Review: Bellydance Evolution – The Wizard of Oz in Atlanta

*Had to take all my jewelry off to write this one… and here’s the disclaimer – I’m a member of the international community of Atlanta. We are real. We exist. I was born and raised in several international communities where raqs sharqi was the first thing you did for any occasion. Many of my relatives are not American – my extended family and people I grew up with are Arabs and other Africans. I’m first generation (Nigerian-Am) and moved here to Atlanta over a decade ago to be more involved in our international community efforts and raqs sharqi scene. We are really a sort of NYC of the South. Atlanta Raqs Comms are spoiled in many ways – we have amazing events and most people are coming to see us vs. the other way around. Currently, I write reviews of professional shows and events as a way of keeping a record and proof that this city is diverse beyond stereotypes…and again, we, as internationals in the diaspora keep our culture(s) alive and well. Any show producer, professional teacher or troupe that puts on shows is held to a standard in my opinion. They are expected to have researched and know, like a international studies professor, what they are presenting and how it should look. It is from this expectation and point of view that I write my reviews. * Featured photo is Selena, award winning dancer in Atlanta who was a part of the show opener.

 

The Promotion of the Show
I feel we did as best we could as a dance community to really get the show noticed. Last time Jillina was here with BDE, it was on the local news. This time felt a little quiet. I feel like part of it was apathy and this notion of, we already know who is going be here. But I feel for events like these, we need to hire a marketing team (pitch in and hire a marketing agency plus everyone bring a friend, sell one ticket/buy two tickets and bring someone with you) to get the event noticed and packed. It was a great turnout, but I feel several people who would have really appreciated seeing this were not there.

The Venue
South Cobb Highschool’s Performing Arts Center is immaculate. It’s an upscale blank canvas that you can turn into anything. I was highly impressed with the parking, ease of entry, moderness and cleanliness. It’s a gem!

The Audience
Was there an audience? All those people in the seats, that amazing music but I’m the only one chair dancing? Does everything need to be in a hotel with a bar so we can loosen up? For shame!

Thankfully and by the Grace of the Universe, I heard our beloved cousin Nicola. I saw Ziah and her daughter, other supportive legends like Samora and some of the greats from her troupe with their children in arms. I saw members of Global Dance and one dancer’s whole family come to watch her in the 5 min set she danced in but those are the only ones I ‘saw and heard.’ What I wish I hadn’t seen was the hate, confused faces in the lobby by a few non dance community members, people who looked like someone forced them to show up. It was so strong that upon entry, I almost turned around and left with one of those “not today Satan” feelings. Again, I feel the additional people who could appreciate our culture were not there.

But I want to focus on the good things and with that say a big Shukran Jazillan to all the aforementioned (ESPECIALLY NICOLA AYOUB!) for being present as well as their families, people’s husbands and children. Huge thanks to Dahne, another international community member, who drove all the way from well beyond the airport WITH HER FAMILY to come alllllll the way to Austell for this event. I’m super grateful for the dance community support and thank you for opening your mouths, clapping your hands and representing the raqs fandom. As for the others who were disturbed, bag clutching at the site of certain people, and making it clear you didn’t want to be there, your time is dwindling and that’s why you reacted that way. Long live diversity and international cultures having the right to live in America just like theirs did when they arrived but I digress.

The Show
Orlando was our Master of Ceremonies in one of his sparkling suits that he joked still had the tags on it and would be returned, then purchased after income tax day. He did a fair and lovely job announcing the dancers and their history. I was also especially happy to see him recognise Nicola Ayoub, our ambassador to culture in Atlanta. It’ll be a good show if Nicola is there. That is guaranteed.

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There was a Pre-Show and that included a few student troupes, some of the teachers of AFBD, the Salimpour Collective of GA and one piece in which Saniyah and Aseelah were in spinning poi veils. The opening of that pre-show featured Fatin, Leena and Jenny – all of whom teach at AFBD. In Bellydance Superstars style, they wore amazing blue bedluhs and put on a trio style set to traditional regional music – track one of one of Issam’s amazing works if I’m not mistaken – it’s one of my favourites. That, Troupe Mumtaz and the set featuring Saniyah, Aseelah with those very dedicated AFBD dancers were my absolute faves for this portion of the show.  You could see that they took this presentation seriously, making sure they really gave it their all. I also got some video of Saniyah’s troupe and appreciated having a very authentic salute to the region represented tonight. We always need the root to be represented. It’s crucial lest we vanish completely. (my pictures aren’t great, please see Studio Jaki for professional ones)

