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Fantasm - Odyssey of Dreams

by Brian Wallace
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 24, 2017
Fantasm - Odyssey of Dreams

The stories of the yarn-spinning Scheherazade, Sinbad the Sailor, and the 1001 Arabian Nights have tantalized audiences for centuries. Bellydance Evolution has put their own spin, twist, and nearly every other kind of contortion on these fables in "Fantasm: Odyssey of Dreams," which recently played at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood.

Performed within Southern California's bucolic sloping hills, this percussive swashbuckler saturates the natural environment almost to an overwhelming degree. Careening past glorious technicolor, the production opts instead for full blown neon, accented by anything that glitters. We can only assume that lighting designer Ben Spronk and the props and costumes team all had separate childhood traumas involving pastels. The visual feast resembles an LSD-fueled experiment with Photoshop, and your retinas will never be the same.

The gusto of the performers and enthusiasm from the audience make clear that "Fantasm" is a belly dance show, rather than a "danse du ventre" as the Victorians termed it in an attempt to appreciate the form from a respectful distance. Bellydance Evolution is devoted to Eastern choreography of almost every stripe, but their approach is unapologetically populist in appeal. This is more Bollywood than PBS. Even the playbill has a glossy finish and layout that is equal parts souvenir and billboard, and several ads can't help but remind you of the back pages of any given alt weekly.

A few of the dancers, whether principals like Artistic Director Jillina Carlano or members of her Sahlala troupe, perform under a single moniker, and not always names they were born with. Two dancers bill themselves as "Giselle," and one of them spells it with the letters j-i-z-z, making it more difficult to engage in a detached Victorian type.

That said, the audience that "Fantasm" attracted spanned all generations and was exceptionally wholesome and diverse. Many were dressed as if they were expecting to be called on stage themselves (none were, but the performance is very aware of the crowd and makes frequent attempts to engage it). A group of young women around me was a mix of dancers and students, and their intermission chatter testified that belly dance is very much a disciplined art form, and its practitioners take it seriously.

The dancers and live musicians -- the latter two drummers on doumbeks, Ozzy Ashkenazi and Donovan Lerman -- hold nothing back in terms of energy. Belly dance caters to softer physiques than other choreographic arts, but it is a mystery as to how they stay so supple instead of becoming vascular hardbodies as a matter of course.

This is an extremely physical style of dance, belying the stereotype, with movements that are more intense the more minimalist they become. Avoiding the abdominal six pack must take as much effort on their part as the rest of us put in to trying to get one. It's as if this entire school of expression is a giant undulating middle finger to the gatekeepers of ballet and its disdain for cup size and menstruation.

The only male dancers, Ruslan Kurlovich as the King (whose emerald costume I would love to get away with in public) and the mono-christened Kapua as Sinbad flaunt chiseled features, the latter in full flex once he reappears in a loincloth as the Golden Slave. Kapua in particular dances like a leaf in the wind, enjoying very few breaks in between as he tumbles and twirls.

He is lateral and longitudinal, almost at once, and his track is so physically daunting it's all you can do not to speed dial the people at OSHA. If he were not listed as one of the choreographers, devising all this, you'd have to wonder who negotiated his contract and how much ibuprofen must be in his system. Kurlovich has nearly perfected the arabesque, which I have always been an easy mark for, and "Fantasm" lets him deploy it frequently.

Margarita Kamjaka, as Scheherazade, does possess a background in ballet, and her training is apparent. She is the most precise dancer up there, commanding the stage with a specificity that is at once fluid and exact. She is never less than present, and stands in contrast to many in the ensemble whose pasted smiles never quite integrate into a relationship with the body, leaving us with a technically acceptable but disjointed display. Kamjaka is natural and authentic with every literal step and glance, and it's unfortunate that her scenes with Kurlovich as the King are too often placed upstage, where you must crane to pick up the nuance.

Jillina herself enters the way that Madonna would, as a celebrity that the audience has been anticipating. She exudes an easy confidence and shines most in an impressive "dueling banjos"-inspired number with the percussionists, conversing beat-by-beat, a challenge played out between her hips and their skins. It is an obvious highlight and deepens an affection the audience is only too ready to lavish upon her.

Sharon Kihara also stands out among the principals. She does not always keep up in synchronization with other dancers (if there is a fundamental flaw in the techniques on display, it is a general lack of clarity), but she performs with a twinkle and a smirk that reassures us that this is part of the show.

"Fantasm" offers more spectacle than focus, and one wonders how the evening would feel if draped in something simpler and shorn of the piped-in music. A more acoustic evening that generates the electricity solely from the dancers' art might be less glitzy. But Bellydance Evolution has proven that their connection to their audience is real, and both sides are likely prepared to risk the next step, even if it treads a little more lightly.

"Fantasm: Odyssey of Dreams," is on a world tour throughout the fall of 2017, produced by the L.A.-based Bellydance Evolution. For information and tickets for upcoming dates, visit www.bellydanceevolution.com.

Brian Wallace is a hack of all trades. He reads a play every day and can be followed or flayed @WallaceWaxes.


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