A Question of Currency: Mark Wagner’s Money is Material

Reality is shaped by human constructs of which nature never dreamed. Art exposes and reevaluates these things, creating necessary discomfort.

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Let’s talk about money, once labeled the “root of all evil” in the Hebrew Bible. Our modern social system runs on it, and yet what is money? A promise that vouches that we are worthy of the things we need and want, a watermark of our usefulness. If you have more of it, you are thus a better person, right? Something in many of us seems to fidget at this, to recognize that there is error here, an error that has been multiplied many times over, creating cracks that reach to the bottom of our society and threaten the planet which cradles us. Mark Wagner reveals and exploits those cracks to create art.

This ingenious video presented by The Avant/Garde Diaries plays up sociopathological overtones, even putting Mark into an orange shirt and shooting in such a minimalistic way that he seems to be some sort of prisoner speaking from his jail cell, or, worse, some sort of serial killer of dollar bills hard at work in his dark attic, stabbing and slicing his victims into pieces for his brilliant, grisly collages. All this from a guy who might ride next to you in the subway-a hidden, dangerous subversive.

 

Despite their immense cleverness, intricacy and beauty, which make me smile in spite of myself, I’m not completely sure how I feel about Mark’s collages. The destruction of hundreds of bills that could possibly help people in need reveals a certain privilege, an artistic hubris that smacks of a large ego. And yet, I appreciate the boldness of striking at a taboo that has sanctified our currency. Many people believe it is illegal to destroy or deface the American Dollar, but that assertion lies in a gray area. It is illegal to alter or destroy a bill for the purpose of defrauding someone, but the government itself destroys bills or coins when they become too disfigured for use. Doing so for artistic purposes, or even for simple low-tech mischief, is not typically construed as a crime.

The message here cuts deeper. The very word currency refers not only to money, but to “the quality of being generally accepted or in use”. If we accept the system money creates without acknowledging that it has a dark side-the extra pressure and amplified greed which it adds to the common goal of survival-we fail to safeguard our souls and our world against the resulting injustices. And yet, if we suddenly reject a system that underlies our entire civilization, we will destroy that civilization. We have to establish some sort of compromise, recognizing that money is only material, a necessary evil, at least until humanity thinks of something different. And what of all that “digital” money, the disembodied credit that floats through our modern cities like a soul or a ghost animating our desires? Will that ephemeral nature make it even more powerful and more cruel?

I think the world needs iconoclastic art such as this to call out the conflict between morality and the system we have built to sustain our society. What do you think?

Please take some time to peruse Mark Wagner’s fantastic website.

Owning Aggression: Sonya Tayeh’s Baggage

Many believe art should always emphasize the beautiful and balanced. Can art help us understand and heal our dark side?

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Photo © Sara Krulwich at The New York Times

 

Sonya Tayeh is best known as a choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, but this brilliant dancer, dance teacher and choreographer is enjoying a tremendously varied career, premiering works with the Los Angeles Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company, choreographing musicals such as Spring Awakening, The Wild Party, Kung Fu and The Last Goodbye, as well as creating moves for Madonna, Florence and the Machine and Kylie Minogue, among others. You might not realize that this is a career that very nearly didn’t happen.

 

As a teenager, Sonya was a house dancer. House dancing grew out of the party scene in large cities of the American Northeast, and involves intricate footwork and fluid torso movement that follows the rhythm of the music very closely, punctuating much smaller, subtler details than many forms of dance. It is often improvised and can require a great deal of skill, but it isn’t recognized as a formal dance style. When Sonya realized she wanted to continue dancing in college and beyond, she applied to dance schools, only to be rejected six times on the grounds that she was too old to begin training.

Sonya did not give up, despite the voices that told her she was wasting her time. She graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Dance, blending her previous skills with a knowledge of art history and anatomy as well as new skills gleaned in formal dance performance. Over time, this blend solidified into a new style, one she calls “combat jazz”. Combat jazz retains the intricacy and intensity of house dancing, combining quirky, often aggressive, non-classical movement with elements of more formal dance. It is a striking union, as you can see in her short piece, Baggage.

