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BellyDance Evolution's Jillina Carlano talks Scheherazade and Sinbad

by Jessica Abrams
July 24, 2017
Ford Amphitheatre
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East
Los Angeles, CA 90068
323-461-3673
With the recent success of the movie WONDER WOMAN, we are witnessing the rise of a new kind of female power: strong, but not necessarily in-your-face tough; feminine, although not of the shrinking violet variety. This new postmodern compendium of yin and yang, masculine and feminine, anima and animus is no more in evidence than in the story of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, the Persian folk tales that date back as early as the Tenth Century.

The story goes that a king, in order to avenge an unfaithful wife, vowed to marry a new virgin a day, and with each new day, behead the previous wife, in the end killing about a thousand women. Scheherazade, the daughter of a high-ranking official, offered to spend one night with the king, and that night she enchanted him with her stories. She bade him farewell at dawn, but alas her story was not finished and the king spared her life in order to hear the rest of her enchanting story. This continued for a thousand nights at which point the king fell in love with Scheherazade and made her his wife.

Although the story may not scream female empowerment, in truth Scheherazade was as celebrated for her wit and imagination as for her beauty. These qualities and more were on display last Saturday night at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre where BellyDance Evolution performed its evening-length ballet “Fantasm—Odyssey of Dreams: Scheherazade’s Ancient Tales of the Fantastic Adventures of Sinbad”. With a cast of about twenty-five dancers from all over the world, dazzling costumes, a live percussionist, not to mention eye-popping choreography, the age-old story was played out in a whole new way; and truth be told, one cannot imagine the tale being told otherwise. Because, let’s face it: if the belly is the seat of feminine power, then what celebrates it more than bellydance?

BellyDance Evolution founder and choreographer Jillina Carlano is no stranger to female-centric stories, having recently finished touring Alice in Wonderland with her company a little over a year ago. She confessed to having amended the Scheherazade story a bit, omitting the slaves, harems and orgies, and in their place focusing on the three wise women who advise Scheherazade and help spare her life. In addition to the visual excitement of what can only be described as a spectacle, the various leads – the wise women—each brought something unique to the show through their different movement styles. The witch doctor, played by Sharon Kihara, possessed a dark, earthy quality, her bellydance style a mix of earthy sensuality and a hint of voodoo. Heather Aued, who also works as Carlano’s second in command, had a deep femininity and womanly grace. And Carlano herself was a showstopper. Dancing with the percussionist, she used her belly – and, alas, her legs, arms and face – as a well-tuned instrument, timing her punctuations perfectly and playing to both the audience and the drummer in a way that caused the scrim of performance to disappear and the audience to be right there on stage with her.

I sat down with Jillina a few days before the show and talked to her about her work and the work of her company, BellyDance Evolution.

Jessica Abrams: I wanted to ask, because when I saw Alice in Wonderland, you had so many international dancers involved. Where are these dancers from?

Jillina Carlano: Well, we’re representing eight different countries – their original countries. Like one girl is from El Salvador but she lives in Arkansas and we had a girl come from Argentina. One is from North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Italy, Mexico. And part of that is that I’ve built up sort of like fan, student and professional relationships because I travel all over the world teaching master classes, so that’s also brought me together with people and given me a lot of exposure. I’ve met some of them at my workshops and told them about the project and told them they should audition. We have an online casting so people from all over the world can come; they don’t have to fly out for an audition and nowadays with technology…. They learn the Bellydance Evolution choreography and they get to do a solo choreography, so I get to see them doing my work, which is a lot of choreography, plus I want to see what they bring to the table. Sometimes they come with new and interesting dynamics that I’ll incorporate into the show.

JA: and then they call come out for a certain rehearsal period –

JC: Yes.

JA: and you put them up? Or do they have a place to stay?

JC: They usually put themselves up. So the original idea was, I was working with my shoestring budget, like most artists, and I was traveling around, and I was like, what if I do like my original idea – like, local casting, so when I go to Germany I would do local casting for dancers who live in that area and they would host themselves and they wouldn’t have to fly… but when I did the first project in Los Angeles eight years ago people flew from all over the world and I was like, well, what can I do? I can’t pay the flight. And they were like, Oh, we’re going to pay our flights. And I can’t accommodate you, and they were like, we’re going to accommodate ourselves. And I realized people want to do this.

