Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: habibity

In Tuesday’s posting I talked about finding the music for Baba Mama on a cd that I purchased at a workshop. What joy! And more joy – the music for Habibity was on the same CD. Again, the artist was not listed. When I heard this music I was instantly transported away into movement. Sometimes you hear a song and you just know, in that instant, that you are going to create something around it. This was one of those. The music is very different from anything I have used before. I don’t know how to describe it…very modern. World music with a definate Middle Eastern feeling. A little jazzy. Kind of sexy. I was very excited to create to this piece.

Without too much thought, I picked up a veil and locked myself away for a couple of afternoons. It didn’t take much before voila! The dance was born! I remember the first time I presented the piece to the troupe. The looks on their faces! Priceless! Their faces were split with smiles – they loved it! It was completely different and fun. Initially, the piece was a bit more complicated than my dancers could handle as a group, so the challenge was then to simplify it and keep the spirit and “coolness” of the piece. There are a lot of intricate accents, and parts where different dancers are doing different things. But we worked it out. This is going to be a piece we will want to keep for a long time, but also a piece that is going to require consistent review in order to keep in the ready folder.

There is a lot of movement inside the dance, so I wanted the costume and the veils to also mirror that movement and action – a real feast for the eyes. Lots of colours, lots of shimmer, lots of movement to accompany that funky music.


Pictures do not do this piece justice. Photos by Alistair Maitland

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: women’s gulf dance

In some ways this dance came together very easily and in other ways it was very difficult. The basic bones of the dance came out early on and made a consistent solid spine to build the dance on. Fleshing it out took a little more effort. Sometimes I have a choreography finished and then only have to set it on the dancers…teach them the dance and sort out the staging. With this dance, I brought the skeleton to rehearsal, and then built in the gaps and fleshed it out through trial and error with the dancers themselves. “Try this” and “let me see that” were common phrases they heard me say. I spent a lot of time with a stand-in dancer in my place on the floor (thanks, Nat!) while I moved around the dance, looking at it from the sides and the back. I would give the dancers a direction only to change my mind when I wasn’t satisfied with the result. I think this must be very frustrating for the dancers. But in a case like this, they are part of the process of creation, so frustration aside, they end up with more ownership in the end result. And maybe it is interesting to be involved in the process this way. Like living pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

photo by Alistair Maitland The music was Sheloha Sheilah by the Miami Band. I love khaleegi women's dance. I love the aspect of it that is gentle and elegant and graceful and smooth. I also love the aspect of it that is wild abandon. For this piece I really wanted to capture the aspect of freedom and joy of movement in women's arabian gulf Alistair Maitland

In the 2nd half of the 2nd act, I needed to hide the band and was initially going to use the scrim. The decision was eventually made to lower the traveller curtain instead of the scrim…this played hugely to the advantage of this dance. The black velvet background of the curtain enhanced the richness of the colours of the thobes and lent a more intimate atmosphere than the scrim could have done.
These women’s dances of the Arabian Gulf region are jewels. I always feel as though I am dancing for these women who are not allowed to dance in public in their own countries. In a way, we are speaking for them – representing their voices to the world. I had a dilema in how to transition into this dance – I was already present on the stage… how would I get into the thobe? The idea of this dance being precious wouldn’t leave me, and so I just went with the flow of that thought. I put my thobe into a treasure chest which our MC placed center stage. I then came out and “found” it. Opened it. Discovered the thobe. This allowed the dancers to enter the stage as though coming to a party, dress me up and invite me into their dance. It felt very complete and full-circle to me.

photo: alistair maitland

One section of the dance in particular went through several incarnations. This was the “wall of thobes, cascade & pinwheel” Basically the middle section of the dance. The end result was stunning and worth the time & effort of discovery and practice.

photo: alistair maitland

Rockin’ the Casbah Notes: Baba Mama

I thought it would be fun to write about some of the pieces that you saw in Rockin the Casbah last week. I haven’t been able to say much about them for fear of spoiling the surprise. But now I have lots of material for lots of posts! yay!

Every choreography has a story. Here is the story for Baba Mama.

Way back in 2000 I went to a workshop in New Brunswick and saw a little dance troupe from Main perform in the show. They were a crowd of young women and their teacher. They were having a blast doing a choreography to a really cute piece of music. It is funny how some things will stick in your mind for years. But I remember they did a really cute little series of chest drops while pulling the fingers down. I even remembered the music that the movement went with. But nothing else. I never knew the title of the music, nor did I remember anything else they did, nor the name of the group – just this little chest & hand bit and a sketch of the melody that went with it. I loved it so much that I incorporated it into a piece the troupe did years ago called “Casino Opera”.