 

 

What is so shocking about this work is its honesty. We see these partners are sometimes baggage for one another, heavy and difficult to move. In turn, we see them treat one another like baggage, slinging each other around and asserting control. How many people, particularly women (but not exclusively), can see this piece and walk away gratified that someone has noticed their struggle?

The jerky, house dance derived movements that are Sonya’s bread and butter highlight the conflict. As opposed to the more refined lines of ballet, they connect with our emotions at a visceral, non-intellectual level. When we look at these dancers, we don’t see performers using their technical skills. We see ourselves.

There are those who say that the aggressive, abusive relationships portrayed in Baggage have no place onstage, that we should spend our time looking at things that are more positive and harmonious. There is value in order and beauty. There is also value in truth. If we are unwilling to see that there is much in human relationships that is controlling and aggressive then how will we confront and deal with that behavior? Performance, with its suspension of reality, gives us a place to work through difficult situations and to recognize and identify human darkness, within and without. It can also give those who have lived through abuse a voice to tell their story, creating opportunities for catharsis, empathy, and healing.

The danger in turning away artists who don’t fit the mold and in censoring art that doesn’t conform to predetermined standards is that we will lose voices that we need to hear, or even worse, that we will become unable to hear at all.

Video via Sonya Tayeh Choreography on YouTube.
Tayeh Dance performing at the El Portal Theatre
Dancers: Cheryl Smith, Adrian Lee, Jill Chu, Will Johnston

 

 

Beneath the Surface: An Introduction to Underwater Photography and the Human Form

Well-crafted portraits capture not only physical attributes, but hint at hidden truths. Underwater photography can provide unique and challenging perspectives.

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Public Domain Image via Pexels.com

 

There is something about being submerged in water that dials directly into the human subconscious. When we view someone through water, especially when they are suspended in it, we feel as if we are seeing something very personal and private. The vulnerability of the human form is readily apparent underwater: movement is more languid and dreamlike, breath is made visible through bubbles, hair is carried away from the face and head while clothing may float away or plaster itself close to the body. Water imparts a sensuality and softness, further enhanced by the blue green light that reaches into its depths.

The challenges of underwater photography are many, even with modern equipment like the Go Pro camera. That blue green light I mentioned can be penetrating, but reds and oranges are lost as we descend, distorting skin tones. Many photos are taken a just few feet below the surface. Shooting close up with a wide angle lens is a must, as shooting through more than a few feet of water creates cloudiness. Costuming can create beautiful effects, but the photographer and model must understand how the fabric will behave underwater and how best to maximize its potential. Models have to be aware of their breathing and how bubbles impact the shot. They also have to be able to hold a pose– and their breath– while slowly floating up to the surface. If they aren’t specifically designed for underwater use, cameras must be waterproofed, which can make them harder to handle. Everything has to be done while the artist and the model are swimming and paying attention to their surroundings, with a minimum of vocal communication.

When it all works… magic!

Over the course of this week (and several posts) I’d like to introduce you to some fantastic artists and encourage you to visit their websites and become more familiar with their work.

Our first post will feature pioneer underwater photographer Bruce Mozert and will focus on photos made in Silver Springs, Florida in the 1950s, when pin-up models went underwater to advertise the premiere tourist destination in Florida. You can read the post here.

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© Bruce Mozert used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Half Buried in the Sand: Remembering Kolmanskop

Humans react profoundly to images of places, natural or man-made. Why are we moved by locations we have never visited?

From the mystical glow of the Aurora Borealis to the crumbling majesty of the Egyptian pyramids, places make a deep impression on us. We may have no ancestry there, we may never have walked there, but the image of such regions raises a lump in the throat. We wax romantic imagining what it would be like to occupy time and space there. In fact, sometimes a visit to such a place is a let down, as it is difficult for reality to measure up to the glowing imagination of the human mind.

Many of these places are famous, and justly so. But, occasionally, we are struck by an unfamiliar image that stirs us just as deeply. I was watching the 2011 movie Samsara, which I wholeheartedly recommend, when I was blindsided by images of houses invaded by the desert, filled knee deep with sand. There are so many profound images in Samsara, but this one haunted me desperately. I had to know its name.

