Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November's Gray

A group of writers meets in our town, and we share essays and other short writings that we read aloud to each other. It's not a critique group. People read poetry, short stories and essays, and occasionally a book chapter. We meet in a cozy home with a jolly wood stove. I brought this essay to our last meeting a couple of weeks ago. I tried to capture the last golden moments of autumn here.


In the city, November’s gray is cold. It surrounds you on the streets and sidewalks. Gray concrete buildings rise toward only a sliver of faintly aqua sky. And at ground level, tiny cherished city gardens here and there attempt to offset the dreariness of the urban tomb.

Lucky we are in Maine. On a country road, of a mild sunny afternoon in November, a delicate palette of gray lies all around. Set off by pale green fields rolling by, a wide blue sky above, lit by the slanting sun from the south, our grays have texture, shadow and shape. Next April we will be so weary of gray, but now it has a kind of glory, speaking of centuries, eons.

These grays are best in the late afternoon sunlight. The south sides of the tree trunks blaze and you can examine the barks of elfin corduroy maple, elephant leg beech and fizzured oak. Old gnarled apple trees pose in the orchards, their silver gray dancer arm branches still clutching handfuls of golden leaves.

Now that most leaves have fallen, hidden woodpiles and boulders appear once more along roads and paths. The character of each stone wall is laid bare now, every one as distinct as an old person’s face. Some are piles of small stones, others built with huge lichen-splotched boulders. Some wave with the passing years’ frost heaves. Others are steadfast and strong, but all are haven of chipmunks, snakes and mice. In the low sun they are sculpture and scripture of form and shadow.

Even the gray paved and gravel roads in the country delineate the fields and forests, neutral picture frames of each field’s color. And at some point in the season, the yellow stripes down their middles match the still golden maple leaves perfectly.

It is good to contemplate November’s gray, in the country on a sunny day.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Shining Stars of Shoma

It's less than two weeks to Opening Night for Shoma, a Storytelling Dance Theater Journey to the Desert. Information and tickets here.

The dancers and actors are rehearsing in Jawaahir's studio. The musicians are working on their material. The seamstresses are sewing, the actors and dancers are pulling the details of their costumes together. Director Hilary Stellner Smith and Cassandra Shore are directing all the myriad facets of the production. Assistant Director and Stage Manager Shannon Russell is wearing many hats, as an understudy, reading the parts of others in absentia, generally working non-stop.

This production has so many stars and outstanding performers and contributors that it's impossible to give them adequate homage. Here is a run down of some of the extraordinary individuals who will be part of the show, both on and off the stage.

Dance: In addition to Cassandra Shore and her incredible company, Donald LaCourse, the Artistic Director of Minnesota's Ethnic Dance Theater, will be playing a featured theatrical and dance role. Read about Don here.

Musicians: The orchestra playing in Shoma is a veritable who's who of performers in the genre of Arabic music. They learn the show material by ear, the traditional way musicians in the Arab world learn music. Many of them are have national and international reputations. While they seem to be somewhat lean on websites, they are long on talent. The Jawaahir audiences are in for an extraordinary musical extravaganza.

Georges Lammam leads the ensemble. Based in California, Lammam is a beloved virtuoso violinist who brings passion to his playing. He is one of the reasons Jawaahir audiences are so loyal year after year. George's facebook page.

Naser Musa will be singing and playing oud. Naser is a specialist in the music of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, and produced a CD of music from the region. He also composes and has worked in film as well. Naser's website.

Michael Ibrahim is the conductor of the National Arab Orchestra of Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is an extraordinary performer on Arabic wind instruments including nay (end-blown reed flute) and mizmar (the closest thing to an oboe in Arabic music), as well as oud. In Shoma he'll be playing nay....and here is video of him conducting and playing nay - a composition entitled Fatafit al-Sukkar.

Susu Pampanin:  A leading Arabic percussionist from California, Susu wows audiences around the country with her polished and powerful style. Here is a video of Susu and the Cairo Cats. (She's the lead percussionist).