 

The Wizard of Oz
Jillina’s work is phenomenal. The artistic direction of the entire show was jaw dropping. From the costumes to the music, everything made sense and was worthy of the standing ovation. However, for some reason, this show didn’t have the same effect as Alice in Wonderland (her earlier production AFBD hosted at the Rialto Arts Center downtown a few years ago). In fact, as I type, comments are coming in saying, “It was good, but Oz was no Alice. Bellydance Evolution’s Alice was Broadway, Oz was a spectacular play.” But may I add that Dorothy was immaculate in every way? Sure, it wasn’t Alice and it wasn’t the Rialto but it was GOOD! I’d happily go to that venue again and I trust with additional marketing we can get some of the East Atlanta, Decatur crew to come out as well.

Without giving too much away, because those who have tickets for other cities may not want spoilers, the “Atlanta” show begins with the primary stars in what some call Atlanta-wood (spoof on Hollywood as we are now #1 in film production in the states). The name “Atlanta” is in the background and as the characters come to life, they begin snapping pictures, taking selfies, miming/doing their art (Faaridah was a Mime) all wearing cute modern outfits in black and white. Then the winds pick up – the winds are represented by a diverse cast of dancers all wearing either black or grey. Some had small strobe lights that flickered like lightening and the choreography was DIVINE!!!! Ohhh, this was probably the best part of the ENTIRE production! The way they represented wind and nature’s chaos was spot on! They could have ended the show and won an award with that alone!

The rest of the story went by kind of fast and you really had to have watched The Wizard of Oz multiple times to automatically know what scene was next or what everything represented. Munchkin Land was identifiable and looked to include the Lollipop Guild as well as other iconic moments from the movie. I did, however, keep looking for Toto…I didn’t see the dog or anything that represented him. As trivial as it may be, his absence was felt. But we did hear his barks in a few scenes. Nice touch! Dorothy was played by Georgette Carvajal and she was INCREDIBLE! First of all, to be able to stay on stage that long and remember ALL that choreography is insane. I can barely remember the four simple steps to Debke let alone the choreography needed to excel in a production like this. Everyone I spoke to was just FLOORED in regards to this principal dancer. I try to keep superficial things like someone’s “looks” or features out of reviews of late, but I can’t help but say, Dorothy was adorable! I mean, she embodied this role like an original. She was everything you expect in “cute!” That plus her impeccable dance presentation makes her the MVP! She did that!

We had so much pride in seeing Aziza Nawal play the role of The Scarecrow. She was perfect and also another one who is incredible for being able to remember all that choreography. She was in 85% of the show! She deserves a standing ovation every time you see her. She’s another reason why I moved to Atlanta. I’m still mad they didn’t clear the table that one night at Taverna Plaka (2003 July) and had her doing a choochoo shimmy way too close to a glass plate of taramosalata. If she had slid off the edge…omg. I wanted to pick her up off the table and say, “nobody puts Aziza Nawal in the yogurt.” Anyway, she’s royalty in my opinion and does no wrong. She deserves all the awards and accolades for her role in this production.

Omega’s performance as the Tinman was another award winner. I’ve always felt she is best in theatrical pieces when it comes to this art and she did not disappoint one bit. This is my favourite performance I’ve seen her present since she came on the scene. Her costume was spectacular! Be sure to check out the pictures. I think Studio Jaki may have a few. Bravo and Brava, Omega!

Our very own Faaridah played the role of the Wizard! She glowed and glittered for every scene she was in and we’re super proud. She even had a great solo. The costume complimented her and the green was bright enough to give her a complimenting glisten so kudos to the costume designer for making sure she gleamed like the glamourous lady she is! So gorgeous all the time! #Goals!

Shoutout to Hannan Sultan, always great to see her in Atlanta. She was animated and lively as a cast member and one of my favourites to watch this evening. Hope she’ll be featured in even more events and programmes as they arise.