I am fond of the desert, having traveled quite a bit in the American Southwest, especially Utah. It has been said that all deserts are one in the imagination, and I think that is essentially true. Love for one desert translates quite easily into love for another. It’s a harsh environment and one that requires respect to ensure survival. If we could drop the CEOs of large corporations into such places for a few days without outside aid, I think we would have a revolution in the way we treat the earth. Life in the desert is too fragile to waste, resources too valuable.

Kolmanskop, or Coleman’s Hill in Afrikaans, is an abandoned mining village in the Namib desert of southern Namibia, just 10 kilometers, 6.2 miles, from the port city Lüderitz. It was named for Johnny Coleman, a transport driver who found himself marooned in a fearful sandstorm and abandoned his ox wagon here.

In 1908, a railway worker by the name of Zacharias Lewala found a shiny rock resting on the sand and showed it to his supervisor, the German railway inspector August Stauch. The shiny stone turned out to be a diamond. German miners flocked to the area and a large portion of desert was declared Sperrgebietor prohibited area. The famed mining company DeBeers, who ran the mines in the area, had strict rules, one of which was that equipment or vehicles that entered their facilities were never allowed to leave. Most of this area is still off limits to the public, with the exception of a National Park centered in Kolmanskop and run by Namib-DeBeers. The fame of the Sperrgebiet is legendary. It is rumored that some miners would slide across the sand on their bellies, picking up dozens of diamonds as they slithered about.

In its day, Kolmanskop was incredibly wealthy and  the residents used their money to recreate a German village in the savage African desert. For entertainment, there was a ballroom, theater, sport hall, bowling alley and casino. The tiny town possessed its own power station, school, ice factory and hospital. It was the location of the first x-ray station in the southern hemisphere and the first tram in Africa. Despite its glory, purchased with resources purloined from the earth and from local people who saw little benefit, the life of Kolmanskop was brief. After World War I the diamonds began to peter out and it was too expensive to keep things going here. Kolmanskop was empty by 1954. The ghost town has been reclaimed by the desert, sandstorms invading the structures and creating an eerie scene.

 

 

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Public Domain Image via Pixabay

 

One is reminded of Shelley’s masterpiece, “Ozymandias”. The final lines of that peerless poem read,

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
There is something powerful about things buried in the desert, mummified, arrested and yet not rotting. In a more humid climate, they would be assimilated back into the soil, but here they remain preserved, a warning and a reminder to the human race. Although we think ourselves important, we too will die and become a riddle to the future.

 

What will we leave behind?
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Kolmanskop: Image via Pixabay

 

 

 

Floating on Water: The Medieval Art of Ebru

Traditional art forms remain astounding and disarmingly beautiful in an era dominated by technology. What makes this art so beguiling?

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Ebru, a form of paper marbling, is an ancient art that originated in the 15th century in central Asia. Europeans first encountered it in Istanbul and were mesmerized by it. If you have seen old books with marbled beginning and end papers like the one above, you have seen ebru.  Ebru, or abri, can be translated as cloudy or colorful (paper), depending on whether or not you translate the word from Persian or Turkish sources. In Iran it is called abr-o-bâd, or cloud and wind. The video below, an advertisement made for a class at American Islamic College in Chicago by artist Garip Ay, makes it easy to see why people have been so enraptured by this art.

Ay was born in 1984 in Siirt, Turkey and studied painting at the High School of Fine Arts in Diyarbakir. He then pursued and graduated with a degree in Traditional Turkish Arts from Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul. This video shows him working in a more traditional style, but he has made a name for himself by melding the techniques and materials of modern painting and ebru. You can see more of his lovely work on his blog. Evolution keeps the form alive.

Long before Europeans made ebru a status symbol for the wealthy and educated of Europe, this decorative paper began as the background to important official state documents throughout central Asia. This developed not, at first, in celebration of its beauty, but as an anti-counterfeit measure. When artists discovered its potential, ebru became an incredible outlet for creativity. As it grew in imagination and color, it was used as a background for poetry and scripture, written in the graceful legato of calligraphy. Some designs were complicated enough to stand on their own in the style of paintings. Ay and artists like him are continuing to blur the line between painting and ebru.

