, and was produced again later at a theatre just outside London. I have heard several interpretations of “Revelations,” and the fact that peoples’ understanding of the piece varies so widely indicates two things to me: either the text was seriously flawed, or our story communicated itself to our audience on different levels, or both.
We created our own Salome, using the mythology from which the Biblical tale derives, and had her tell her own side of the story. Our Salome grew up expressing herself through dancing. She was tricked into using her gifts as a dancer to achieve the death of a prophet. She sold her soul, sold the best part of herself — her self-expression and creativity — for the head of a man. As soon as the deed was done, she realized her tragic error and the futility of her action. Her subsequent fall from grace finds her descending to an underworld where we find her performing the cabaret dance.
This dance certainly divided the audience most in their response. Our audience consisted predominantly of ordinary theatre goers, rather than dance aficionados. I always knew when there was a group of Arabic dancers out there, because I could hear them chuckle with laughter at the disillusioned Salome in her leopard skin outfit, parodying the dance she once loved. Our director wanted a choreography which was graceless, ugly, and angry, and that is what I provided. I used movements which, over the years, I have seen unskilled, or simply unaware dancers doing (and sometimes being paid for), not as a joke, like the dance in “Revelations,” but in all seriousness. I always sensed discomfort in the audience when I performed this dance, and that is just as it should be, just what the director wanted. Dancers who came to the show and understood the joke, enjoyed it. But there were those who didn’t get the point of it. One told me that the piece of music I used for it had been a favorite of hers. But not any more. She would never be able to listen to it again, she said, without my image rising up to mock her. She implied that the music was somehow spoiled for her. It is a pity that, for her own reasons, she took this dance so personally, forgetting that it was not me, Wendy Buonaventura, up there, but the character of Salome at the most bitter ebb in her life.
In her thoughtful and considered review of the play in Habibi (Vol. 13, No.1, p. 24), Vashti interpreted the play’s “message” as “women dancing for women is good; women dancing for the admiration of men is bad…The dance for women and by women is pure, joyful, spiritual, feminine and good; the dance for men is sexy, coarse, dirty, crude, lewd and bad…There is a whiff of hypocrisy when the play employs a revealingly clad female body in sensuous motion to denounce male fascination with the erotic female image.” I would have had to have led a remarkably sheltered life to view human experience in such absolute terms, nor would I, with such a belief, be dancing for mixed audiences as I do. Denouncing male fascination with the erotic female image was not the play’s theme. However, the erotic female image itself was a theme of “Revelations,” especially in Salome’s dance for the lecherous Herod, who was so enthralled by it that he agreed to murder a man as her reward. It was impossible to present this erotic image, in the most important dance in the show (certainly the one everyone had been waiting for), without wearing a suggestive costume.
The review was critical because I only used the “prototypical” two-piece outfit for my parody of a cabaret dancer. Although costumes have largely to do with personal taste, they also have to do with suitability. It would have been inappropriate to use a cabaret costume for Salome’s dance as a child, or for the pagan rites (zaar), or for the dance in which we see the goddess Ishtar creating the world. There are many things which one just cannot express while wearing a bra and slit skirt covered in sequins.
Vashti believes that during earlier dances when I was wearing a tunic and an assuit costume, the audience was “distracted” and “fixated” by the sight of my bare breast (apparently inadvertently revealed through the side slits of my costumes). The purpose of cabaret-style bras is to distract, to draw the audience’s attention to a dancer’s breasts. How distracted would they have been had my breasts been pushed up, and squeezed together in a bra and framed in glittering sequins and fringes instead?
During the run of the play in Edinburgh, and later in a theatre just outside London, I was often touched by the response of the audience: a woman who was moved to tears by the play, a man who told me that he felt “a light of understanding went on” for him after seeing it. While some reviewers had some reservations about the script, none of the critics were other than generous in their praise of the dance. Dancing Times (Britain’s biggest dance journal, which deals largely with ballet) called the play “a precious little piece of theatre.” (See review this issue, page 26.) These reactions are especially rewarding to the many talented people, from costume and lighting designers, to sound recordists, directors and so many others, who laboured so long and hard on this production.
Our attitudes as dancers towards the expression of our own sexuality is often based on a complex and hidden set of inherited values. Even with today’s frank and open discussion on the subject, we are still carrying within us a legacy of ambiguous feelings, and many of us have strong opinions about how we want to express our sexuality in public. Revelations (described in one review as “an allegory of the exploitation of female sexuality”) brought this question to the surface and, as I discovered, caused strong reactions which at times overshadowed the audience’s objectivity. As dancers we have to face not only our own contradictory feelings, but also those of the public, towards the expression of female sexuality. When we have resolved this question in our own minds, we can find a personally comfortable mode for that expression, and through it, our creativity in dance can be fully realized.