(MA) Dancers for the Dead

Reviewed by Heather Emerson

Ceremony and spectacle, sacred and sinister were all played out on stage in Johara’s Snake Dance Theater’s production of Dances for the Dead. The well attended program was given as a benefit for the Italian Home for Children. Johara has, with courage and professionalism, produced extensive stage shows for many years on a variety of themes from belly dance through the decades to the Golden Era of Egyptian Dance. At this one, as fits the theme of death and respect for the past, was announced at the show to be her last formal stage production. Fortunately she will continue to dance, and anyone who has suffered through the birth of even a small show cannot blame her for choosing to step back for the risks, madness, scheduling, and costs involved in such a production. I hope that others will take up where she left off and bring dance to the larger stage, and the larger world, through such shows.

As the audience entered the theater, they were invited to write a memory or share a photo or a memento of a past loved one on a decorated altar in front of the stage. The altar was covered in memories of loved ones, who were saluted in the opening ceremony, described as combining “traditions from the Mexican Day of the Dead and the Ghost Festival of China to pay our respects for our loved ones that have passed from this world to the next.” A somber parade, two by two, entered the theater from the back and passed the audience, other worldly and somber in sugar skull masks. The lighting and costuming combined to create a sense of a truly sacred, hushed space that one could have enjoyed and spent the evening in contemplation.

The show must go on, however, and Yael transitioned the audience to Act One, the individual performances, with a stunning black and red costume that enhanced her “dark Flamenco Arabe” piece. Her movements were so deliberate and her arms to incredibly fluid, she was a pleasure to watch. Next La Llorona continued on the Mexican/Spanish influenced theme with an elegant fan veil piece depicting “one of the oldest ghost stories of the Mexican Day of the Dead.” Nepenthe changed our mood and locale as she portrayed a slain Viking warrior maiden, who rises as a “draugar” and masterfully uses her family sword (and a red veil) to deliver vengeance and gain her spirit peace. You could see the menace and anger in her eyes from the seats.

In a fabulous turn of events, the next performers – the King Serpent Variety Troupe – treated us to a song and story combined, taking us on a pirate ships “voyage through the land of the dead.” I have to take a moment here to say what a pleasure it is to have a show not only with varieties of dance styles, but to have other performing arts as well. It keeps the audience’s attention and entertains in a well-rounded way that even a non-dancer can enjoy. When you produce a large, expensive stage show – as well as expose new audiences to our dance form in a positive way – it makes sense to combine different types of performance so we all better appreciate one another as well as it will attract new audience types and hopefully create new fans.

The more traditional dark fusion piece came in Iria’s sinuous performance “In an exhale I wake up from the dead.” Next, Badriya Al Badia took us to the Celtic realm and through the night skies as The Huntress of the Wild Hunt. Her gathering of souls included reaching out in such a manner you couldn’t escape feeling a sense of chill and dread. The Celtic journey continued Neylan in her piece Herne the Hunter.  I’ve been watching Neylan for over a decade, but this piece has to be one of my favorites. Giving us a view of the physical decline of age and approach of death, she was wrapped in a colorful granny square shawl, but as her soul was gathered it reenergized and prepared to be born again that shawl, once a sign of age, became an energy radiating veil. Neylan handled this heavy shawl so well it moved with the lightness of silk.

We descended into darkness in the last portion of the first act, first with Esther Rahel dancing dark fusion as “The Church Grim,” guarding all the church and all buried in the churchyard from the devil. Madness was the message as Anabee, with chilling manic movement and wide eyes frenetically danced “Obsession.” The Priestess, Aria, returned us to safer, more sacred ground as she danced “Crossing the Veil,” with both an ethereal lightness yet incredible strength, honoring the ancestors during Samhain, when the veil between the world is at its most thin.

 

After a brief intermission, the stage was set for Act Two, a stirring tale of innocence, temptation, lust, and the strength of a young woman to determine her own destiny. The Serpentine Dancers performed “Dracula’s Bride”, starting as most fairy tales do with a young woman taking “a joyous walk in the forest in search of mushrooms to serve at her wedding day feast.” The young woman was danced and costumed perfectly, portraying all the purity and innocence of Snow White. She was joyful, but not meek, and against her friends’ warnings goes deeper into the forest where she encounters a colorful and coin bedecked fortune teller in Johara, whose dramatic gestures and strong ability to communicate a story through dance tell us that a dreadful future is in store for our heroine. Naively she continues further, only to be tempted into a picnic with a pair of wine-supping, sensual women. Finally, intoxicated and afraid, she faints when confronted with a flight of dark, dazzling dancing bats (costumed by none other than Boston’s own costumer to the stars and dance herself, Shadia).

