Cabaret to Theater

From Cabaret to Theater

The Question of the “Elevation” of Middle Eastern Dance

by Nina Costanza

“Elevating” Middle Eastern dance seems to be a general concern for many artists in this field. Some think that a viable way to achieve “public” acceptance as an “art form” is to bring the dance into the theatre, mostly in group productions. By doing this, “true art” is given the opportunity to distinguish itself from commercial entertainment, and the dance gains conventional status in the process.

I originally wanted to explore this notion of bringing the dance to the theatre, where it has thus far succeeded only on a small scale, because I felt that perhaps Oriental dance was not meant to be on the theatre stage; that it has inherent characteristics, those which first drew many of us to the dance, which are inimical to theatrical presentations. To be even more provocative, I felt that perhaps putting the dance on stage is, in fact, a vulgarization of the dance, because there is something that rings false about it.

Al Banaat al Nil, choreographed by Mahmoud Reda. Photo: Courtesy of Arabesque

I have since changed my mind. Middle Eastern dance can be, and has been, successfully “theatricalized” on American stages, and I feel that it is important that it expands its horizons. However, particular aspects concerning the incentives and thinking behind this endeavor are unsettling.

The idealistic objective for putting the dance on stage is possibly threefold: first, to make it accessible, and thereby acceptable, to a wider American audience; second, to enforce a standard of excellence in performance; and third, to allow for more formal group collaborations. All of these intents are admirable and even courageous. It has not been the persistent crusade to get Oriental dance on stage that irritates — albeit that natural impediments still exist in the dance itself — but the automatic correlation of “art” and “elevation” with “theatre”; the misinterpretation of these terms; the confusion, or duplicity, concerning the dance artist’s true desire to perform; and in defining who this nebulous “audience” is. It is the obscurity and misuse of these terms and concepts and the wide scope and ambiguities of our diverse motivations as dancers that contribute to the controversies and difficulties in bringing a so-called higher status to Oriental dance. It has much less to do with any adverse, judgmental, or ignorant public. The ultimate authority lies within our hands. What do we expect? When we seek to conform to conventional definitions and solutions, we ourselves, somewhere inside, beneath all the jargons and protest, appear to question whether or not Oriental dance deserves serious appreciation as an art form. Theatrical presentation is not the answer.

Many think that theatre is the way to go if this dance form is to be considered an art, that is, accepted by the (anonymous) public. Implied is that without this arena, this “art” is going nowhere. Festering underneath is the parallel notion that ballet-trained dancers who learn some Middle Eastern techniques can better manifest an Oriental choreographer’s grander concepts on stage. There is a formality in theatre productions, whose conventions may convince the public, and the artists themselves, that a particular form of artistic expression, having reached this level, has been accepted.

One important formality is a separation of functions. Performer and creator/choreographer; composer and musicians; audience and artist, all become distinct entities. These separations are usually not characteristic of a cabaret performance in the West.

Ibrahim Farrah and Near East Dance Group with Nadia Gamal on stage at New York’s Town Hall, June 1981. Photo courtesy of Arabesque.

Another formality in theatrical performance is the diminishing of both intimacy and sexuality. The audience is physically at a distance from the performance and the performers, and passively observes a highly designed and choreographed program of a specified length of time. It is a controlled atmosphere, controlled primarily by the conventions of the institutionalized theatre production.

These conventions and formalities falsely persuade that putting Oriental dance on stage is a way to “elevate” its perceived and preconceived, generally assumed “low” stature. For all its noble aspirations, this attitude, this solution is, inadvertently, buying into the prejudice that Oriental dance is, after all, only belly dance. The intent of those who advocate theatrical performance is entirely genuine. To “institutionalize” the dance in order to be accepted by the public (and consequently validated for us) is no doubt a great objective; but it is a practical mission that has nothing specifically to do with what is “art” and what is “elevated.” Putting Oriental dance on stage must be viewed as a practical and diversifying enterprise, and not for the purpose of validation.

