Book Review:Choreographic Politics,
Anthony Shay (2002)

Published in the MEDANZ newsletter, February 2008

Choreographic Politics cover more than just Middle Eastern dance. It looks at a range of state sponsored folk dance companies including a full chapter on each of Reda (Egypt), Turkish State Folk Dance Ensemble (Turkey), Moiseyev (USSR), Ballet Folklorico (Mexico), LAOD (Croatia), and Dora Stratou Greek Dances Theatre (Greece). Anthony Shay asks what is each company's purpose, how does it achieve it and what is included (and excluded).

For each country he starts with a thumbnail sketch of its recent history and how the powers that pay the bills see their country. He looks at choreographic strategies and styles, use of stereotypes, the company's repertoire, dancer selection and training, choice of music and costume, the major figures behind the companies and their influences and biases. Initially I bought it for just the information on Egypt and Turkey. But I ended up reading it cover to cover - including the notes.

It is fascinating how politics and ideas of national identity can skew something as apparently as innocent as dance. For instance, in the Greek Dances Theatre and the Turkish State Folk Dance Ensemble, the whole Ottoman era is erased while the Greek Dances Theatre tries to "recreate" the dances of ancient Greece. In the Iranian State Ensemble Persian dances are described as "graceful', the Kurdish "primitive". The Serbian state ensembles depict "gypsies" as childlike, irresponsible and sexually lax. Most troupes include ultra-sanitized peasant pre-adolescents - always happy, clean, innocent and cheerful having "fun in the village".

Anthony Shay also looks at how much, if any, field research is claimed (as he said it is difficult to prove how truthful the claims are) and how it is used, if at all. At one extreme Moiseyev and Reda stage works almost in spite of the research with much choreographic adaptation/additions along the lines of ballet character dance and stage costumes with little or no connection with the field. While Dora Stratou Greek Dances Theatre includes museum quality costumes and LADO improvise village dance within style without choreography.

Reda Troupe

Within the chapter on Egypt, Shay lays the conflict within Egyptians towards "belly dance" not with Islam but with the result of British colonization. Islam does not find the movements shameful, but the earning a living by displaying the body. However, the colonists had difficulties with the movement itself. The Victorian prudishness was absorbed into the Egyptian society. The upper classes adopted English attitudes and morals along with their western education and these separated them from the "oriental backwardness" of the rabble.

This lead to the development of an invented tradition where the dances expressed what Egypt should be. Magda Saleh found the most common form of dance, for men and women, throughout Egypt was solo-improvised with articulations of the torso especially shoulders and hips. Basically "belly dance". But Reda staged group dances that never existed and sanitized the movement vocabulary. Where the Fellahin men normally belly danced - which was unacceptable - Mahmoud Reda created a dance based on work movements for the stage.

All in all a bit of a heavy read, but well worth it.

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