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Sarah Hart
Performance Reviews
Tribeca Performing Arts Center @ BMCC
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

Bellyqueen — 10th Anniversary Performance

by Sarah Hart
October 10, 2008
Tribeca Performing Arts Center @ BMCC
199 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
The last performance of Bellyqueen's 10th Anniversary tour, on October 10th at the Tribecca Performing Arts Center, had something for everyone. Which I think is why I found it lacking in much for me.

The show was an eclectic mix of performances, ranging widely in style and tone, and across a disconcertingly broad spectrum of quality. At times it felt less like a well-deserved tribute to this internationally-acclaimed dance troupe and more like a hodge podge talent show.

There's no denying the remarkable skill of the Bellyqueen dancers. Anyone who's ever tried Middle Eastern dance knows how difficult it is to get isolated body parts—a shoulder, the rib cage, a hip—to move independently from every other part. To accomplish this with more than one part simultaneously, to keep the movements fluid and controlled, and to maintain a relaxed, come-hither-ish smile…I speak from experience, it's practically impossible. Yet all 13 members of Bellyqueen made it look easy. And they were beautiful and sexy. In their long skirts with belts slung low on hips, bare bellies and uniformly flowing locks, each was the fairytale ideal of a mermaid.

And certainly the performance had its shining moments. The dancer known as Elisheva wowed the crowd with her sinewy acrobatics and robotic "belly popping." Co-founder Amar Gamal had the charisma of utter ease and confidence every time she appeared, and in the last dance, Irina Akulenko dazzled in her sensual centerpiece role. The most memorable performance was a solo by the group's other co-founder, Kaeshi Chai. She danced to the live accompaniment of the Brooklyn-based band Djinn, which specializes in tribal style music with beat box accompaniment. Chai's dance was elegant and slow—one of the few that didn't solicit the audience's approval. Indeed, her performance was one of the few times the audience was actually quiet. Hushed as if spellbound, we watched her sway and undulate, rippling to the music in trance-like absorption.

But, other than those wonderful moments, this show too often relied on goofy, crowd-pleasing theatrics. Many of the dances were little skits with characters like battling Ninjas, two girls at a dance club and, weirdly enough, rival gangs brawling over a necklace. These "dances" were heavy on costumes and exaggerated facial expressions. The belly dance moves were reduced to just that — moves — they depleted the cultural context which, in my opinion, lends them their artistic allure. I found the choice of story material for these skits rather odd too. They were mostly about petty female jealousies—a message that seemingly contradicts the other message stressed at other junctures of the program—that belly dance is all about female empowerment.

Equally unappealing were some of the interludes between Bellyqueen dances. A towering woman billed as the "bellydancer comedienne, Tandava," paced the floor and talked about the influence of bellydance in her life, which was a bit tedious, and told off-color jokes, which was uncomfortable. There was also a sort of hip-hop show featuring an Australian m.c. and didgeridoo player (Morganics) and Baba Israel from New York. They were both very skilled and good, but their talkative, sneakers-and-jeans presence on stage broke the rhythm of the show awkwardly.

It is quite possible that I was in the extreme minority in my criticism of this performance. Frequently the audience clapped spontaneously mid-dance or hollered out their support with that high-pitched trill heard some times from belly dancers. Certainly this was a feel-good show, intended to be sparkly and entertaining. There is nothing wrong with that. But I, art curmudgeon that I am, feel that Bellyqueen need not stoop to such tactics to keep us amused. They are skilled artists. They can captivate us with their art; they don't need to sell it cheap.
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