Last fall I went to Calgary for a workshop with Mohamed El Hosseny and I bought the workshop CD of music. I didn’t listen to it until I got home, and then – Oh my! There was that song! I finally learned the name of it: “Baba Mama”! A goofy sort of name for a goofy sort of song.  And there was that bit of melody that I remembered! This is a really cute and fast older piece of Egyptian pop music. I still have no idea who the artist is. Unfortunately, the CD label just had the name “Baba Mama”.

But , LaLaLa! Here we go!

So in honour of that memory and of those little student dancers from Main, I put that chest & hand pull movement into the dance. Then I just had a blast choreographing the rest of it. And I think the dancers had just as much fun performing it! This is a piece of Egyptian Sharqi that will be a crowd pleaser for a long time. It’s a keeper and I’m sure you’ll be seeing lots of this dance in future performances!

photo: Alistair Maitland

Photo: Alistair Maitland

Tech Rehearsal

I walked onto the stage yesterday afternoon. Instead of bare risers where we had been using our imaginations to fill with musicians, there were chairs and muisc stands, mics and cords. The boom was down and William (sound tech) was stringing the mics that will fly over the band. The set was dressed – the cabaret tables & chairs in place. It looked suddenly vry real – what I had been seeing in my minds eye was now right there in front of me. The dancers arrived and we began our technical rehearsal. Andrew (light tech) in the booth and me in the house on my headset mic with the amp on stage so the dancers could hear me without shouting. Such a lovely relaxed way to run a rehearsal in a big theatre. Andrew is a magician. At a production meeting before the show, I had described my vision for the show and talked about the types of lighting requirements specific to Middle Eastern dance (as they differ from ballet, for instance). When we arrived for our first rehearsal the lights were perfect. Bang on. First time. (Light on the torso and face, not highlighting the knees & feet as in Western dances).  He also attended both of our on-stage rehearsals and was very prepared to create a fabulous light design for us. And oh my, did he create! The costumes, the colours, the music, the shimmy and swirl – I am so excited – how I wish I could be in the audience! I do hope the video turns out so we can all enjoy the show ourselves, afterwards!

Later, when the band arrived, we did the sound checks on all the pieces. Adjusting the levels in the monitors, checking the balance, walking through the band’s entrances, running the solos. Running through the cues and transitions. I ran one of my solo pieces that the band is playing – oh my! To be on that beautiful theatre stage with my dancers sitting in the house cheering, my beloved swing band behind me – my dream come true. It is quite an amazing thing to be dancing on a stage with a 15 piece powerhouse behind you, let me tell you! Sitting in the house, I watched my dancers in front of the band – all of them on the stage together. I felt like jumping up and down. I felt like shouting at the top of my lungs. I felt like singing. I felt like crying. There it was. Bellydance and Big Band.

Rockin’ the Casbah.  Only one night. Tonight.

media coverage

We’re getting some good press with this show – yay! Tomorrow morning I go down to the CBC for a radio interview (live – yikes!), and Friday an article will be out in the Whitehorse Star. And today, What’s Up Yukon published a fabulous article on me and Rockin the Casbah.

Here’s the link: Check it out!  Big Band Swings East by Meg Walker

Show update #2

 Now I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way – especially any of my troupe – because I know how hard they work and how much they want this. ..and because I want them to feel a tremendous sense of ownership in it. But here is a selfish thing I am going to admit: I choreographed Rockin the Casbah solely to please myself. I chose music I loved, I blended two genres that I love, and I did it just for me. Because I wanted to do it. Out of love. What a difference this one thing – creating something out of love – has made! This feels like the least stressful of all our theatre shows to date. Or maybe it’s because I’m arriving at a new place in my dance journey. Whatever the reason, with this show I feel that I finally have the confidence to say “this is a show I want to do for myself,” not because I feel I owe it to  my troupe to give them a performance opportunity, and not because I feel I have to prove anything to myself or anybody else, or justify myself in any way.  I started to feel this way with Raqs Farrah in 2009, and I think I am finally there with Rockin the Casbah. I am very thankful that the dance troupe and the band have bought into the dream and also love it, and want to do it with me! What would a choreographer be without dancers to set her work upon or musicians to provide the music? Mohamed El Hosseny said that one cannot call oneself a Choreographer until one choreographs theatre shows. I don’t know if I fully agree with that, but  this is the biggest show I’ve ever done (literally! at one point we will have 38 people on the stage together) with what sometimes feels like overwhelming details to organize – and I feel confident with it and confident to give myself that title. And maybe this will sound odd, but with the confidence has also come a deep feeling of humbleness and gratefulness to everyone and everything that has come together to make this show happen.I also really feel like I am coming into my own as a performer with this show and  I am especially excited about my solo pieces. Yes, I said “pieces” plural!  I’m highlighting the soloists and the dance troupe  in the show (of course!) – but this time – for the first time – I feel as though I am highlighting myself, too. It feels weird, and tell myself not to feel apologetic.

