Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Bellydance Past and Present" at 92Y

Although a serious knee injury has sidelined Anahid Sofian, she showed up at 92Y's Fridays at Noon Bellydance Past and Present program yesterday and introduced a video clip of her 1976 performance, Raqs Sharki, at the New York Dance Festival at Central Park's Delacorte Theater.

Being selected to perform a solo at the festival was "an incredible experience--also, totally terrifying," said Sofian, part of a legendary generation of Middle Eastern nightclub dancers in New York who sparked the boom in bellydancing's mainstream popularity in America in the 1970s. Trained in ballet and modern dance, Sofian had adopted bellydance as physical therapy for an injury. But the Turkish and Arab rhythms drew her in more deeply and inspired a new direction for her work. She eventually grew to become one of the most highly respected dancers and instructors in the business (Sofian photo gallery).

Sofian had been trying to get into the festival lineup for a few years and finally made it. But when she got  her first look at the Delacorte stage, she panicked. "I almost had a heart attack! How was I going to fill this space?"

This dilemma forced her to revise her plans, scrapping stationary passages and movement subtleties for choreography that could travel and read big to the outdoors audience.

The video shows a young, lithe Sofian whirling with her sail-like veil, brightly articulating isolations, drifting like incense smoke and melting to the floor for a sequence of sensual undulations.

"It was well received, and it was reviewed by every major publication," she remembered.

Earlier, Sofian had reminded me that I had reviewed that show in Dance Magazine, which would have been at the start of my career as a dance critic and at the height of my own involvement with Middle Eastern dance as a student. It was also amazing to be reminded of the long-defunct New York Dance Festival itself and its rare cultural and aesthetic diversity.

"Carmen de Lavallade was on the same program, as was Kei Takei's company," Sofian said, noting the unusual range of aesthetic sensibilities. "In 1977, Morocco danced in the festival, and in 1978, Serena Wilson," she added, citing two of her venerable colleagues, then luminaries of New York's bellydancing scene. "But the festival folded for lack of funding."

If this annual event still existed, I'm sure it would help heighten awareness of dance's value and build new audiences for the art. A pity that it's gone, but at least we have documentation at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Sofian's presence--her expertise and link to the art's creative heritage--helped to contain, ground and inform the 92Y event. The afternoon's bill included entertaining cabaret-style numbers from the sunny Altagracia and Layla and the wonderfully down-to-earth Zenaide, and it served to introduce the audience to some new currents in the field through the innovations of Fayzah Fire and Elisheva, sharp, fusion-oriented performers with backgrounds in diverse dance techniques who find inspiration in hip hop and Loie Fuller and all points in between.

For information on upcoming programs in 92Y's Fridays at Noon series, click here.

92nd Street Y
1395 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan

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