Miles Jay: Miles plays double bass, composes, and makes instruments. He has been a key player in the Nile Project. It is hard to summarize all Miles' talents and the projects he is pursuing around the world. In addition to performing with global artists, he composes, arranges for film, and performs for film as well. Here is his website: Miles Jay website

Jim Grippo: Jim hails from California, where he has been playing Middle Eastern music on oud and qanun for twenty years. He will play qanun for Shoma. Jim is pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology, and teaches at Ventura College. He performs regularly with the Middle East Ensemble at the University of California- Santa Barbara, and has performed with Georges & Elias Lammam, Souren Baronian, Rowan Storm, Afif Taian, and Naser Musa. Here he is on video: Jim Grippo on Qanun

Tim O'Keefe: A Minnesota-based multi-instrumental percussionist and oud player, Tim has been playing with Jawaahir for years, and is a mainstay of many productions. Tim performs with several Minnesota groups across music genres and teaches percussion.

Laura Harada: Ms. Harada plays violin in many genres and styles, from classical European to tango and beyond. She has been playing Arabic music since at least 1997, and is a regular in Jawaahir shows. She played violin in the first Shoma, back in 1998.

Yaron Klein: This is Yaron's first performance with Jawaahir. Born in Haifa, Yaron earned his PhD at Harvard in Arabic Language and Literature; his thesis topic bridged language and music. He plays both oud and violin, but in Shoma he will join the violin section. When he is not playing music, he is a professor of Arabic at Minnesota's Carleton College.

Set design: Saudi-American artist Hend Al-Mansour has created a unique tent divider for the scenes set in a desert encampment. Her website: Hend Al-Mansour

Lighting: Jeff Bartlett is legendary in Minnesota for his stage lighting. When Shoma was performed in 1998 at the Southern Theater, Bartlett's lighting added fantastic effects and gave the show its extraordinary feel. Once again, he'll be conjuring up his magic.

Sound Engineer:  Stephen Spaise has worked on several Jawaahir productions. He is also a percussionist and has been playing world music (especially Middle Eastern music) for 25 years. He performs with several ensembles in the Twin Cities.


Costumes: Eileen O'Shaughnessy has been contributing her costuming talents to many Jawaahir productions, and Shoma is no exception. Her work on the original Shoma will once more be in the spotlight. Shannon Russell and Lori Wilczek are also sewing up a storm for new costumes and new actors/dancers.

If you are within traveling distance to Minneapolis, try to make it to Shoma to see these fantastic stars shine.




Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Karim Nagi, lead actor in Shoma!

Karim Nagi, an Egyptian-born American citizen, is playing the lead male acting role in Shoma, a dance theater and storytelling show being produced by the Jawaahir Dance Company of Minneapolis September 29 - October 2nd at the Lab Theater. (Buy tickets here.)

Nagi plays the role of Badr (which means 'full moon' in Arabic). To say the least, it is a thrill to have Karim taking this part in the show. He is a multi-talented artist who extends his work beyond expected boundaries. His rare combination of abilities takes him around the world in his passionate quest to share many facets of Arab culture. He is a musician, public speaker, actor, poet, teacher, dancer, composer, and producer. Here is a link to Karim's website.  His latest project is "Detour Guide", storytelling with music and visuals. website: Detour Guide

Nagi is always searching for new ways to express himself and his ideas. In Shoma, he will act, perform folk dance, recite poetry, and play Arabic music. And, most importantly, he'll bring his outsize personality and charm to the role of Badr. 

Shoma is not Nagi's first Jawaahir show. He started out, in his words, as a 'Riqq Man' (playing the riqq - Arabic tambourine). Later he did solo dance performances. And now, he will be an actor.

Below is Karim's video artist's profile. 


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Who is Shoma?

The Jawaahir Dance Company of Minneapolis is staging a dance and theater and music show entitled SHOMA, from September 28 - October 2, 2016. The performances will take place at the Lab Theater, and you can purchase tickets here.

A combination of storytelling, theater, dance and music, SHOMA is about love, weddings, marriage, blackmail, and social media, set at a henna party in an un-named modern Saudi Arabian city.

Here is the official blurb about the show...

Cassandra and Jawaahir Dance Company are proud to present Shoma, a dance theater extravaganza set during a bridal henna party in Saudi Arabia. A storyteller named Shoma entertains the bride’s guests with a Bedouin folktale. She tells the story of an independent shepherdess who gets lost in a sandstorm, only to find herself in a magic garden. Like all good storytellers, Shoma tailors her tale to fit the occasion. In this case, the bride’s reputation is threatened with public scrutiny. Will the Bedouin shepherdess find her way home? Will the modern day wedding go off as planned? Join Jawaahir to see it all play out!

