San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

Weekend One: Sabjilar, La Tania Flamenco Music and Dance, Pejman Hadadi and The Namah Dance Ensamble, Minoan Dancers Greek Folklore Ensemble with Edessa, Wushu West, Elvel, Group Petit La Croix, Ballet Afsaneh with Aziz Herawi

Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco, CA

June 16, 2002
by Monique Molino

A frantic chase to find the performers followed Sunday afternoon's almost three-and-a-half hour presentation of the 24th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Unfortunately, the folks at World Arts West didn't communicate to the performers that the tradition is to come into the lobby to meet the patrons. The luckier patrons were outside with the performers, pumping them for more information and deciphering the mystery that was Sabjilar and Elvel, two different shaman cultures from Central and East Asia, respectively. The afternoon's fare consisted of some historically linked ethnic groups. Greece conquered the Persian Empire, for example, but never completely conquered their culture. Of course, each performing group is on a quest for the survival of their cultures.

Sabjilar means "messengers" and comes from the Southern Siberian Khakas (pronounced "hakas") Republic bordering Mongolia and Russia. They also live fairly close to the throat-singers of Tuva, so it is not surprising that Sabjilar's Vyacheslav Kuchenov and Sergey Charkov are considered throat-singers of the highest caliber. The Khakas people consider themselves Tatar and speak various dialects of Khakas, which is Turkic. Anna Burnakova rounded out the group with her vocals and percussive accents on the dungur, a rattle drum, but she also played a string instrument in one piece. Too bad there wasn't enough room in the program to describe each of the piece performed. One piece, led by Burnakova's vocals, is about a river.* The beauty of throat-singing made apparent by this group is the helical, metallic shimmer that occurs over a dark, grumbling ground bass.

If I forgot to mention the backdrops, now is a perfect time to explain how well they were used. Matthew Antaky's rectangular gargantuan-sized backdrops helped change the mood of the space in accordance to each group's sensibilities. Two of these backdrops were brought together and suggested a tablao. Somehow they looked Mondrian, even though the colors were darker, more sultry and at the same time reminiscent of stained glass. Dark red and white squares and rectangles bordered with black trim were softened with lighting behind them.

Metallic elements were echoed in a physical way with La Tania; but she proved to bear other elements of nature as well. Sometimes she made the audience aware of the elements of percussive, angular shapes in space: a jutting elbow, a seething look, or a threatening flat palm approaching its next victim -- that is, the next moment. Or as if mixing a creamy sauce with her arms, La Tania made the space seem at once soft and yet not exactly soothing. She called on spiritual strengths within and around her, but don't be mistaken to think it was just her choice of movement. It was the way she took the audience on a voyage through this beautiful myriad of elements and how shapes are linked with the elements of our environment through different energies. The musicians, with Roberto Zamorra (singer), Mark Taylor (guitar), and Rami Ziadeh (percussion) helped bring forth a cante jondo (deep song) without having to pretend the space is small. The feeling of intimacy and the evocation of the elusive duende is difficult to achieve in a huge space with the audience removed from the performance space. La Tania Flamenco Music & Dance invoked all the senses into a glorious awakening.

Pejman Hadadi & The Namah Ensemble with Javid Afsari Rad and Brad Dutz presented a decidedly contemporary innovation to Persian dance, flamenco, trance states, and improvisation.+ "Namah" means "reverence, homage, greeting" in the language of Avesta. Axis of Love brought a dancer wearing a long white skirt with turquoise floor-length scarves cinched to her waist. The dancer, holding the scarves at their tips, took the audience on a simple journey of ascension as she slowly raised her arms, all the while spinning. It could be said it was like the earth spinning; or, like a flower opening up to reach the sky's rays. As the program states, "...a structured improvisation exploring the familiar within the infinite."+ The Moslem prayer, Namaz, and the effects of Sufi gatherings wre the inspiration for Prayer #7. The trio in this dance provided a hybrid of canon and ground bass; the deep burgundy dresses with spaghetti straps looked a bit too casual.

Thrace, located in Northeast Greece, was highlighted by the Minoan Dancers. According to their website, the dances of Thrace are to be accompanied by a gaida (high-pitched goatskin bagpipe), a clarinet, and a toumbeleki (constant drum). The music by Edessa had a doauli, clarinet, and accordian that didn't look like an accordian. Each woman's costume had its own distinct mark of artistry shown in the apron embroidery, the choice of ribbons, and the striped sparkling knitted socks. The men wore black wool baggy pants, black bolero-like jackests, blue headpieces, and embroidered shirts. Each step made by the forty-eight dancers was perfect; the company includes children that join the line of dancers in the second half of the performance. The leaders of the group -- a man at the beginning and a woman at the end of the line -- improvise without much intricacy. That is the mark of the Thracian dances. What one has to look for is the hand-holding positions that sometimes vary. For the mostly circle dances (except for the finale), the musicians provided a sprightly tempo. Kouseftos, the final dance, is described as having quick running steps. An excellent ending to a beautiful display of unity, Kouseftos evokes the image of an intricate maze.