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“This calligraphic fragment includes two bayts (verses) of poetry that describe the desire of unidentified antagonists to break or humble the beloved: “They want to break the wild-eyed / They want to break the black-eyelashed / They want to break the heart from the spirit / They want to break the objects of beauty.” In these verses with repetitive phrasing, the beloved ones or objects of beauty—the kajkulahan (literally, the “ones wearing crooked helmets,”)—are the target of violence and animosity. Written in black Nasta’liq script on orange paper decorated with light-gold sprinkles, the text is provided with a gold frame and is pasted onto a blue-and-white abri or ebru (marbled) paper strengthened with cardboard. The fragment is neither signed nor dated, but the script and the marble paper suggest that it may have been produced in Iran or India during the 16th–17th centuries.”

The current Turkish tradition of ebru was developed by a branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. These Sufis, Sunni Muslims exploring the inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam, saw their art as a form of meditation and passed it on to their followers. The process of floating paint on treated water to make beautiful papers and artwork requires discipline, skill and intense concentration. Keeping mind and body focused on producing beauty allows for spiritual growth.

Gum tragacanth, a paste obtained from the sap of several Middle Eastern legumes, is mixed into a shallow pan of water, making the water thick and sticky. Natural pigments are mixed with ox bile to create paint, which is splattered onto the surface of the water with horsehair brushes. The ox bile, or gall, not only keeps the dye floating, but makes the colors spread and keeps them from blending together. Paint can also be applied in a more controlled fashion with sticks made from rosewood. The floating colors can be manipulated with these rosewood sticks, with combs or with the breath. After a pattern is finished, a piece of acid free, unlacquered paper is laid lightly on top of the design. The design is thus transferred to the paper, making a one of a kind print, or monotype. Ebru requires a gentle touch, as well as a mind open to the movement of paint and water, which produce unexpected patterns. The artist must know when to shape the design and when to accept the direction it has chosen for itself.

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The value of ebru lies not only in the beauty of the product, but in the process itself. There is not yet a computer that would have the dexterity or imagination required. Even more valuable is the effect of such a process on the mind, engendering patience, gentleness and a respect for beauty, color and imagination. These are things that our world needs desperately.

 

 

Images and videos: 1) Public Domain Image via Wikimedia.  2) Video via AICUSA. 3) Public Domain Image via Wikimedia. 4) Image © Ji-Elle with CCLicense

 

Literary and Theatrical Magic: Suspension of Disbelief and Resilience

We all spend time with illusions: books, movies, television, theatre. Does the ability to suspend disbelief contribute to human resilience?

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in The Big Voice, God or Merman © Bev Sykes with CCLicense

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in The Big Voice, God or Merman
© Bev Sykes with CCLicense

In the theatre we often speak of the suspension of disbelief, the willingness to temporarily accept an illusion as truth. The term was coined in 1817 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was actually speaking of literature. Coleridge felt that, if an author created “human interest and a semblance of reality”, then the audience would respond with a desire to believe the narrative presented, even if it was implausible. An audience willing to suspend their normal everyday world is able to enter a new world created for them, losing touch with their own physicality and allowing themselves to feel as if the events described or enacted are truly happening. The greater the skill of the creator, the more enticing the spell.

Books, along with stage and screen works, exude a magic that gives the human spirit release and escape from reality. But is it only a breather, a moment of frivolity, before we return to normal life or is there something more practical happening?

Charlton Heston in The Ten Coomandments

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments

Our favorite stories inspire strong feelings and are able to reach us when we fail to connect with real life. These illusions can shape our worldview by showing us things we might not otherwise see and by encouraging us to imagine a world in which things we take for granted are not established fact. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they may also delete uncomfortable truths and confirm our prejudices. In much the same way a child role plays situations with dolls, we are invited to play out a scenario that does not immediately alter the world around us, but allows us to practice and build our responses to life. We are presented with situations that we will never encounter in our reality and are able to build empathy or hatred for both imaginary and actual beings, beings we may never meet face to face.

We desperately need a place to explore ourselves and dream out loud. This magic place is well established in the literary and theatrical arts, although, by nature, it is never completely free from manipulation and propaganda. The space cannot be completely controlled or it loses its magic, but we do have some control over how we respond to the things brought to life there. The greatest good it contains may be the realization that there are other interpretations of life apart from our own.