So who is Shoma?


Sarah Jones-Larson plays the Arabian storyteller, Shoma.


Shoma is the name of the lead character in the show, and it's also the name of a real Saudi storyteller. She was born among the Huwaitat bedouin tribe of northern Arabia sometime in the early 20th Century. She was the niece of the famous bedouin chiefton Auda Abu Tayy (the character played by Anthony Quinn in the film Lawrence of Arabia). I learned about her when I was living in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970's. She had just passed away, so I never got to meet her. However, here's what I learned from a Saudi friend, and later from some members of her family. She ran away from home 'for reasons of love'. She took refuge in an oasis city and gradually made her way to the big city of Jeddah, and lived out her life telling stories about the desert. And one more thing, she was under the personal protection of modern Saudi Arabia's first ruler, Ibn Saud. 

We called the show "Shoma" strictly based on that character. The show does not deal with her own story, but rather conjures up a story she might have told if she were alive today. 

The word "shoma" means "club" or "thick stick". I'm told that the Bedouin often named their children after harsh things to protect them from evil. Interestingly, "shoma" also means "you" in a formal or plural sense in Farsi, the language of Iran.

The real-life Shoma provided inspiration for a character in my novel, A CARAVAN OF BRIDES, set in Saudi Arabia. In fact the show script flowed from a very early version of the novel, which I hope to publish in its final form in 2017.

Minneapolis actress and voice-over expert Sarah Jones-Larson (owner of School of Acting and Voice Over) plays the role of Shoma. A member of Jawaahir Dance Company since 1994, Sarah acted the part in the 1998 production, and now brings her added experience to bring Shoma to life on stage again. Sarah is a fantastic Shoma. 

"I adored playing Shoma in 1998,"  Sarah says, "and it's a lot of fun to revisit her now. Over the years, my approach has changed, and I keep finding new worlds in the text. I love the script updates from Kay and the new dances from Cassandra. It's going to be a wonderful show!" 

Sarah Jones-Larson will portray Shoma
 You can read more about Sarah and other key players such as our director Hilary Stellner Smith in an article by Patricia Cumbie in the Summer 2016 Jawaahir newsletter, Beledi Beat here.

With a twinkle in her eye, and a lilting voice, Sarah captivates her audiences and sweeps them off with her to the desert. There is no more perfect leading lady for SHOMA!







Shoma is Back - Thanks to the Jawaahir Dance Company

One sunny morning in the depths of winter, 2016, my good friend Cassandra Shore called. The wood stove was humming, and the bright snow outside lit up the house inside. She was calling with an idea. Cassandra is not only my friend, she is also the Artistic Director of the acclaimed Jawaahir Dance Company of Minnesota. She was calling in her official capacity, wondering if I'd be interested in working on a new revised production of SHOMA, a dance theater project that Jawaahir staged back in 1998.

I was thrilled with this proposal. SHOMA was a landmark project for me, and I believe it was for Jawaahir as well. I wrote the skeletal script for the 1998 production, and directed the all-female orchestra that performed for the show. I created all the musical arrangements, wrote out the scores (many by hand), and directed the group. I sang lead vocals and played oud. We all stretched ourselves in that production, and it paid off in spades. With lots of excitement and fabulous preproduction press, including a feature article in the Minneapolis StarTribune by Mike Steele...then full length reviews in both the Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, SHOMA sold out nearly every show.

I have so many good memories of that show. Sitting in the orchestra section, one gets a sideways view of it. Soon the rhythms, the dances, the specific lines and pauses, the lighting changes (all orchestrated by the incomparable Jeff Bartlett at the Southern Theater) were a living thing that we experienced and savored each time. I remember one show where an artist sat in the front row and sketched it. At another sell-out, the audience was raucous and seemed to have a hard time remaining seated. It was clear that many of them were repeat attendees.

The huge bedouin necklace that appears in one of my favorites - The Necklace Dance

Years later, I learned that many people who came to see SHOMA were inspired to begin studying Oriental Dance because of it. Some later joined the dance company and recall their first experience was SHOMA. My family members who attended still remember their favorite dances. The 1998 stage manager, Hilary Stellner Smith, tells me that was her first experience working with Jawaahir.

