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!