JA: Amazing.

JC: Yeah, it IS amazing! I feel really blessed to have the quality of talent that I have and that people were interested in the project; and there’s been a few times when we’ve had agencies book us out for trips and I’ve been able to go into that big pool of dancers and choose the best of the best. We did a three-month tour of China. We did a one-month tour through Holland –

JA: So there’s bellydance everywhere, basically.

JC: There is. You’d be surprised. So surprised. Little villages in China. It’s a big wave in China. It’s huge.

JA: That is truly amazing. So, tell me a little about the story, the performance, how it evolved.

JC: So we finished Alice in Wonderland. We toured that for a couple of years. So the first initiation into the idea of Scheherazade… I was hired by a producer in Morocco and she had the idea to do the classic Scheherazade music from Rimsky-Korsakov and ballet dancers and belly dancers. I was hired to do all the choreography, all the staging and most of the costuming and then she was going to bring in some Moroccan dancers, so it was a cast of over thirty.

JA: And when was this?

JC: This was in October of last year. And I hired a ballet choreographer that I know, that I work with and really like and she did all the casting and choreography in Chicago. So you had a ballet cast from Chicago and then we had our European cast, so like I said, I just reached out to my pool of dancers because also the flights were much more reasonable flying from Europe to Morocco, so for her budget she wanted European dancers, so then we just kind of worked on this. We did a lot of video and Skype rehearsals to put it all together because there were so many moving parts. That was, I think, the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. At one point it was so hard and the music was so different for me… and I was like, why did I do this? And then once I kept going I fell in love with it and I couldn’t walk away. Then we wanted to do a Bellydance Evolution version of it and have a composer write all of the music for it. So the music is all scored, except for a couple of parts. And we had the vision of continuing a similar storyline with the Tales of Scheherazade – the Tales of Sinbad told through the lens of Scheherazade. But the original Scheherazade had this big orgy scene and had slaves and harems and orgies and I was like, I’m trying to raise the level of awareness and artistry of belldyancing so I kind of wanted to leave that behind a little bit and take a more artistic direction. So it definitely took a more artistic direction. Lauren Bolt wrote the story.

JA: And who is she?

JC: she’s a former member of the company. She works in arts administration. She’s moved on and we miss her a lot but she was very much a part of the company. Yeah, so we’ve taken some liberties with the story and the idea is that we’ve transformed the king. Scheherazade meets three wise women through her journey, through these tales. So those are like the fantasy scenes when she’s telling him the stories and then when she comes back to reality she meets with a woman who represents wisdom, a woman who represents love and a woman who’s sort of like healing, so sort of like a witch doctor. So then she’s transformed and then we transform the show. We have live percussion in the show.

JA: It’s interesting – you talk about female-centered transformation and I’m thinking Alice in Wonderland had a similar storyline.

JC: Yeah. We wanted to send a positive message and one of empowerment. Through her wisdom and through her artistry she is able to transform.

JA: And not to keep making the parallels, but in your Alice in Wonderland, your white rabbit was a breakdancer, similar to your Sinbad.

JC: Yeah, so we like to have that variety in the show –

JA: It’s a great mix –

JC: Yeah, we have that contrast and then you really see the beauty and softness of bellydance as strong as the masculine. He does Tahitian dance, contemporary and hip-hop and the king is a ballet dancer, so he’s classically trained and does contemporary and then Scheherazade is trained in ballet and bellydance so she has both of those great elements.

JA: Tell me about your training and how you came to this.

JC: I’ve been dancing most of my life. I got kind of into it in my teens, so I’m kind of a late bloomer. So I did a lot of jazz and hip-hop. I would take ballet classes because I just wanted to be better at my jazz and modern classes. I was just always trying new things. And then I discovered bellydance and I just fell in love with it.

It was love at first shimmy.
BellyDance Evolution's Jillina Carlano.

BellyDance Evolution's Jillina Carlano.

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

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