Sarah Jones-Larson, who played the title role in the 1998 run, was willing to reprise her work in the new show. And Smith is now the director of the new production. Helen Voelker, the original Muna/Munira - the leading lady in the drama, will now play the mother of the bride. Several dancers from the original show are going to be in this version, including Cassandra Shore. My friend and colleague, Egyptian-American actor, poet, musician, dancer and educator Karim Nagi, will play the male lead theatrical role of Badr.

Instead of me leading a small women's music ensemble, this time the all-star orchestra that accompanies Jawaahir shows these days will be making the music. Led by Georges Lammam, the group will feature Naser Musa, an expert in the music of the Gulf. This dream team will create blissful music for these much loved dances.

After rewriting the script over the winter and helping Cassandra with a few musical issues, I was preparing to fly out to Minnesota to watch the production in September. Then, in June, she called again. Unbeknownst to me, Jawaahir had won a choreography grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, for me to create a dance for them using the folkloric dances of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. I choreographed the finale for the show. It seemed that once again, Shoma was beginning to make its magic.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Samantha Burnstein's Khaliji Dance Project

Samantha Burnstein
Samantha Burnstein is a Montreal-based expert in and enthusiast of folkloric dance from the Middle East who studied anthropology and researches dance ethnology. She teaches and performs all manner of dances from the Middle East, and also directs the dance company Sanaa Dance. This group excels at the dances of North Africa and the Arabian Gulf (the "Khalij"). Samantha is also a silversmith who designs her own jewelry which you can find in her Etsy store, Sara Mali Jewelry. It was a delight to speak with Samantha about one of her recent dance projects.

In 2012, her dance troupe had the unique opportunity to travel to Dubai where they performed at a place called "Global Village". There they performed three shows and a workshop every night, and also performed in schools. They presented dances from Morocco, Egypt and one dervish style number. They were one of many groups performing folk dances from around the Middle East.

When the Bellydance Blossom Festival in Toronto put out a call for explorative and collaborate performances, she proposed a collaborative performance of Khaliji women's dance and performed it at the festival in April, 2016.

Q - What inspired you to organize this Khaliji dance project?
A - I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. I do a lot of folklore and I  dedicate myself to that. Yet I feel there’s this gap. Either we see Oriental dancers bringing a short Khaliji section into oriental performances, or we see the overly stylized choreographed group Khaliji numbers that belly dancers do. And even with the folklore troupes it’s always the question of how much should we make it look arranged? I’m pulled in two directions. The best times I’ve had dancing Khaliji are at a workshop and it’s a crazy mess of girls or women, or we’re in a studio where we’re just dancing. It's not the performance part that really gets me. So I thought, "One day, one day I’m going to do it with as many people as I can.” The festival seemed like the right moment, so I jumped on that opportunity to try it and see if it would work and have enough people to do it. The festival was asking for explorative or collaborative work. And I said well I’m a folklorist, I’m not really explorative, but then began to try this number. I threw it out there, and I didn’t know if I’d get ten people or a hundred and it just went from there.

The only requirements she asked of those who wanted to take part were that one had to be registered at the festival and one had to own a 'thobe', (a thobe nashal, the celebratory over-dress worn by Gulf and Arabian women). In the end, Samantha performed with 29 dancers from Canada and the U.S. She choreographed segments for each group, some with more solo-like parts. They worked together via video and facebook to learn her choreography, had two actual rehearsals at the festival, and then performed it. The result was something she had been aiming for. It was not only an actual performance, but a communal dance experience that bridged pure social dance with an ultra-polished troupe performance.

Waiting to go on stage

Q  - How did it turn out?
      A -  I was happy about it. I kept telling them, "Don’t worry about performing. Don’t get hung up on the performance aspect." I think it came together quite well. There were mistakes but the feeling was really powerful. Hair was flying everywhere! I just think it’s a little hard because we are all dancers, and performers. I kept saying, "Don’t get into performance mode too much. Look at each other." That was a challenge. We’re used to wanting to get it perfect.I think the feeling came together. People said, “Wow that was powerful,” but I was a little distracted trying to get everyone in their place.
"Hair was flying everywhere!"
      Interestingly, the size of the stage forced her to keep the choreography simple. She used line formations, with various groups taking solo turns. Viewing the video (see the clip below), Samantha made great use of the stage as well as the floor in front of the stage. She framed and surrounded the mini-solos, and also had the dancers clapping at one point. The repetition simplified things and gave it more of a real folkloric character.


