Sexual Healing | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Dance Fusion

Soul & Duende Spanish American Dance Theatre and Near East Heritage Dance Theatre

at the Bop Shop, April 23


Debra R. Levasseur and Robynne M. Gravenhorst

at Link's Hall, April 28-29

Unless you put a flamenco dancer and a belly dancer side by side, as the recent "Dance Fusion" concert did, you'll never know they're performing almost the same dance. The inner intensity of flamenco seems the opposite of belly dancing's crowd-pleasing sensuality, but the two forms have many parallels. A flamenco dancer's castanets echo the belly dancer's finger cymbals. When a flamenco dancer drums her heels into the floor, her hips move with the same shimmying warble that belly dancers strive to perfect. Flamenco music does not keep the metronomic pulse of most Western music but plays freely with rhythm in ways that seem Asian. Both dances focus attention on the torso, with the arms and hands used as ornamentation. In belly dancing the center of the body moves continually while in flamenco it's held tightly and strongly, but the line formed by the torso, whether deeply arched or erect, is important to both.

Flamenco and belly dance are mirrors to each other--mirrors in which both West and East can see themselves. The music is the clearest tip-off. Tomas de Utrera of Soul & Duende explained at the Bop Shop show that both flamenco and Middle Eastern music are based on rhythmic cycles, such as a cycle of 26 broken down into shorter patterns like 4-3-4-3-4-3-2-3. This structure, common in Asia, is quite different from the steadily repeating pulse of Western music. In flamenco, it leads to sudden, dramatic suspensions of the pulse, when both musician and dancer are held for a moment until they swoop with redoubled attack into the remainder of the musical phrase. Middle Eastern music, as is particularly clear in Walid Habib's oud playing, has intricate winding rhythms that flow onward without punctuating moments of drama. In both forms the singers use the extreme upper and lower ranges of their voices rather than the comfortable middle range, giving the sound a desperate, shredded quality.

Both flamenco and belly dancing are made for small rooms like nightclubs rather than concert halls. In ballet, the clear floor patterns and the dancers' lines make it easy to see the choreography from the highest balcony; space-chewing modern dance usually needs a large stage even if it doesn't get a large audience. But the effects in flamenco and belly dancing are subtle: the amount of tension in the fingers, an arched neck, a fast hip shimmy, the isolation of hips and upper torso. A proscenium arch erodes these, making flamenco seem histrionic rather than dramatic and belly dancing only steps away from stripping.

Such extensive similarities must be due to a common heritage, and in fact flamenco was brought to Spain by gypsies, originally an Indic people; the gypsies' language, Romany, is a descendant of Sanskrit. (The film Latcho Drom conveys in music and dance the gypsies' journey from India to Spain.) At first it may seem astonishing that dance and musical forms can survive a migration across centuries and thousands of miles. But it's more astonishing how each culture uses these forms for its own purposes.

Flamenco is austere. Its costumes usually consist of only three colors: red, black, and white. Conveying suffering, grief, endurance, and passion, it seems essentially Spanish Catholic to me, the only possible dance form in a culture that's extremely aware of death--a culture of bullfights and skull candy for children on the Day of the Dead.

Belly dancing celebrates sexuality, with its scantily clad, bejeweled women dressed in every color of the rainbow. But it's a different sexuality than American Playboy-style sexuality. I've seen untrained young belly dancers in Greektown basically offer their crotches to the audience. But the women of the Near East Heritage Dance Theater are often older, and their dancing does not so much convey an eager willingness to please and to display their flesh as pleasure in their own shapes and natural movements. The proof of this is that the front row at the Bop Shop was almost entirely older women; after the concert, many women in the audience began to dance too.

One of the most surprising similarities between flamenco and belly dancing is that they're both done best by older dancers, who bring the spirit of the dance alive. The outstanding dancers in Soul & Duende are Albertossy Espinoza, a woman who always seems to be facing a spiritual brick wall, and the company's director, Azucena Vega, who dances with the inner grace of a woman who has seen everything and survived it. Barbara Cargill, the director of the Near East Heritage Company--a round woman who goes by the stage name of Natasha--is a dance therapist who frequently counsels women who've been sexually abused. Belly dancing seems to be the antidote for these women, giving back delight in a woman's body without letting it become a sexual object. And that a Near Eastern folk art becomes the cure for the soul sickness of fin de siecle America is one of the miracles of the global village.

For a closer look at that soul sickness, I'd suggest Robynne M. Gravenhorst's Blood on the Moon. She uses erotic dancers--three women who've worked in strip bars, peep shows, and other sex-industry outlets--in a dance that a program note says "explores the actual consequences of crossing these socially and personally imposed boundaries." Its opening image is a young woman bare to the waist who sits in a rumpled bed caressing her own face and body: she seems as delighted with her body as the belly dancers are with theirs. When her fingers flicked over her nipples, I could almost feel the droplets of milk she imagined leaking from them. Later in the dance, the woman puts on a black G-string and merry widow and goes through the same motions with the slovenly, drunken lack of care of a stripper doing her routine for the 100th time. Her loss of delight is the consequence of crossing social and personal boundaries.

At first Gravenhorst and a male companion (Dartagnian Nishioka), both dressed in motorcycle leathers, smoke and coolly watch the strippers (Lisa Feuer, Dontien Ingram, and Joan Ryan) as they do their routines, then go into the audience to sit in men's and women's laps. Gravenhorst pulls the strippers bodily back onto the stage and slaps a plastic bag against each of their bellies, and the women strip and put their clothes into the bag. The man begins a sales pitch to the audience, trying to sell the women as cars. About one woman he says, "The best part of this model is that she's cheap. Cheap, cheap, cheap. Put gas into her tank and she'll go, go, go." Then Nishioka turns his attention to Gravenhorst, calling her an off-road vehicle. He grabs her, and they fight viciously. When Gravenhorst wins, she tosses a heavy leather belt to the strippers, who bind Nishioka and hold him while Gravenhorst forces him to fellate a strap-on penis and beats him to death. At the end, Gravenhorst kneels bare-breasted at the front of the stage, mumbling something inaudible and holding a black strip in front of her eyes like the black strips once used to cover women's eyes in pornography. Her cool, masculine detachment did not protect her, did not prevent her from becoming a sex object like the others. She seems to say that the sex industry damages not only the women who work in it but other women as well.

But when anyone puts naked bodies onstage, the question of exploitation arises. Is Gravenhorst exploiting the erotic dancers for polemical purposes or, worse, for titillation? There seems little question that this choreographer likes to shock people; another short dance, Deep Structures, includes video images of an autopsy on a human body. And there's no question that Blood on the Moon is lurid. But Gravenhorst seems honest in her actions. She has deep sympathy for the erotic dancers, depicting clearly the human price they pay. She shows them as individuals rather than objects. And she goes literally halfway with them, appearing topless while they're nude. The plot of her dance seems a fair and even modest response to the wildly lurid sex industry it depicts.

Debra R. Levasseur's dances both have interesting voice-over narratives and physical, energetic dancing. The narrative in Threads concerns the dancers' families--parents' divorce, domestic violence, and racism. The narrative in Blue comes mainly from one man talking about being a policeman--giving tickets, not being able to stop drug dealers because their lookouts spot him, and fearing for his life at every moment. This voice presumably belongs to Levasseur's policeman husband, Robert L. Lottman. But the dancing is nonstop, unfortunately. Levasseur doesn't shape it or begin to let it speak on its own; instead she drives it, making it speak for the narrative. Levasseur's heart is huge, embracing her dancers' and policemen's woes, and she communicates that, but not through dancing or movement.

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