Monday, March 16, 2009

Review of Rakkasah, America’s premier Middle Eastern dance festival

Rakkasah West Festival of Middle Eastern Dance is touted as the largest bellydance festival in America. It includes a week of workshops from some of the top instructors in the country and Europe. It concludes with a weekend of live dance and music performances and, of course, shopping. This year they celebrated their 29th year and for the second year it was held at the Solano County Fair Grounds in Vallejo, California.

Rakkasah, like most bellydance festivals, presented a wide range of performers. The stage is shared by internationally known professional artists and local semi-professional and amateur performers of various skill levels. The program represents the gamut of bellydance styles: classical Egyptian or raks sharki soloists (SITA); folkloric dances from throughout the Middle East; American urban-tribal groups; and prop dancing with cane, veil, double veil, fans, and chairs (which have become popular as choreographers stretch beyond the limits of bellydance and into American theater traditions).

I had already identified which dancers I wanted to see and which of the two stages they were performing on: Leila Haddad, Suzanna Del Vecchio, and my teachers in Santa Cruz, Sahar and Janelle. Together they represent several generations of bellydance history and style. Tunisian-born Haddad performed a folkloric dance that reflected a deep, organic truth and was altogether too short. Del Vecchio, an Egyptian oriental dancer, was a revelation for me. She entered the stage in bejeweled bra and a silver assiut skirt, walked majestically to the center of the stage and mesmerized me with an exquisitely sustained taxeem.

I know it sounds odd to have traveled two-hours away to see my own teachers perform, but we all do it. The whole festival feels more personal when we share the performances of our friends and teachers (and even more so if you perform there yourself). Sahar performed SITA, a solo improvised dance to live music by Mary Ellen Donald Ensemble. I have been studying with Sahar specifically to learn her SITA secrets. Floating onto the stage in purple and green skirt and choli, smiling, her eyes twinkling, she immediately evokes the joy of dancing. I was seated about three rows back of the stage, and as she crossed the stage she caught my eye. Looking directly at me, she danced a small combination that we have been working on in class as if to say “See how easy this is? Come and join me.” I was overwhelmed by her generosity and beauty.

Janelle was an advanced student in some of my earliest bellydance classes (and I made a point to stand right behind her whenever possible). She has since gone on to a career as soloist, company director, and now studio owner. I’ve only taken a few classes with Janelle as her training is rigorous (she’s strongly inspired by the Salimpour school). For Rakkasah, she showcased a salsa-inspired choreography for her company, Desert Dream. Janelle and a few of these young performers demonstrated some outstanding torso isolations, razor-sharp joint locks and pops, and organically flowing belly rolls.

Vending is a central feature of bellydance festivals, and at Rakkasah even the most ardent shopaholic would be challenged. With over 100 vendors to choose from, you can satisfy all your bellydance needs: elaborately beaded cabaret costumes, hand-dyed silk veils, gothic street and performance wear, and jewelry and textiles imported from the Middle East. You can spend a few dollars on a trinket from Pakistan or a few hundred on an Egyptian assiut dress.

Two years ago, Rakkasah moved from its former location in Richmond because, they claim, the fairgrounds in Vallejo offer more space. The problem is, it doesn’t feel like there is more space: it feels like less. The event is split between two buildings: the Exhibition Hall and McCormick Hall. Though one is larger (Exhibition Hall), they were similarly organized: A stage at one end with rows of folding chairs for the audience and vending stalls lining the walls and filling out the rest of the room (about 50 in each hall). The aisles are only about four feet wide and the seating area is inadequate. When a popular performer appears, the aisles quickly fill up with onlookers.

I arrived in McCormack Hall at about 2:15 to see two popular Rakkasah instructors, Suzanna Del Vecchio and Fahtiem. It was standing room only, and I found a place to stand just behind the seating. By the time Del Vecchio entered the stage, the crowd was 3-4 people deep. After their performances, I dashed back across the square to the Exhibition Hall to see legendary Leila Haddad of Paris and the Salimpour company of El Cerrito, CA. It was worse there. I tried to snake my way thru the seven-body deep crowd surrounding the seated area. I managed to find a peephole between two heads and if I stood on my toes I could see Haddad. When the crowd shifted momentarily and I lunged into an open space with a clear view of Salimpour … as long as I stayed in a deep plie.

Now, in addition to this being frustrating (especially for us short people), it struck me as very dangerous. If there had been (goddess forbid) any kind of emergency, people could have been hurt. The festival producers really should reconsider this location for the future. I heard these complaints after last year’s festival as well.

This year an even bigger complaint concerned the printed program which lists the performance schedules and contains advertisements. The pagination of this booklet was so badly botched that it was completely useless. I know that our local dancers had paid for a full page ad that wasn’t included. After 29 years of producing Rakkasah, this is seems inexcusable. The schedule on their website was equally confusing. I hope they are able to resolve these problems before the 2010 festival because they really have an effect on our experience.

But I don’t want to conclude this review on such a negative note. Rakkasah is a big festival and it is a joy to have such an event so nearby. For a reasonable fee ($18), you can spend hours watching the best that American bellydance has to offer, or cheering on your sister-dancers from the audience, or shopping for that new, must-have costume piece. It is a sensory onslaught of color and glitter, music and dance, elation and overload. If you have never been to a bellydance festival, look for one in your area and prepare to be delighted.

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