Bit of Confusion in the Crowd
The lion was played by a dancer named Siri, the Wicked Witch was Claudia Barquero and Glenda the Good Witch was played by a dancer named Nadia. Now, other than the lion and the aforementioned, I had no clear indication which characters we were looking at any given time. I kept noticing people grabbing their programs trying to figure out where we were at in the scenes of the production. It was only during solos, the siesta in the poppy fields and journey to Emerald City that I figured out which one was the Wicked Witch. Glenda, who was always in an iridescent-white ballgown in the film was wearing a crimson red bedluh during this production so I was totally confused. Though  Dorothy was obvious and always in gingham, she could have been in some ruby red dance slippers instead of the silver ones she had on…maybe they were not available? Maybe they would have been distracting? Toto and the red slippers are huge iconic pieces of this classic and I was rather eager to see how they would incorporate them.

Cultural Nod or?
The music for the entire program was beautiful! Every scene had an amazing accompaniment with a cultural nod to the region. For example, there’s a part in the original movie where Dorothy and her pals fall asleep in a field of poppies. In this production, you suddenly see some dancers appear wearing what looked to be a poppy flower on their dress panels. The dresses themselves looked like a few ensembles I had seen in fashion of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and a print on a Classical Iranian dress from a historical performance many years ago. I’m not sure why this part of the region’s music and dress were worn during this scene other than the fact we know that poppies are grown there and, according to research, having its origins in the region. I wasn’t offended but it was noted and I thought…mmkay. I get it. I see the nod and correlation.

But there was one scene that made several I spoke to after the show very quite puzzled. Let me start by saying, it’s rare to find non-Africans, non-MEs actually give The Continent any credit in its influence and inclusion in the art of Raqs Sharqi and its history. Some still want to see Egypt as solely an Arab country and act like it doesn’t sit smack in the center of both Asia and Africa. I grew up knowing and seeing Arabs in Africa and part of the vast number of ethnic groups and people(s) that were in certain nations within the continent, including Arabs that live in one of my parent’s countries. But I learned that others don’t always know this. Kudos to Jillina’s earlier work with BDE Alice in Wonderland as it did not let one influence in the world of raqs sharqi/eastern dance go unknown. It was INCREDIBLE! I loved how every single region, nation and city from Iran to Ibiza was featured and given the most respectful cultural nods – I mean Sharon Kihara took us on a direct flight home with her scene featuring amazing Qawliya and other regional moves that were still fairly unknown at the time to the western “bellydance” world. It was just after this production that you began seeing workshops and classes in not just “bellydance” but other regional past times being studied and performed. Jillina’s work gave it a precedence and a standard! It was stunning and gorgeous.

This year, the African music accompanied what looked to be the “bad guys” (aka the Wicked Witch in her den). I could go in hard and be really political here but I do not believe associating bad and darkness with Africa was the intention of the scene. In fact, this review has been edited to note that I and others did have a discussion about what we saw and the questions that came to me after the show. We learned that those were not monkeys in the scene in Atlanta. Those were the henchmen dancing with the Wicked Witch. The questions and texts I received after the show let me know others were rather confused as well. I thought, of all the places they could have used the African music…this was their choice? Why is Africa always associated with something dark and sinister? However, other icons in the raqs world noted that they were a part of the production in other cities and enjoyed being a part of it – and gave it their all. Very grateful for the clarification. BDE productions are always really enjoyable and I would hate for a misunderstanding or confusion to spoil it.

Here’s a photo of what the scene was portraying. Many thanks to the Atlanta BDE host, Faaridah Raqs for helping us understand this very important part of the show.

The “all dance” at the end was lovely and the venue was comfortable. The show wasn’t super long to the point we were squirming (though I can watch GOOD raqs sharqi show all night, have and will continue to do so). The scenery and the way in which things were represented was a bit different but not too hard to put together. Again, it was no Alice but it was a great way to incorporate the art of raqs into a classic tale and I hope Bellydance Evolution will continue to put on these amazing theatrical works of art! Mabrook wa Shukran! Huge thanks to all involved, especially Faaridah and AFBD for hosting. That is A LOT!

Yanis Marshall, Ya Cheb! Admiring Men in Movement

Yanis Marshall in Atlanta with the Glow Studio Team

Yanis Marshall in Atlanta with the Glow Studio Team

Sometime last year a notice went out that Yanis Marshall was coming to Atlanta. It sort of zipped through our email like a flameline on a race track. I don’t think I even read the whole event description before my paypal account had already deducted the money and I was ready to go with ticket in hand. I couldn’t believe it! My heart just collapsed and I sat dumbfounded that this gorgeous, beyond talented specimen of beauty was coming not just to Atlanta but to visit our quaint dance cirlce…to teach and entertain us! Between that time and the day he arrived I could barely continue my weekly look at videos of him online because the anticpation and excitement was just too much. I could barely handle it!

