Review: Sawah (Arabesque)

Sawah brings Middle Eastern music, dance and culture to the Fleck Dance Studio in Toronto

I try my best to stay away from descriptive words that have become horribly clichéd. But when it comes to certain art forms, in particular dance and music, I find myself at a loss for words and revert back to the classic yet overused. Case in point, for me, would be belly dance and Arabic music. As a westernized Chinese woman, I’m far from a connoisseur of Middle Eastern culture but nonetheless I’m drawn to its beauty and mystery. There’s a strong sense of sensuality, exoticism, and allure that I find captivating. It was just enough for me to acquire a couple coin scarves myself and sign up for belly dance classes at my local gym.

When I heard that Arabesque would be performing Sawah (which translates to “wanderer” in Arabic), an immersive experience of Arabic music and dance, this weekend at the Fleck Dance Theatre, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a bit of escapism.

Every time I sit down to cover a dance performance I start with the same fact – I don’t know much about dance. I know what I find beautiful, I know that I appreciate fine movement, story telling and expression through the body, and the beauty of world music. But technically speaking, I don’t know much about dance. I followed along with a few early seasons of So You Think You Can Dance and yes I paid attention to the judges’ commentary which is where I draw what few areas I can critique from. So far it’s served me well.

And from there is where I approached this performance. Right from the get go, there were elements that moved and entranced me while other elements left me unsatisfied and hoping for more. To begin with, what the audience is first introduced to, the music. The band lead by composer, musical director, oud player and vocalist Bassam Bishara is superb – from the sextet of oud players opening the show to the full on band with vocals, the music was breathtakingly beautiful. The skill to which the musicians took to performing was remarkable.

The dancing I found to be a bit touch and go at times. Certain dancers stood out more than others, even during the ensemble pieces – depending on where your eyes wandered during the group numbers, certain dancers didn’t seem to place as much care to completing their movements and extensions of hands and feet as others did. It left certain dancers to come off slightly lacklustre. If you draw your eyes back and watch the numbers as a whole, it blends and the specifics fall to the side.

My friend Lauren (who accompanied me for the evening) also found herself distracted by some of the performers who didn’t appear to be in sync and others who seemed to crowd the stage when not standing on their mark.

One thing that stood out for me was the interesting costume choices and I have to give kudos to costume designer Deborah Shaw for her rather unique, eye-catching and bold choices. Where I had walked in expecting more traditional belly dance costumes, I was surprised to see a number where the ladies were outfitted in technicolour ponchos that also doubled as dance props, as well as a different number where the gals were sporting long That 70’s Show-style psychedelic print dresses. This was a definite nod to the performance’s goal of merging eastern culture with western influence. Can’t say that these choices were good or bad in my eyes, I tend to prefer more traditional costuming, but it was surely interesting.

Choreographer Yasmina Ramzy did a fantastic job at creating the intricate dance numbers with the over 20 performers she had to work with. With the band and the ensemble, that stage gets crowded fast which can lead to a production that feels clumsy and heavy but Ramzy was able to harness her dancers and create movement pieces that felt light and flowy even with that large number. Unfortunately Lauren and I found ourselves disappointed with Ramzy’s solo numbers. Though they were lit and costumed beautifully, the dance itself was underwhelming and left us wanting more.

There’s a lot of magnificent potential in this performance that needs to be realized and with more rehearsal and practice, can be truly a creature of beauty. The music alone was enough for me to feel satisfied with my Middle Eastern sojourn and the rest of the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves, too. If you’re drawn like I am by desert winds and the allure of Arabic culture, than Sawah is a perfect evening of escape.

Details:

  • Sawah is being performed at the Fleck Dance Studio at Harbourfront Centre (207 Queen’s Quay West)
  • Performances run until April 13
  • Performance times are 8 pm and 2 pm, see website for details
  • Tickets range from $19-39 and can be purchased in advance online or by phone by calling 416 920 5593

Photo of the Sawah cast by Peter Lear.

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