(NH) A Child's Garden of Verses

Having only been dancing for a little over a year and a half now, I happily embrace opportunities to attend dance performances that will expose me to different styles and dancers. I was fortunate to be able to attend "A Child’s Garden of Verses" up in Portsmouth, NH on February 22nd, hosted by the lovely and talented Zabel.

The venue, St. John’s Episcopal Church, was an open and inviting space for a community performance. The show was a collection of performances, organized into a child’s journey, with each dance inspired by a poem in the book “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Posters located near the entrance at the back of the hall displayed the selected poems and artist statements from each of the dancers in the order they would dance in the show. Zabel took the stage at the start of the show to address the audience and briefly explain the vision behind the production. 

Zabel’s energetic opening piece (“To Any Reader”) set the mood for the evening, but I found her second dance (“My Treasures”) to be even more enjoyable. She blended the glee and excitement of a child rummaging through a treasure box with the drama and confusion of that same child coming to learn that not everything in life is a toy and that even cherished items may be lost or taken.

Overall, the dancers deftly communicated the wonder, playfulness, exploration, confusion, and occasional pain associated with childhood. The performances were wonderful to watch and the show itself moved swiftly, covering many different themes without running too long. Many of the dancers used props – from veils to actual stage props representing items from their poem – to help tell their section of the story. I could enthusiastically detail every dancer’s graceful interpretation of their poem, because there were fantastic moments in each performance. In the interest of time, I wanted to mention the particular interpretations that spoke to me and that I felt were highlights of the evening:
  • Sisters of the Sun did an excellent job in communicating the free-spirited camaraderie among friends as they explore the world, learning and playing together, in “Pirate Story.” Their ATS performance was perfectly suited to the theme, with the joy and togetherness accented by just a hint of cheekiness.
  • The penultimate performance, “To Willie and Henrietta,” was a beautiful piece by Kira Luna Dance Troupe. Focusing on the transition between generations, it was an incredibly touching interpretation. The dancers’ emotional connection with the poem was evident in every movement.
  • Sabrina Lichtenwalner arrived on the stage with such joy and exhilaration, evoking the discovery of possibilities that made her interpretation of “The Swing” so memorable. I found it impossible not to smile throughout her performance. Her delight at exploring the stage and the “big world” (the audience) was evident and infectious.
It was a treat to get to see the different styles of dance from a variety of local dancers. Experiencing the different ways in which the dancers chose to bring their poems and the feelings behind them to life made the journey more than worthwhile. On the whole, I felt that the performers were able to retain the spirit and soul of Middle Eastern dance while telling a compelling story. For future themed events, I would love to have the dancers use more Middle Eastern music, especially with a live band. To watch musicians and dancers interact with each other, the music, and the source material or theme would not only be fascinating, but I also believe that it would strengthen the connection between our dance and the source material.

Finale
 (L - R) Zabel, Johara, Kavina Mar, Anabee, Sisters of the Sun (Annabel Keil, Jennifer Klinedinst, Joanne Rawlings-Sekunda, Sabrina Lichtenwalner, Mathura, Heather Powers, Baseema, Badriya Al-Badi'a, Aria, Whitley-Nabintu Newman, Lauren Shamitz-Crooks, Rosa Noreen

Speaking specifically about the production of the show, Zabel did an excellent job with its promotion and coordination. For future performances, I think that tweaking a few elements of the staging might be helpful in reinforcing the artistic nature of the dance. Organizing the show in sections to account for more elaborate prop set up and allowing the curtains to close while the ‘magic’ is reset for each dancer can help give the audience time to appreciate each performance and eliminates distractions that take them out of the show (Author note: It appeared that an unexpected malfunction with the curtains, which made them difficult to close and open with ease, may have contributed to this issue.). Dancers may be accustomed to intimate performance spaces and casual haflas, but audience members not in the dance community may have different expectations when attending this type of event.

I understand and commend the decision to not let the show be drawn out by long introductions for each performance or a multi-page program that the audience would have to read, distracting them from the vision of this journey through childhood. While I appreciate the decision to ask the audience to engage with the poems and artist statements directly, the lack of a simple program to refer to made it a bit challenging for me to follow the story. As an audience member and a very recent addition to the local dance community, I sometimes found it difficult to immerse myself completely in each performance as I tried to recall what dancer and poem were being featured. All of the dancers did a good job of interpreting their chosen poem, but some connections were clearer than others and I felt that some very beautiful performances suffered from the lack of a short introduction.

I believe that making the dance form more accessible and approachable through artistic endeavors is a worthy goal and one that is highly compatible with Middle-Eastern dance. "A Child’s Garden of Verses" was a brave and enjoyable first step in this direction. I am looking forward to see what upcoming events Zabel has in store for us.

See a short trailer with highlights of show performances.

Sarah Feldman (Evren) has been studying Middle-Eastern dance for just over a year and a half with Boston area teachers Sardis and Aslahan.