      Looking back, Samantha said the troupe's experience in Dubai helped confirm her love of performing folkloric dance. She explained. "Seeing the various work of so many different troupes next to one another did help me confirm that I prefer the more authentic and natural dancing, even on stage, or a small mix of staging, over the overly worked dances of some troupes. But this is something I already felt, it was just great to have so many live examples from all over the Middle East right at our fingertips there."

Below is a video of exerpts from the performance. Congratulations to Samantha and all who took part!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Handwritten


My mother loved handwritten correspondence. When we’d return home for a visit, she would leave a prodigious pile of missives from far-flung relatives by our bedside. The next morning we would sometimes have to ask, “Who is Cousin Nellie again?” Even with the explanation we wouldn’t necessarily be able to trace our relationship to the writers of the letters we'd read.

We’ve always lived in different cities from our parents, so we got to appreciate my mother as a letter writer herself. Not only was her handwriting beautiful – particularly as she got more proficient at calligraphy – her prose was equally fanciful. Her personal letters had an original style, full of insider references. Her prose was distinctive and arcane, sometimes almost secretive. I’d often have to translate her letters for my husband. I was kind of embarrassed about that until I found out that my sister had to do the same thing for her husband too. Nonetheless, it is wonderful to read her letters.  It’s as if her voice lives inside the sentences. Not just the sound of them, but you can trace the way her mind worked in them. She pirouetted around a story, rendering every person and idea somehow ruffly and lacy. I bet she wouldn’t have lasted a day as a reporter, but in the social pages she would have shone.

For years, my parents wrote ‘round robin’ letters to their siblings, all of whom lived in different parts of the country. They would write (some of them typed) family news, stick the letter in an envelope and send it on to the next sibling. The letters kept circulating for years. I don’t remember when and why they stopped doing it. Every couple of months a thick envelope would arrive and my mom would devour it. I’d read it, but most of the news wasn’t of interest – it was a lot of detail from daily life that a young person didn’t find very exciting.

We’ve saved as many of my parents’ letters that we could. Just this year, we put all of my mother's letters into storage, so there’s nothing to quote to illustrate her voice now. So I perused one of the family histories she and my father wrote, in the decade before Internet research was possible. Looking for a fancy and curlicue sentence I came up dry. She was apparently heavily edited by my father!

When I was about to give up, I found a gem. Inside the book about my mother’s maternal grandmother’s line, she had included the text of a letter from my great grandfather John Born, writing from the battlefield in the Civil War in June, 1864 from Georgia near Marietta and Kennesaw Mountain. Kind of puts things into perspective. The spelling is all his. He was the son of Swiss immigrants, and was fighting alongside his brother Ulrich.

“…Well we got relieved from the scirmich line sometimes in the afternoon  ordered back a little ways to mache some coffee  we had no breakfast nore diner so you may think we felt a little like eating something in the morning we moved behind  the Breastworks   we where not safe where we made coffee for there is where Jenser got wounded while we were standing around the fire  I must go now and eat dinner the Bois got it ready   I have now been to diner   we had Krackers Coffe and Sow Belly for dinner   we are now getting as much to eat as we can handy cook   Well Ulrich (his brother) the shooting on the Scirmish Lines is still a going on   every now a Stray shot coms a whishing in over breastworks but that nothing to fear….". (ref below).

These sentences are more like facebook updates, or tweets. Obviously he had to write when he had time. But now these details of life sound fascinating to me. The language is so different. I like the sentence, “every now a stray shot coms a whishing in over the breastworks….”.

Flipping through the volume, I am overwhelmed by the thousands of lives that are mentioned in this slim book. How many stories each person had, as well as how many letters they wrote and received. Hopefully, someone in their direct line has their letters and can still read their voices.

I miss getting my mother’s letters. They would often arrive out of the blue, for no particular reason. And then just last month, a beautifully hand-penned envelope appeared, from the wife of one of our nephews. It was a fanciful card – a colorful drawing of two cats riding in a sailboat under a full moon. She wrote only to say she was thinking of us, and wished we didn’t live so far away on the East Coast – so far from her Oregon family.  She could have e-mailed and she could have sent a message on facebook. But she took the time to write. I think I’d better write back!


Quote from  page 14, "The Family of John L. Born and Regena Borchers," by Dorothy Regina Hanson, Chiefton Publishing, 1997.