Workshop Day II

My hands shook as I drove around in circles trying to find Glow Studio where the event was to take place. The day before he had taught  two workshops. I was there for day two. I wanted to go to both days but  I knew that would look “stalkerish.” I was so nervous about seeing him in the flesh. We were not going to see him perform but we did have the option of being observers…no pictures, no video allowed without his permission. I arrived 10 minutes in advance of the 11:30am doors call time. He got there about 2-3 minutes after. He wore big sunglasses, his gorgeous brown hair with natural highlights/flecks of gold were swept away from his face. He laid down near the mirror, face toward me. He may have been staring at this big haired girl in white frames with their tint of blue thinking, “surely, you’re not going to attempt to do this…” or maybe his eyes were closed and he was resting peacefully with his beautiful assistant Khadeejah by his side (I think that’s her name). Either way they were both an image of perfect health, gorgeous and sunkissed…fit! Very fit! Stunning! I admired him laying there without staring too hard but it was difficult. I wanted to go over and touch him…just run my hand over his arm and pet him like a living doll. He was just THAT gorgeous.

Within seconds of my last glance, as not to be rude and stare a hole into him, Sabeeya and her team jump into action with an amazing warm up to one of Punjabi MC’s classic hits in a remix. It was quite impressive how dedicated they were to that piece of music as if she starts her day with that on full blast (I know I used upon its original release). I enjoyed watching them. Their Bhangra-pop warm-up was cool!

As soon as the song finished she turned to Prince Yanis and said, “we’re all yours, it’s all you now.” And he automatically snapped into it. As he made selections on his computer you could hear what he had stored on it…a wide variety of music from just about every genre imaginable. People scurried to the floor, slipping on the appropriate gear to handle the extensive warm-up and performance style sequence to follow. This particular day the attendees were learning a lyrical piece. The warm-up was long and rightly so…it wasn’t until toward the end that I realised he was still warming up the group. The way in which he warmed them up was so beautiful I thought, “he’s created his own warm up choreo?! Clever!” But certain warm-up moves that I was instructed to do during my two years in ballet and modern dance revealed that he had only just begun…and the way in which he led the class in these movements was soooo beautiful. Everything, every second was just breathtaking to the point I began to cry. I held back my tears for about 20 minutes and then the pressure and emotion from watching the warm-up just got to me. I grabbed my bag, searched for my tissues. I was so overwhelmed. I was fearful of closing my eyes because I knew the tears would just pour like it a river followed by sobbing. I feared I’d become disruptive…the struggle was real.

I will not give away his secret sauce or explain the details of the post warm-up sequence but the music, the moves and what I think were impromptu choreos just…melted my superfan heart. I looked at him thoroughly. I absorbed every turn, every sweeping hand movement and level change. From the moments where he was on his feet to the eye-catching, heart-stopping floor work I just didn’t look away. I even moved into a different seat so I could admire his flexibility and the way he presented his art to the class. He corrected people with gentle nudges and touches, it was just so lovely. My word, I’ve never seen anything like it. At one point he did the moves without them and we all just swooned with admiration for his talent. Then he separated the room into groups and each team did their level best with much success. It was admirable to just see everyone push through these non-raqs beladi moves. For a group of people who have been presenting fusion and bellydance for the past few years it was a far cry from our current norm and they mastered it beautifully. There was a young man in the group who teaches hip hop and he, too made, it through the class with passion and determination, everyone did.

Yanis and new friends/students in Atlanta

Yanis, Khadeeja and new friends/students in Atlanta

Our afternoon concluded with lots of warm hugs and pictures. It’s rare that I take photo but I did that day. This was a moment I wanted to remember forever and I believe I will. I can still feel his energy and spirit. Heaven help me I could barely speak English around him, most of what I said dribbled out in French. It took me an entire week to get over his departure back to his country and life. I all but cried again.

I spend my days working, volunteering and spending time in the company some very talented musicians. I A good deal of my life is following bands and working with fanclubs; all of those experiences are life changing and lovely. This one, in particular, left a big footprint on my soul. Even as an observer I felt every bit of what he taught the class and I know we were extremely blessed to be in his presence. Baraktohi ya Yanis, G-d bless you for days, your time and kindness were more than appreciated!

Thanks for reading,
AA

Many thanks to Glow Studio for bringing him to Atlanta!!
To learn more about Yanis Marshall’s extensive background click here