Intermission was followed with several program changes; two of which were not announced. Wushu West was to go before Petit La Croix; this was half correct. Wushu West also went before Elvel. Very confusing.

"Wu" means military, and is also a homonym for dance; and "shu" means art. Wushu West guest starred Liu He Cheng, renowned for his musicianship on the pipa, a Chinese pear-shaped lute. And, another musician revered for his talents, Yu Zhang, is a soloist on the suona, a Chinese double-reed instrument. Although the program gave an age range of 11 to adult, there obviously were children as young as six years old in the program. A member of the group (with the help of a young boy dancer demonstrating each movement) made a brief introduction of contemporary wushu, Taiji quan, bagua zhang, long fist, and braodsword. I think. It all went too fast for me to keep up. Hao Zhi Hua (Patti Li), Artistic Director of Wushu West, was like soft petals on a lily. So gentle was her treatment of the air and energy around her, Ms. Hua seemed to create an unusual sense of light from within. Anyone who saw Wushu West wold be talking about the virtuostic leaps into floor splits, back flips, etc. A little boy in white rotated from what seemed to be his lumbar spine, circling the space around him with the top of his head. It was treated to match the sweetest and highest notes played by the string section.

From the East coast of Asia, the folk dance and music of the Kamchatka peninsula bore unique treasures. This five-member group ranges in ages from 17 to 56*. Unfortunately, one of the dancer's names is not in the program. The 22-year-old-group* introduced itself with a brief film depicting Leonid Syssoev performing a shama dance where he transforms himself into a wolf. It follows with the dancers onstage. The women often play maternal roles in these dances, singing to imitate birds and other animals. Almost every time the women made an entrance, they used a high-pitched bird motif. In one of the last dances, the women are upstage, and their voices overlap with bird calls.

Group Petit La Croix marked Artistic Director Blance Brown's last performance before retirement. Mrs. Brown is also currently on the Board of Directors for World Arts West. At this time I would like to stress my desire to see this performance again; as my endurance was waning and my ability to digest the performance proving more difficult.

The organizers of the show forgot to announce a program change: the women members of the Afghani community would not be present onstage. However, some Afghani children and half-Afghani young women were allowed to stay in the program. It is a reminder of how to deal with the various political and cultural possibilities that must be addressed and treated with reverence. Due to the absence of some of the dancers, the costume seen on the VoiceofDance website and on the SF Ethnic Dance program cover was not seen in the show. This information was given to me by a dancer from Ballet Afsaneh. That meant the choreographers, Narges Gardizi and Nala Gardizi, weren't available for questions about the performance. Also, apparently the tabla player (uknown as far as the program describes) had to deal with a diabetic emergency; he had to be replaced by a percussionist (also unknown) whose instrument isn't the tabla! Yet the substitute performed with authority. And fortunately, Aziz Herawi was a mainstay in his performance of the Afghani lute. All three musicans dealt with the emergency as if it were part of the program. True professionals. Afsaneh is both Farsi and Turkish for "fairytale, enchantment, mythical," and Ballet Afsaneh churned out a charmer despite its program changes. Danced by most Afghans on celebratory occasions such as weddings, Attan starts out in small groups and evolves into a massive circle. The steps perhaps are a little tricky -- they seem simple, but if you assume the rhythm, you sometimes fudge a step or two. The arm gestures go out and up with a rotation of the wrists, and then invert to the circle. It all dissolves by having several dancers at a time step out of the group to join a half-circle upstage. Eventually, a dancer in pink is left to spin in the center.

The bows needed some synchronizing with the announcer; this was surprising, but not upsetting. What a joy it was to see everyone dance together onstage at the end, with Aziz Herawi and his impromptu guest tabla player driving the dancers and musicians. The Sunday performance produced many elderly patrons. World Arts West, although improving the show with seamless one-minute changes between groups, should have even more mercy on those who need to get up and walk around every half hour. Yet the SF Ethnic Dance Festival stressed the importance of reverence for our roots, our environment -- and yes, our elders.

A final note: Activity books were available for kids and adults. A crossword puzzle made an incomplete answer to #5 Across: "When an ethnic group disperses all over the world, that is called a ___." Their answer: "diaspora". The true, in full, respectful answer is a "dispersion", i.e. of the Jews, after the Exile, among various nations of the Gentiles. According to the Universal Dictionary of the English Language (Volumes II and V, edited by Henry Cecil Wyld, Standard American Corporation, Chicago, 1940.) "dia- is Greek for throught (of place and time), expressing a motion through; also, it means separation, pre-eminence. Spore is Greek for sowing, seed." This is to show that there is history behind the word "diaspora"; and that now it is used by other ethnic groups, i.e. African Diaspora.


* From KPFA Radio, Music of the World with Kutay Derin Kugay, 6/17/02

+ From Program notes from Weekend One: SF Ethnic Dance Festival 2002

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Edited by Mary Ellen.

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