I assume we (dancers, teachers, researchers, readers of Habibi, etc.) know Middle Eastern dance is art. Trite as all this may sound, it is the simplest way to put it: art is about truth, about life, so it is all inclusive. Being comprehensive, truth comes from the mind — and the groin. Good art is human, so it is sexual and orgasmic — among other things, of course. Good art, whether overtly sexual or not, is never vulgar, because it’s true. Vulgarity has nothing to do with sexuality. It has to do with falseness. Art is not about power, either — feminine or otherwise. It is about expression and reflection, and it is for everyone — all genders, all ages. Power evolves of its own accord. If the expression is true, it becomes beautiful, and in becoming beautiful, it has a power—not a conquering power over something or someone else, but an individual power which expands consciousness, adds onto what came before, and stimulates what can come after. Good art is productive and reproductive. One fine piece of work inspires another from the same or another artist. Imitation (or borrowing) is a form of inspiration. This is how “schools,” especially those that developed historically in classical music, ballet, painting and sculpture, provided a continuum for the progression of fine arts. Inspiration, therefore, is communal copulation, in a sense. This is why a supportive community, which is also self-critical, helps to coalesce many fine, singular attributes into a thriving art form and to ensure a continuity through diverse types over time.

Let’s face it, sexuality in the case of Oriental dance is a big problem, and this is often where all the doubts and questions about the artistry and acceptance of this dance come in. In attempting to put forth an appropriate defense, we are not entirely honest about it. A lot is written and said in defense of the dance: that it is sensual, not sexual; spiritual, not visceral; that it is not about seduction, but about female (goddess) power or a coming-of-age feminine expression. To bring it into the realm of what is considered “high” art is to eliminate, transform, or redefine these “low” or vulgar attributes and represent it as spiritual and “elevated.” In other words, sanitize it. What better way to water-down its sexual characteristics than to formalize it on stage? But it is sexual, it is visceral, and it is seductive. We cannot buy into the concept that this dance is too sexual to be considered a “high” art; and we have to entirely discard the idea of “elevation” because that word is attached to the highly subjective, exclusive, elitist concept of morality which has no place in the realm of art.

Oriental dance is also spiritual. Its spirituality rests in its highly personal nature and the fact that its expression is so connected with the music — more so than most ballets where movement is appreciated for itself. Aren’t these spiritual qualities at once intimate and sexual? These special characteristics of Oriental dance relegate it to a unique category. To have Oriental dance sanctioned as an art by the mainstream, therefore requires an unconventional, unprecedented endeavor, originating in our own attitude and candor.

It is precisely the elements of intimacy and sexuality that are at question here. If they are eliminated, is the dance elevated? If the dance is formalized, does it earn the ranking of art? Or are we confusing how we feel about the dance with how it is interpreted by convention, by a public? This is where I feel we have to be honest or clear with ourselves in order to really give Middle Eastern dance its due, its real opportunity. It is in a category of its own, and its successful appeal to an American audience means preserving what makes it different, and having the patience to find a new path toward its eventual “institutionalization.”

Angelika’s Dance Ensemble performs “Eshveh.” Photo: Rannveig Gazdak

I prefer to call it institutionalization rather than acceptance. Acceptance comes by itself. It is not our job to be concerned with whether or not a public accepts it. It may always be a minority who become knowledgeable and comprehending of this art form — not an unusual situation. How many people are interested in going to hear the innovative pioneer of contemporary classical music, composer Edgar Varese? How many people watch PBS to see some of the new Swedish choreographers of modern dance? Whether or not our dance is accepted in the mainstream definitely has its effects, but it should not be a motivating concern. Our concerns should be to be true to the art form itself and honest with ourselves as artists. This is where we get credibility. The public, that anonymous entity that sits in judgment, is, first and foremost, us, those of us who dwell within the Middle Eastern dance community.

Assuming that Oriental dance is an art, and is fine as it is, it follows that bringing it to the theatre is not a form of “elevation,” but only another platform of expression, on a par with its other platforms. Middle Eastern Oriental dance in the theatre is a different art than that in the cabaret. What determines the artistic merit is the artist. It has nothing to do with acceptance, but with the artist’s concept and execution. It is the artist that makes the difference and not the platform. The authority lies in the inner soul of the artist. A fine artist remains a good craftsman whether he/she performs in a smoky, rowdy, Arabic coffee house or Carnegie Hall. A good cabaret show is theatrical. A good theatre show has the elements of cabaret in it. A choreographed solo Oriental dance on stage, in fact, mimes a good cabaret performance. Middle Eastern dance artists need to separate the concepts of what defines “art” (and “elevation”) from what we mean by “theatre.”