Here is a montage called Making Magic by David Anderson. By partnering images of famous directors and actors creating illusion with spoken quotes from films he explores the potential movies have for inspiring us and creating empathy. What powerful enchantment!

Video via David Anderson on Vimeo

Dawn without Memory: ISIS in Palmyra

Last May, the Islamic State took the ancient city of Palmyra. Why should we care that it is being destroyed?

© Julian Love/Corbis Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Julian Love/Corbis
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

ISIS doesn’t have a good track record with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nimrud, Nineveh, and now Palmyra have been destroyed under its rule, creating a storm of publicity and engendering hate and fear. Explosives and sledgehammers have met irreplaceable works of art and left them dust, on the grounds that they are idolatrous. Yes, many of these buildings were sacred to ancient gods, gods who are largely forgotten. So why should modern humanity mourn the loss? We believe in completely different gods. Some of us believe in no gods at all.

Tadmor Village within the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, early 20th Century Public Domain Image

Tadmor Village within the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, early 20th Century
Public Domain Image

Suppose that we were to go back in time and systematically destroy any people that worshipped or thought differently than we do. As we go further and further back, we encounter people that are more and more different from us. We find ancestors before they lost or found faith, we find brothers before they took different paths and became the patriarchs of different cultures. To destroy them would mean that we were never born.

To single out groups for obliteration is to deny part of the human story, to remove the memory of nations and their people from the tapestry of history. The human family is all connected. Believer or nonbeliever, we would not be who we are without the influence of many different peoples and faiths. We have always needed one another and continue to do so. Denying this feeds the absolute worst in our already tribal understanding of the world: that we, and people like us, contain the only viable understanding, and anyone else is worth less than we are. This lies behind every type of racism on the globe.

The scariest thing about ISIS is that they take destruction to a new level. This is not a group that will keep the art and riches of the defeated, but one that will destroy every trace of the enemy, even if the “enemy” has been dead for centuries. The destruction of Palmyra is a warning to civilizations living today that practice life differently than ISIS. A warning that they would like to kill you and then remove any trace that you have ever lived from our world. There was a culture in Europe once that had a similar dream. Thank God it is not yet within our grasp as human beings.

© Martin Schmoda Temple of Bel Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Manfred Schmoda
Temple of Bel, now destroyed
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra © Jerry Strzelecki with CCLicense

Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra, now destroyed
© Jerry Strzelecki with CCLicense

© AFP used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© AFP used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Want to know more about Palmyra? Check out the UNESCO entry here.

The Mystery of Gender: Robina Asti and Flying Solo

Gender identity is more complicated than society likes to admit. Does it remain a valid means of classifying human beings?

“I’m sorry, but I do hate this differentiation between the sexes. ‘The modern girl has a thoroughly businesslike attitude to life’ That sort of thing. It’s not a bit true! Some girls are businesslike and some aren’t. Some men are sentimental and muddle-headed, others are clear-headed and logical. There are just different types of brains.” 

Sarah in Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Society has traditionally defined gender by anatomy and physiognomy. We have divided ourselves into male and female groups and assigned acceptable roles and attributes to each group. These assignments were made long ago to further the bearing and raising of children and to ensure human survival. With over seven billion people on our planet and natural resources that are diminishing, the need for procreation is lower than it has ever been. This has contributed to a world in which people who have more complicated gender identities can recognize and explore those identities. That isn’t to say that such exploration is easy.

 

Here is a wonderful, valuable human story of a person born male, who despite a “manly” career as a pilot in World War II and considerable success in life, never felt male. When Robina Asti decided to be herself, others had a very hard time with it. Despite the struggle, Asti found herself in a meaningful, loving relationship. Then, at the age of 92, faced with the death of her beloved husband, she found her gender questioned again.

 

 

Why are we so uncomfortable with allowing people to be authentic in their expression of gender? People like Asti and Patton do us no violence by living their lives in this fashion. Perhaps our culture has a guilty conscience and fears that stories like this will invalidate our journeys and our faiths. We should know by now that only we have the power to do that.

