Photo credit: Peter Lear

Arabesque’s Sawah – meaning traveller or wanderer – brings together over 40 dancers and musicians originating from countries that span the Middle East, as well as, from Montreal and Toronto.  This ensemble, as such, offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see a fusion of not only various Arab styles, but East meets West.  Arabesque founder and Sawah choreographer Yasmina Ramzy, in fact, is credited for having brought bellydancing to the level of high art.

More than a show, this performance promises to be an experience.  The idea is that audience members are slowly invited to embark on a journey themselves.  Things start off slow with pure Arab music as three sitting men play the quintessential oud – a pear-shaped string instrument and ancestor of the guitar.  Amongst them is Bassam Bishara who also vocally accompanies several of the dance numbers with his enchanting voice.  We escalate to the true collaborative nature of the show with a Baladi or folk-style Egyptian bellydance. The bright dresses, here, each with distinct retro patterns were one of the highlights for me (Deborah Shaw). While this dance, like many in the show, share a common structure, I learn that the result is always different based on the combination of musicians and dancers, and, most of all, because of the element of built-in improvisation.

Most remarkable for a Westerner not exposed to improv is that while the dancers usually appear to be in sync with one another, the Eastern art forms traditionally allow for improvisation.  It takes me awhile to get used to the fact that the roughness of the musical transitions, the glancing at the floor of dancers as if searching, and the unevenness of their spacing is likely less reflective of rehearsal time than it is of artistic nuance. None the less, audience members seldom break out of their attentiveness to solemnly clap, echoing the beat of the dumbek.  Sporadic applaud for the skills of the ladies, at least, was more welcoming.  Occasionally a lead dancer would even gesture us to clap, but I felt like this journey alone should have inspired more reaction.

The show closes with a number as colourful as that which closed Act I, Shaw swapping retro cloth for multi-coloured silk, including draping sleeves and trim.  I am glad to have been exposed to this company’s work.  Even typing this my hands are distracted as I tap out random beats on my solid desk and lunch containers.  You might just find me taking up drumming soon, something I have always wanted to do.  Perhaps the journey has only just begun.