I feel an affinity for the Middle Eastern culture, even with those elements that may violate all the freedoms and consciousness I have been brought up with. For me, both in performance and as part of an audience, nothing can compare to a good cabaret Oriental solo where the dancer becomes one with the music, where he/she can spontaneously, organically express singular, spectacular moments that build into a whole composition that communicates something personal within the framework of a particular cultural vocabulary.

Each of us has a different reason why we entered this unusual world of dance. Some dancers want to express their sexuality and desire male attention; some want to feel their female power; some want to repeat ancient rituals; some want simply to feel beautiful in costumes, jewelry, and makeup; some want to express themselves; some want to express the music; some want to explore the “otherness” or exotic characteristics of Middle Eastern dance; some want to give historical, authentic renditions of the folklore; and some have bigger designs for setting visual choreographies for groups. All of these reasons are legitimate. Each motivation leads to a different direction and experience; and we have to be forthright as individuals about why we do it and what our purposes are. I think what is similar for all of us is that we were able to approach this form of dance as individuals. Middle Eastern Oriental dance begins as a solo enterprise.

Characteristics inherent to the dance are its subtlety; intimacy of movements; creative improvisation; ethnicity (for Western presentations) including its folkloric traditions; its purity and exclusivity in style, expression, and vocabulary; and its participatory nature. These characteristics make it almost inimical to the formalities of the theatre. The dance, therefore, has to be altered to some degree to be presented on the stage as a group production. In order for it to be successfully presented, these alterations have to be handled sensitively, innovatively.

Group theatre productions that I have seen, or been a part of, vary tremendously. They either represent the individual artist/choreographer or an abstracted version of native folkloric or Oriental. Some of the more successful presentations include such diverse artists as Ibrahim Farrah and his Near East Dance Troupe, where the choreographer’s vision maintains an Oriental flavor but also overrides it. Yousry Sharif, coming from the tradition of Mahmoud Reda, has until recently sought to preserve the customs of the Egyptian folkloric in his group productions. But, interestingly, in his more recent concerts, he has added jazz and flamenco movements to more contemporary Egyptian music, making a big dent in traditional representations. On the other hand, the Festival of the Nile, a native Egyptian group, consistently produces folkloric programs which, while traditional, are formulated in such a way that they expand upon the folkloric movements. Yet even on this grander theatrical scale, it remains pure Oriental. At a more extreme end, in her Ballet Exotiqa, Jehan Kamal of New York produced and choreographed a program using her own world beat music combined with dance that merged many styles. In this case, the individual’s voice was the main force. Middle Eastern dance became a tool and not an end to her expression, creating a program (avant garde by comparison) that could not really be called Middle Eastern, but pure American because of its emphasis on an individualistic voice and fusion of styles. There are, as well, Arab-American debka troupes that, while traditional, emphasize more sensational, acrobatic movements. Their exuberance and largeness, exaggerated in space and number of people on the stage, are required in order to arouse an audience who in another arena would arrive at a similar level of excitement through their own participation. Angelika Nemeth’s Dance Ensemble, in “Eshveh,” a rendition of Persian folkloric dance, depicts a parody of machismo. It is Oriental dance manipulated and simplified into a highly entertaining, comedic narrative of gender flirtation with modern sensibilities.

In its heyday, Western classical music was performed in small salons where the composer was one and the same as the performer. Improvisation was a part of the performance, and music was often played without being written. As this art became more popular, it was gradually institutionalized to the point where we are today: composer and performer are distinct entities; music is written to be played exactly as the composer intended, down to dynamics, without improvisation; the most esteemed artists perform in concert halls; the audience rarely participates (as custom now dictates – except in the opera houses in Italy — no one throws tomatoes, few boo, and all clap for encores); the audience generally knows the standard repertoire as they’ve heard the same music by dead composers years on end, and are familiar with the conventions of performance and interpretation. Consensus rules. Western classical music, in my opinion, is dead because of its grand scale institutionalization and lack of zeal for the new, living composers. It is too standardized, and the criteria for critical acceptance and perfection have sterilized any fertile region of raw creation. Classical music in concert halls today by and large pacifies the ears rather than stimulates.