 I have long wanted to do a duet with my friend Fawn, who is an amazing vocalist. And so she is singing a beautiful Etta James cover that I will dance to. And I have the most fabulously perfect dress to wear, thanks to my friend Maureen. Another  piece of music I love is called “Raqs Bedaya.”  I have had so much fun with this dance! This is a choreography that was created by a dancer named Jenna – I just love the dance, and have had a blast learning each combo and then being inspired to change & replace it with my own version. Pure 100% fun for me. No stress or worries – just dance. Another solo I’m doing is a piece I choreographed last fall and performed at Saqra’s Showcase in Oregon last year to an enthusiastic response.  This is a song that Rebekah played  on CD at band practice one evening last year which I immediately knew  I HAD to dance to. So I’ve purchased the chart for the band, and they will play it in the show. The last solo piece I’m doing is the kitchen baladi that kicked this whole thing off with the SYIDA show last June. Each of the four pieces is completely different from the other. Each of the four pieces makes me laugh and smile in a different way. Each of the four pieces is authentically ME. No hiding, no pretending – just me, Nita, dancing for the sheer joy of it. Aiwa!



show update

I’ve been meaning to write a show update but it seems I just never get a moment to collect my thoughts. But I’m overdue for a post and so I’m going to just quickly toss out a few words and thoughts. Today I had a phone interview with the Dawson reporter for What’s Up Yukon. I guess that’s the kick in the butt to sit down with my laptop this afternooon. It’ll be great to have the publicity in the final days before curtain, so I am thrilled to have had the interview. I always wonder, though, how it will turn out in print. I am always amazed at how what I said gets interpreted – what the reporter pickes out as important, and how I am always surprised. Well, I enjoyed our conversation and so I will hope for a great article! I am a terrible interviewee – I can never organize my thoughts and I always feel like my words & thoughts are disconnected. I admire people who can pick through that and come up with a coherent paragraph.

One thing she asked me was how I’m making Middle Eastern dance and swing music go together. And that’s something I’m still not sure I can answer! Because (in Egyptian dance) the movement is an interpretation of the music, I have tried very hard to respect this aspect of Egptian dance. In Middle Eastern music, the movement interpretes the music, so this is a rule I have followed very closely in choreographing these fusion pieces. It’s probably the reason I’ve been able to make it work. You can’t just wing it. You have to have a method.  You have to have a plan and a reason.

I want to say right up front that this is a fusion show. Some of the dances are traditional straight-ahead Egyptian bellydance that will satisfy the purists. But others are fusion numbers. Call it what it is – I’m a stickler for that! You’re gonna see bellydance by itself. You’re gonna see Big Band by itself. You’re gonna see bellydance and big band together. You’re gonna see fusion and folklore both. Together and seperately.

 In one of the dances I used elements of jazz dance vocabulary mixed with basic bellydance vocabulary and put it to a standard swing tune that a swing-savvy audience will recognize. A bellydancer in the audience will recognize the bellydance movements, but with a jazzy twist and a jazzy non-bellydance attitude. There is even a rockette inspired section! The costume in this piece reflects the fusion of east meets west by combining modern Western bellydance pieces with fun jazzy accessories. In another piece, a latin number, I adapted traditional folkloric assaya steps along with the assaya itself. I combined the bellydancer’s standard figure 8 hip movement with a latin step pattern, but other than that all of the movements are standard assaya movements that you will see in any Egyptian assaya dance. To bring East & West even closer together, I put the dancers in Western jazz dress together with the Egyptian dance prop and a decidedly Western attitude. Personally, I think it it’s going to be a knock-out! In both these numbers I feel confident that I have presented the essense of Egyptian dance within the context of Western swing music. The third & fourth Big Band pieces are solo numbers, one by me and one by Coreen. Mine is 100% bellydance movement with a bit of Alexandrian flavour (all it is missing is the melaya luff) and if you don’t laugh out loud when you hear the music, well, there’s something wrong with you. The costume was chosen to suit the song – and that’s all I’m going to say about it – you’ll have to come out and see for yourself!

In addition to the 4 dances to live music, there are also 2 dances to karioke vocals by Fawn Fritzen. I asked Kelly how he would catagorize them, and he said “schmaltz”. Well, I don’t know about that.  They’re beautiful old pieces with orchestral backgrounds. They’re old torch songs that remind me of first love and hot summer evenings and old black & white movies.

Two pieces are stand-alone band numbers that feature two of our musicians. Another piece captures a party of women from the Arabian Gulf region. Others have interesting elements – traditional folk dances with modern twists on costuming, for example. The rest of the show is standard straight-ahead bellydance. Well – maybe not quite. But that’s all I’m going to say. You’ll have to come out and see for yourself. 

All of the choreographies are coming along with good speed and I am really pleased with the progress we make in each rehearsal. I looked at the calendar today and realize that we only have 3 in-studio rehearsals left, and 2 on-stage reheasals before tech, dress & show.  This is it!