El Bahr – ‘The River’ Society Showcase 2003 Review

by Jennifer Carmen

Showcase 2003 was performed early in November, after almost a year of preparation, to a full and appreciative house.  London’s Steiner Theatre is a good size for Raqs Sharqi, giving enough stage room for group work yet retaining intimacy with the audience. The skilfully arranged programme of Sha’abi, Baladi and Sharqi was linked by the theme of ‘The River’- El Bahr.

Erna Froehlich, in lovely dusty red veil and flowing gallabeya, opened the first half to an elegiac ney piece.  She showed sustained concentration in this contemporary evocation, well-chosen to highlight her elegance of line.  In Halima, a traditional piece for eight dancers, I enjoyed the hypnotic repetition that the choreographer was not afraid to employ. The male-style stick dance by Jean Elbourn, Liz Moan and and Barbara York was carried off with poise and power – I felt more attack in their combat moves would consolidate the latent authority they show in this form. In Raqs El Hawanim – ‘The Ladies’ Dance’, Aliya Burch and Ellie Atkinson highlighted their beautiful step-shivers and varieties of Egyptian walks and introduced a contrasting feminine energy to the stage. Their natural physical rapport made this duo a joy to watch.  Lively choreography by Judy Hammond, Dorothy Wood and the performers, to a vocal piece by Metqal Qinawi, made the most of the crisp hip technique and individual qualities of dancers Veronica Difford, Anita Epstein and Claire Morgan. Al Bahr Al Gharam Wasah – ‘Love is as Vast as a River’, danced with discipline and charm by Kate Deacon, Jaine Lumsden and Lorne McCall, closed the Sha’abi scene.                           

A simple but effective stage setting created a salon atmosphere for traditional Sharqi pieces by Natalie Wilson and Bridget Poulter.  Natalie’s Farid El Atrache medley suited her femininity and refinement, with plenty of qanun to highlight her hipwork.  Bridget’s interpretation of Ana F’Intizarak was accomplished and magnetic, and she conveyed her involvement with the music with real warmth and style, ending the first half of the programme with a confident flourish.

After the Interval a lively ghawazee dance choreographed for eight by Juliana Brustik filled the stage with colour and movement, in interesting group and individual patterns, segues and overlaps that never got too busy.  Vivien Knight and Helen Leake built up the energy in their brief duo downstage, with infectious enjoyment and rapport.

The opening mawaal of the Baladi piece Taht Al Shbaak – ‘Underneath the Window’ and another setting change introduced modern Cairo.  Sylvianne Capell and Meret Gabra played off each other and the music with flair and charm.  The costumes looked great and Meret’s effortless ease and charisma added that special Egyptian flavour.  Hassan Abou El Seoud’s wonderful Leylat Masr – ‘Egyptian Nights’ was powerfully interpreted by Barbara York, whose mature presence and confident musicality was suited to the piece well. Erna’s playful Tigi Ya Hawa and other duos completed the Baladi section: Bridget Poulter and Cathy Needham danced Enousa, and Vivien Knight and Theresa Lewis, in wrapped skirts and head veils, interpreted the soundly structured Hart El Sa’ayin – ‘Watersellers’ Lane’ with boldness and variety.
 
Lorne McCall and Tamsin Elbourn gave accomplished performances to Bii El Gamal Ya Ali – ‘Sell all you Have...’and Bahlam Bik – ‘I Dream of You’, respectively. Well-chosen to round off the modern Sharqi section and the night was a vocal rendition of Inta Omri – ‘You are my Life’, stunningly interpreted by Sylvianne Capell, her attunement to the music evident in her passion and command.  Her gestures were fully charged with expression and never deteriorated into prettiness.  Although the white costume was appropriate, I am certain that Sylvianne could carry off more glamour and drama than she allows herself currently.

Space does not permit comment on each piece, but every dance and dancer made a memorable contribution. The dancing was of a very high standard in every form, despite the challenge of the unfamiliar raked stage.  It was an excellent show and the resources of all the dancers were used intelligently in a well-planned programme.  Make-up and headdresses would have benefited from an overseeing eye to harmonise the look and add a professional touch.  The lighting and simple but carefully chosen settings were effective and the professionalism was a credit to Katrina, Juliana and Judy, who created and organised the show, taking responsibility for the artistic direction, direction and production, respectively. 

Five years after the incorporation of the Raqs Sharqi Society (in 1997) a soundly based maturity, growing individualism and creative confidence has emerged and the Hilal legacy of superb technique, clear form and lyrical Sharqi is evident in these well-trained dancers. The beauty, grace and poise of Raqs Sharqi was expressed by everyone, but I would like to see the emergence of more fire, power and ‘attitude’.  With security and technique firmly established, the dancers could now allow themselves a freer rein to express their individuality more fully and could afford to take a few creative risks!

A lot of work by the dancers and the dedicated team of organisers went into this performance.  On the basis of this very competent showing I have no doubt that the audience would appear for a second night and give the dancers more of a chance to relax and enjoy themselves to the full.

Jennifer Carmen danced professionally with live music in London and the Middle East during the early 1980s, and selected the musicians who were to form the Layali El Sharq ensemble.  Between 1985 and 1992 she worked as administrator/manager, promoter, designer and costumier with Suraya Hilal and Company in a pioneering mission to establish high-quality Raqs Sharqi on the concert stages of Britain and abroad. She has produced CDs of the Layali El Sharq ensemble that have become known as classics of their genres: www.

This review first appeared in the January-April 2004 issue of ‘Events’, the Society’s former newsletter.

* Go to ‘Shop’ for the double CD ‘The Layali el Sharq Ensemble Live: Classical Egyptian Music for Raqs Sharqi' and the CD 'Baladi Live'.