In an effort to attain a certain status (artistic snobbery), real music in the classical style deriving from the consciousness of the present, is hardly heard, not encouraged, disdained, and dying away. Those with an intellectual and imaginative energy to express themselves musically will more likely go where the door is open and put their efforts in rock, rap, or whatever, wherever the individual and spontaneity still count.

It is important that Middle Eastern dance not tend to the same prohibitive mentality in an effort to gain prestige. That includes the idea that ballerinas are a better resource for Oriental choreographers, that they can easily learn Middle Eastern style quickly enough to perform in theatrical productions. Oriental dance is complex and requires intensive training as well. Training in ballet is obviously more evolved, and ballet dancers do pick up steps quickly. The steps, yes, but the feeling? And the specialness of Oriental dance is the feeling, a prerequisite, which cannot be severed from movement. Joaquin Cortes in his “Pasion Gitana” presents excellent dancers with endless technique in ballet and flamenco; but it was the Gypsy singer who danced at the end in an improvisational encore that put the rest of the company, and their whole program, to shame. She is the real thing, sans ballet, and her feeling and timing hit the audience with such power as to put us at the mercy of her passion — thankfully. We cannot defy the whole essence of Oriental dance. This is a beautiful dance precisely because it is sexy and earthy. So, who are we “elevating” this dance for? I suspect we discuss this in a partial effort to convince ourselves; thus, we talk about the theatre.

Despite its deeply-rooted traditions, its ethnicity, its origins in a patriarchal society, it is interesting to see that Oriental dance is in transition from the “natural context” of its original culture to a form that is performed on a wider scale in a plural cultural society. For Westerners it is often its “otherness” and the characteristics of its “natural situation” (that of performing for Arabs an intimate and participatory dance in cabarets) that attracts so many of us. In order for the dance to be brought to theatre in the West, there are aspects of its authenticity which may need to be discarded. It is a very difficult position: to let go and keep at the same time. Using contemporary and original Arabic music (such as Amr Ismael, Omar Khairat, and Michael El Masry) and incorporating individual choreographers’ visions and modern movements may add to Oriental dance’s success in Western theaters. To implement elements that are “Western” and to incorporate innovations from outside of the traditions, is not necessarily polluting the Middle Eastern style. This direction can be viewed as aiding in its evolution, and opening the opportunity for successful theatrical productions. Look at “Riverdance.” Since the dancer in theatre work is the tool of the choreographer as creator, the choreographer may prefer those who have some experience in modern dance and/or ballet and can provide beautiful lines in unified harmony. The artist who performs cabaret, on the other hand, must have, in addition to Oriental dance technique, the imagination, naturalness, heart, personality, and musicality to express him/herself in the moment. A little rawness can be extremely pleasurable in the cabaret, while the theatre renditions illustrate polish and perfection. The rawness, even occasional coarseness, of the cabaret is the soul of the dance and the source for the polish of the theatre.

Art is a living event that evolves and includes. The art of Oriental dance has nothing to do with elevation, and everything to do with our own acceptance of all the paradoxes in Middle Eastern dance and the changes that indicate growth (some Westernization and individualization), alongside its preservation. Theatrical performance is not a means to elevation. It is a formalization of the heart of the dance. Cabaret is as vital to the continuation of this art as its arrival on stage. Both are significant and contribute to what comprises the progress of Oriental dance. Because of its inherent qualities, which may at first seem problematical, and the artistic breadth of the American imagination, Middle Eastern dance has a great potential for persisting within an American atmosphere — in both venues.

Based on a paper which was first presented at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA, on May 17, 1997.

Nina Costanza dances professionally under the name Amar. She has a BA in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and a MA in music composition at Mannes College of Music in New York. She has studied Middle Eastern dance with Ibrahim Farrah and mentor Yousry Sharif. Amar has performed in Paris and Israel, and in New York City night clubs including Cedars of Lebanon, Ibis, and Darvish. For the past ten years she has been a member of the Yousry Sharif Dance Ensemble, where she has gained extensive theatre experience in presenting both Egyptian folklore and contemporary choreography. She has been Editor-in-Chief and feature article author for Arabesque magazine since 1990.

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