Jawaahir Dance Company is celebrating its 20th season and founding director, Casandra Shore, said the company has grown because the dancers and musicians stay informed and keep up with contemporary dance and music in the Middle East.
They performance of “Raqs Nouveau – Turath wa Jadid” (Traditional and New) from August 13-23, will mark Jawaahir’s 15th season at Southern Theater, a relationship Shore said has lasted because it is such a special space.
Shore described the opening suite as a setting during the mid 19th century, when all eastern style enjoyed a popular emergence in the west, through an orientalist fashion, that Shore portrays through the statues of the time coming to life.
“It is the idea of the old styles coming to life and becoming contemporary,” said Shore.
There are around 20 dancers performing about 11 dances. There are solo and ensemble pieces, including two full cast performances. Though it is an anniversary celebration it all new material, and not a compilation piece on the past 20 years.
Two senior dancers are doing performance choreography for the first time, said Shore, who assigned Kathy McCurdy and Helen Voelker, two dancers with the organization since the very beginning, with artistic control over some pieces as part of a suite. Another founding dancer, Eileen Goren, will also have a solo performance. The remaining founding dancers in the show include Kathy McCurdy, Helen Voelker, Eileen Goren.
“My dancers have developed into amazingly expressive dancers,” she said.
Shore said that the successful history of Jawaahir is due to many elements. Her motivation for the school and performances is to be among a few organizations that bring a variety type of Arab culture to the United States. She travels frequent to visits with friends and to catch up on contemporary dance in the Middle East.
The costumes are an exciting part of the show. Shore designs some of her own and she picked up other while in the Middle East. They are based on traditional Arabic design and “theatricalized.”
Shore emphasized that good performances became great with the presence of live music. The live vocals and instrumentals, with all the “tunings, intervals, rhythms, and improvisational structure in Arabic music” bring the dance to a new level, placing the viewer in the moment.
The nine-piece orchestra that will perform with Raqs Nouveau is comprised of members from all over the country. She said the costumes and the live music are alone worth the price of admission.
“This kind of band and the quality of the orchestra just doesn’t happen that often in the Twin Cities,” she said.
The Raqs Nouveau musicians are professors of music and renowned artists that play Arab music along with jazz or classical western music.
The ensemble includes Scott Mateo Davies, classical guitarist; Miles Jay, mizmar (double bass drums); Elias Lammam a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist; Tim O’Keefe, percussionist; Susu Pampinen, tabla, one of a few female Middle Eastern drummers; Nikolai Ruskin, a multi-instrumentalist, including the Nay (reed flute); and Naser Musa, an oud virtuoso (a pear shaped pre-curser of the lute).
The violinists include Georges Lammam, Salah Abdel Fattah, Laura Harada and Ahmad Tharwat.
Middle Eastern music has subtle differences in tone from the Western scale, according to Ahmad Tharwat, violinist (Kaman or Kamanga in Arabic). It can sound unusual to the untrained ear, but a closer listen will reveal complex rhythms.
The familiar rhythms of classical Arabic music are on scales similar to Western composition, but he said there are often more beats on a 1/4 or even a 1/8 note along with the tonal difference. Tharwat said the different tuning of the instruments along with the additional notes gives offers a rich tonal language and rhythm that varies among regional and cultural lines.
For example, the violin has four strings, G, D, A, & E. In the Arab style of play, the A & E strings are tuned in an upper octave to repeat the G & D sounds.
For a dance and music culture more than 1,000 years old, the contemporary styles have just emerged for public performance in the past 75 years.
The evolution of contemporary Arab and Middle Eastern music beyond the folkloric and classical styles, is an expansion of music from the family and community celebrations to the stage and media. It is about vocalists and musicians composing modern songs that may or may not adhere to their distinct regional styles.
Tharwat said common themes are based on love, memories of lost love, friends and abstract ideas that are interpreted on related experiences. The artists sing and use traditional instruments in new ways for dance and for music on its own.
Taqaseem (Arabic for improvisation) on the rhythms will occur during some of the sections in the performance. He said it works within a subdivided framework in the small parts while following a plan or scales.
Tharwat has played with Jawaahir over ten times since 1997. He said this performance stands out with three local participants, and others from California and New York, and Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine.
The music is contemporary or is based on classical music that hasn’t been played by the ensemble before for a dance performance. It is what you would hear around the Middle East right now.
“The music is really all new,” said Tharwat.
He said few groups in this country other than Jawaahir have put people in touch with contemporary Middle East dance to show it as a higher art form.
“To be honest I am impressed and can’t see the difference,” he added. “Cassandra does put in a big effort in putting in a good quality music performance,” he said.
He says that Jawaahir and American dancers in particular, will do planning, choreography and some improvisation to make the movement fit the music. He said tis is possible after reaching a level of knowledge and understanding about music and dance and culture.
Shore said that in general, Middle East dance for women is characterized by “rhythmic isolations of the body.” The feet move on the beet, she added, but are less prominent than in western dance.
Shore studied Egyptian Raks Sharqi and Middle Eastern folkloric with Jamila Salimpour in 1974, and was teaching and performing fulltime by 1976. Her open ended vision for Jawaahir, formed in 1978, was to portray the diverse Middle Eastern culture that is so rarely portrayed in this country.
“My idea was to put some of the folklore dances on stage that you don’t normally see,” she added. “Plus do some creative work and present really great music and dance from the Arab world.”
Belly dancing is one aspect of Arab dance, Shore said, but she wanted to teach, create and present the traditional dances from around the Middle East region for the stage.
“There are so many different types of dance from the region,” she said.
The challenge was getting past a cultural barrier within the Middle East community. She said until recently, women are traditionally discouraged from dancing as a profession because of a stigma.
Today, she said the Arab community supports Jawaahir for its presentation and adherence to traditional technique and music, style, expression and culture. But more, she added, it is a place where Arab women can get in touch with their culture in a “safe” place with other women without having to perform in public if they do not wish.
“I am trying to present a positive aspect of the Arab culture and a positive image of Arab women,” she said. I try as much as possible to stay in touch with my Arabic friends and I travel there every year or so to learn new material.”
As with any dance form, she said it takes about ten years to make a dancer that has mastered the form. She said it is a process that cannot be hurried. In addition to the physical movement, there is a lot of internalization, which is especially difficult for someone of another culture.
“You have to go through the process, there is no other way,” she added.
Shore also teaches Middle Eastern dance for men and says the styles are different and tend to be more traditional, based on strength and agility.
The Southern Theater is located at 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets are $29 with an August 19 pay-as-able. Call 612-340-1725 or visit online at jawaahir.org or southerntheater.org for show times and reservations.
There are post-show discussions each Saturday, August 15 and 22, for a chance to pose questions to the musicians and dancers. There will be a Middle Eastern Dance Movement Intro Class on August 22, 10:30 a.m. ($15). Georges Lammam will conduct an Arabic music intro class on August 15, 10:30 a.m. ($15)
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