 

Our tradition has difficulty understanding people who are not completely male or completely female, and yet such people are born every day. Biological gender (and this doesn’t even take into account other aspects of gender) is determined by five factors: the number and type of sex chromosomes, the presence of ovaries and/or testicles, sex hormones, and both internal and external reproductive organs. If, at birth, all five criteria do not register as male or female, that person is intersexed and does not fall into either category. Some are hermaphrodites, having characteristics of both sexes while others simply don’t have all of the criteria present. Often these babies are “corrected” immediately. But what if gender is not an either or, but a biological continuum, with male at one end and female at the other? Our words have failed us.

 
Please read this fascinating and wonderful article by Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling on the complexities of gender. It sheds light on a subject that is too often hidden away.
 

Comfortable in Her Own Skin: Tradition, Modernity and the Dancing of Irina Akulenko

The society we live in shapes our understanding of body image and self. How does dance influence that understanding?

Video via WorldDance NewYork. Irina Akulenko plays the blindfolded character of Justice as pictured in the Tarot.

Irina Akulenko bases her life as a dancer, teacher and choreographer in New York City, touring both nationally and internationally. As soloist and collaborator, she has been part of Bellyqueen Dance Theater, Bella Gaia, Alchemy Dance Theater and  BALAM Dance Theater, to name just a few of her credits. Her style is a fascinating blend of several traditions with its foundation in belly dance. As a child, Akulenko was already exploring ballet, piano and voice, as well as drawing, when she had her first taste of belly dance. She was quickly addicted and sought out teachers who could show her the intricacies of this expressive art form which originated in the Middle East. Her background lies in Egyptian Cabaret and American Tribal style belly dance.

 Photograph of a ghaziya (1906)

Photograph of a ghaziya dancer in Egypt(1906)
TIMEA with CCLicense

Egypt has one of the oldest traditions of belly dance, stemming from social folk dances that were performed by men, women and children. These were later refined and embellished to be performed for Ottoman rulers, who kept troupes of dancers, both male and female. There were actually periods of time in which the Ottomans banned women from dancing and men, known as zenneskept the tradition going. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, dancers supported themselves by working cabarets or night clubs, donning sequined and revealing costumes that showed off the impressive torso and hip articulation that is the hallmark of belly dancing. It was at this time that belly dancing became an almost exclusively female profession, since there were no clubs catering to women and homosexuality, which was fairly common among the Ottoman nobility, was no longer tolerated. Much of the seediness and stigma attributed to belly dance comes from being relegated to night clubs in Cairo, where the women who danced were seen as little more than prostitutes.

The Egyptian Cabaret tradition persists, although there are tensions in modern Egypt. Dancers, singers and performers in general are not considered respectable in conservative Islamic society. Bare midriffs have been banned since the 1950s and women who show their bodies are considered haram, mortally sinful and abhorrent. I recommend this article from Daily News Egypt to anyone who desires to understand the challenges and intimidation belly dancers face there. Egyptian Cabaret style is much less restrained in the West than in its homeland.

Dance has a way of speaking clearly without language. Even without the historical stigma, it is understandable that some people, westerners and easterners, religious and non religious, find fault with the sensual movement of belly dance and the empowerment women find in it. This reaction probably has more to do with the viewer’s lack of comfort with their own sensuality than with a lack of modesty on the part of the dancer, who has simultaneously become powerful and vulnerable. Thoughts can be scary, even when they don’t lead to action. How do we learn to simply allow something, or especially someone, to be authentically and naturally sexy without becoming possessive?

Provocative and beautiful, belly dance has traveled all over the globe, fusing with other forms, evolving and preserving itself. American Tribal Style (ATS) was created by the fascinating Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, inspired by folk dance from the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and India informed by modern flourishes and sensibility. It has a heavy emphasis on group improvisation and communication through dance, returning belly dance to its roots while also taking it somewhere new.

Irina Akulenko at White Sands, New Mexico, USA © Irina Akulenko from her website

Irina Akulenko at White Sands, New Mexico, USA
© Irina Akulenko from her website

Irina Akulenko’s desire for inspiration has led her to study and integrate other forms of folk dance into her style as well. Flamenco, from Andalusia, in Spain, is a bold, expressive and modern form, famous for its powerful, percussive elements and use of props, while Odissi is the oldest form of dance in India, characterized by delicately stylized head and limb gestures. Belly dance, Odissi and Flamenco all use well articulated body movement to express emotion in an improvisational format. By using all three, she widens the emotional and technical range of her work. What an exciting thing to be so comfortable with your own body!

