(MA) Seyyide Sultan presents "Helwa! From Cairo to Boston"

by Nepenthe Ahlam

 As I write this review, I am still nearly in a state of tarab - drunk on music and dancing. Tonight, I attended "Helwa! From Cairo to Boston", with Seyyide Sultan, her troupe Sarab, and the Taksim Boston Band  (Joseph Koumyoumjian, Hagop Garabedian, Ron Sahatjian, and Art Chingris). I must disclose that I was a student of Seyyide from as far back as 2003 to as late as 2013. She even performed at my wedding. Still, folks, I am committed to giving you a fair and balanced show review.

The venue was the Arlington Center for the Arts, an intimate theater setting with plenty of free parking. Those of us lucky to arrive early were able to hear some fantastic music as the band warmed up. Seyyide's son, Alan, was a great usher. Lucky to have a reserved seat, I was in the front row with nothing obstructing my view of both the dancers on the stage and the musicians on the floor.

The show started with the tremor of the oud as the Taksim Boston Band opened with "Hibbina", an Arabic classic.

 Next, the troupe danced to that classic pop song "El Salam" in jeans and Sarab t-shirts with hip scarves. It wasn't the strongest piece in the show, but it had Seyyide's mark all over it - all of my favorite moves that she taught me over the years. As the dancers warmed up and the music played on, they got into their grooves but all the while, they had lovely smiles - such an important component of performance.

Then Seyyide performed a classic Arabic opening with baladi elements and even an Alexandrian feel at some points, as well as Saiidi. She danced to it all according to the style of that music, which goes to show that a great dancer needs no props.  She followed this by dancing to an oud taxim by Joseph Kouyoumjian. The oud taxim requires so much confidence, and is challenging because an inexperienced dancer will want to shimmy to every tremolo of the oud, but Seyyide knew when to slow it down and draw it out. This taqsim was followed by an "accordion" baladi, with Hagop on the keyboard. Musically, I wanted more from this baladi. Perhaps it was because this wasn't a real accordion, or maybe because of the maqam selected, but I have seen Seyyide dance to an accordion baladi in the past, and I felt the music didn't allow her to be in the fullness of her range, and it was shorter than expected. Please do not take this as a criticism of the musician, of course. There is a natural superiority to an instrument doing what it is meant to do that cannot be captured by a recording of it, but luckily with today's keyboards, we can at least approximate many instruments.  (If anyone knows an accordionist in Boston, he or she would be very popular!)

As an aside, this band - please take care of yourselves. We know what a gem we have here, how lucky we are in Boston to have great musicians in this style of music, people who grew up with it and have been playing it for many years. With the new immigration policies and the hostility towards Middle-Eastern immigrants in particular, I worry that future generations will never be able to experience what we have had in Boston for the past sixty years.

The next piece was a recorded Saiidi with an ear-piercing mizmar. I mean, I love mizmar as much as the next Arabic music superfan, but the volume was a bit high. That's a problem for mizmar wherever you go! I know it was always an issue for me when I performed. Despite the sound of my eardrums bursting, I loved this group dance because Sarab really got into the spirit of the dance. They lit up. It's actually one of the more difficult dances to do as a group choreography, due to the flying canes, but so much more entertaining this way. This piece harkened back to when Mahmoud Reda adapted the Saiidi tahtib for the stage.

Throughout the show, the costumes chosen for the troupe dancers were simple and elegant, appropriate to the style of music, and well-fitting. However, I cannot end this review without telling you about Seyyide's peacock costume. She looked like an exotic tropical bird from the South American rainforest, with the deep blues and greens and pop of vibrant yellow silk peeking out from her skirt. She danced to Ron's flute taxim with delicate and intricate hands and arms.

Next, we saw the song "Zeina" danced as a duet, with two experienced dancers. Both had excellent technique, but one in particular had a broad smile, projecting joy onto the audience, while the other kept her lips together. I was reminded of the lessons I learned from Ranya Renee of NYC about keeping your mouth at least slightly parted, even if you aren't smiling, because sharing the air with the audience has the effect of connecting you and opening you up, while closing your mouth closes you off. This same dancer, later in the show's finale drum solo, seemed to relax into the music. Her mouth opened into a genuine smile, her soul flowed through it, and we felt her energy as a dancer. It is a beautiful thing when a dancer realizes that she has worked hard on her technique, and now she can relax and share herself with the audience.

Next, Seyyide danced to Enta Omri with all of the subtlety that Oum Kolthoum deserves.

The finale was a drum solo with the entire group. It was a wonderful idea to show each dancer's unique personality. I finally got to see more of Leeza's sweet style and beautiful hips. I cannot necessarily match faces to names in the booklet, but there was one gal in turquoise with amazing stage presence and sense of stagecraft. She has the makings of a great entertainer.  Bigger smiles appeared here than anywhere else, as they must have realized that they were at the end of giving a very professional and well-run show.  The drum solo gave everyone their chance to shine in their own dance style.  Seyyide joined the stage in a spectacular red costume, showing her mastery of the drum solo - how to go fast, slow, and how to wait for it, how to move the audience and of course, what movements most enhance and suit a particular rhythm.

The band played one last song - "Leilet Hob". I seriously lost myself in the music there. I could actually feel myself slipping away. This is one of my favorite songs and since there was no dancer, I could just close my eyes and feel it. Thank you Ron, Joe, Art, and Hagop for your wonderful rendition. I wish I could have been dancing it along with you.

At the end Seyyide gave a nice speech and talked a bit about the dance. Overall I think it did honor to Egyptian dance and music, and achieved its goal of bringing a cultural experience of Oriental dance to Arlington. It was an extremely well-paced show, alternating between troupe and soloists, and musical interludes, such that you never grew bored.

In "Helwa", Seyyide showed everything I love about this dance, and everything I had forgotten I loved. She was one of the first great dancers I had the pleasure to see, who inspired me to go further with my dancing, and even now, after taking several years off from Oriental dance, she has reminded me why I fell in love with it. If only one in a thousand dance students have Seyyide's talents, it is worth training each and every one along the way. 

Photo by Ravenwolfe Photography

Photo by Ravenwolfe Photography

Nepenthe Ahlam (Shannon Davis) was a student and performer of Middle-Eastern dance in the Boston area from approximately 2002 to 2015, studying under the guidance of many different teachers. She produced Raks Nativity for two years running, and then moved on to performing with Johara’s Snake Dance Theater for several productions. In 2015, she retired from professional dancing, but still enjoys the music and the people she met through dance. Now, she likes to go “sketching” on the weekends, and is starting to find many parallels between the physical art of dancing and the visual art of drawing and painting. Both require you to have great powers of observation, a mastery of different techniques, but most importantly, the ability to free yourself to feel what you are expressing.