Our heroine awakens in a dark castle, surrounded by sensual, mysterious women who prepare her to join them as Dracula’s brides. Faced with impending doom as described by the fortuneteller, she plays along with the brides, but makes her own plan. Bedecked in her wedding attire, she finally meets her suitor, an amazingly tall, long haired, darkly mysterious, regal but intimidating Dracula. I wish I had his name, but all I can say is WOW. She seemed to be in his thrall, and the audience began to think she would fall, but at the last minute, her embrace becomes his death with a stab to the heart and she escapes to rejoin her true love.

One of the joys of ballet is the storytelling, and Johara clearly draws on her classical Western dance training and knowledge. Seeing a whole story told so clearly and beautifully, with dance, pantomime, props and costumes is a treat for an audience – particularly when it is well rehearsed and performed. Never once did you have to put the story aside due to a distraction of an unprepared or entangled performer. This dance drama was truly a pleasure. Thank you, Johara, for years of fabulous stage shows and sharing your inspiration with the community. Now everyone give her a loud, long zaghareet!

If you want to produce or perform in a stage show – a few thoughts:

As I mentioned above, this type of show is expensive and hard work – both to produce, choreograph, rehearse, plan, and promote. I hope that others will take on this challenge, but go in knowing what it demands.

As a performer, if you are offered an opportunity to perform in a stage show as a solo artist or as part of a larger group, you need to take it seriously. Be sure you are very clear on what type of performance your director wants and design your piece – and practice it - to be part of that story or theme. Use music that supports that theme, and use a stage-worthy costume. You want something that will highlight you, your performance, and the uniqueness of your piece.

  • If your outfit is something you could wear on the street or to dance class, you need to consider stepping up your game. Have you ever been to a show where it seems like every other dancer is wearing a plain choli with a skirt? You wouldn’t try to spin in an a-line skirt? Even the common layered or tiered drawstring waist skirts aren’t always made to be full the way a full circle or tribal skirt is. You may not get the spin – or the look – you desire.   

  • You wouldn’t wear a plain bra (or have any part of your everyday bra!) showing. Cover your bra – including shoulder straps and back hooks! Add “stuff” – be it sparkly, poofy, silky, spiky, ragged, kuchi-style – use what will highlight you, your performance, and the story or feeling you want to project.

  • You are on a stage – chances are your audience is looking up – and can see up into your billowing skirt or into that long slit in your skirt. Nothing wrong with showing leg – but chances are you don’t want to show more than that. Wear appropriate underwear or dance pants to keep your privates to yourself.

  • Safety pins – or even diaper pins (safe for babies, safe for dancers!) – are your best friend! I’ve always found dancers to be happy to help one another get pinned in place. You aren’t going through airport security, but you want to be secure! When in doubt, pin layers of skirts, undies, and hip scarves together. Pin your beautiful top to the bra so the bra – and breast (yes, I’ve seen it) stays covered and the beautiful top stays where it is supposed to. I know many dancers also take advantage of double-sided fashion tape.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on a costume – but you do need to give it effort – specialized make-up or hair, jewelry, props, effects, things can help reflect the character or theme you are dancing and add interest and movement. Take things up a notch!

  • The make-up you wear for a restaurant gig where you are interacting with the audience is very different from the make-up you need on stage in lighting. Darker, more clearly defined – it may look clownish or odd up close – but for your audience it will define your features and can be the highlight of your costume.

  • Think bigger with hair and hair décor. For some dancers this may be outside your usual comfort zone, but it is part of being a stage performer. Your director trusts you to do a great job in their show.

  • A special prop or surprise effect can add a dash of theater to your performance. Be creative! You want your performance to be memorable for all the right reasons, not to blend in or be similar to others.

Of course, be a professional. Attend rehearsals in a timely manner. Lighting can be your friend – don’t miss your tech time! If you have an emergency or have to change a rehearsal time or find out you can’t perform, let the producer know as soon as possible so they can plan accordingly. Do unto other dancers as you’d have them do to you – share dressing room space, help getting prepared, and encourage your fellow performers. Spread the love!