Video via WorldDance NewYork. Akulenko reveals a gentler sensuality in this performance which recalls the Odissi tradition of India.

Akulenko also holds a degree in Political Science and is drawn to women’s issues and visual art. If you like, you can learn to belly dance from her series of instructional videos at Howcast on YouTube. Her talent for blending styles reveals an openness to finding similarities between cultures and a need to express herself to a wide audience. Anytime we express something, we risk being evaluated and judged. True artists like Akulenko know that the expression is worth the risk. Brava!

A Tale of Two Conchitas: Reflections on That Obscure Object of Desire

Why do we frequently make judgements on others based upon their appearance and manner without taking into account their actions?

The two Conchitas, Carol Bouquet and Angela Molina © Allan Tannenbaum

The two Conchitas, Carol Bouquet and Angela Molina
© Allan Tannenbaum

If you are familiar with Luis Buñuel’s 1977 film masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire, you know that the film is unusual because two actresses play the same part, that of the heroine Conchita, a beautiful and poor flamenco dancer from Seville. From scene to scene, and occasionally within the same scene, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina alternate in the role. The actress originally cast as Conchita, incidentally neither Carole nor Angela, had a disastrous argument with Buñuel, resulting in producer Serge Silberman’s decision to discard the film. Over a few drinks, Buñuel jokingly suggested that two actresses could play Conchita. Silberman loved the idea and allowed filming to resume on the condition that this was the case.

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Whether played by one actress or two, the character of Conchita is an enigma. She is pursued by an older “gentleman”, a rich widower named Mathieu, played by the suave Fernando Rey, who finds her irresistible, although she is more than half a century younger than he is. Conchita is simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by his affections, leading him on with intimacy, but refusing to consummate the relationship and torturing him mercilessly. The two are locked in a battle for control that makes them hurt each other over and over again, the emotional pain growing more intense each time. She’s a free spirit. His old world ways of buying her attentions cut against her brand of morality and devalue her. Her teasing strips away the veneer of respectability he has amassed over his lifetime and makes him little more than a pimp or a peeping Tom. Passion that cannot abandon the struggle for dominance has no future.

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How does the introduction of two actresses affect this already engaging plot? It could be a sexist invention that renders women interchangeable. After all, the film’s title refers to Conchita as an object, and there is a fair amount of female nudity while there is no male nudity in the film. Or it could be an attempt to find different moods within Conchita, to show how varied and special she is. What struck me most about it was that I did not like both actresses equally, even though they had the same narrative. They both teased, both plotted, both alternated running from Mathieu with pursuing him. So why was I more upset when Mathieu attacked my favorite?

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Molina and Bouquet are both talented and beautiful actresses that have gone on to illustrious careers–you might remember Bouquet as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only–but Molina’s open face and the childlikeness that radiates from her big eyes are appealing to me, while I find Bouquet’s narrow face and eyes read more sullen, cool and withdrawn. Molina’s figure is rounder and seems more approachable than Bouquet’s model physique. Part of this may lie in the way each actress was shot, made-up, or costumed. Is my preference fair? Absolutely not, but my prejudice is undeniable, as much as it makes me uncomfortable.

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It’s easy to feel this way about actors because we don’t know them and can only react to the persona they play on film, onstage and in public appearances. But we make judgements like these in real life with far more devastating result. We avoid a person because we, for no specific reason, feel they are pretentious or angry, or we trust someone because they seem open and genuine, when the truth is that their facial structure, body language or temperament read that way. Have you ever hesitated to make friends with someone because they were good looking, because they seemed smart or because they were a different nationality or color?

We often treat people as if we have met them in a dark alley and need to ascertain whether they are friend or foe. Most of us don’t live in that kind of environment and we need to stop acting like we do before we create what we fear. We have time to see how a person behaves before we decide whether we want to be friendly or not. In the meantime, politeness doesn’t hurt.

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If we can’t abandon our struggle for cultural dominance, what future will we have?

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