Sultanas of Swing

"Cairo is the Hollywood of the Middle East": Cassandra Shore
Courtesy of Cassandra & Jawaahir Dance Co.

A lot of people have come into contact with Cassandra Shore's work without even knowing it. Hanging out at Sebastian Joe's on a muggy summer night, you might have heard the chatter of finger cymbals and pulsating Arabic music coming from her studio above the Burch Pharmacy. Or you might have caught a glimpse of undulating torsos through the window. On one late-June evening, four women might have been seen rehearsing the "Elbe Mal," a classical Egyptian dance traditionally performed by women, for women. A charged vocabulary of pelvic thrusts, quivers, and spirals ripples through the dancers' bodies, creating a harmonic convergence of torso, arms, legs.

"The energy recycles itself, continuously flowing and circling through the body," explains choreographer Shore, acclaimed for her sinuous, expressive dancing from the Mideast to the Midwest. "Its power is under the surface, subtle and refined rather than aggressive. That's the female part of it."

In her upcoming Leylet al-Tarab (Night of Enchantment) at the Southern Theater, Shore explores both exotic and contemporary aspects of Middle Eastern dance with members of her Jawaahir Dance Company and the Tarab music of the Georges Lamman Orchestra from San Francisco. Sometime in her 30-year career, Shore became fascinated with Tarab's emotional thrust--as well as its ubiquitous presence in Egyptian musical films.

"Cairo is the Hollywood of the Middle East," says Shore, whose "A-Ward Gameel" follows a 1930s film in which the popular Egyptian singer Fatima wanders through a garden picking flowers. To lyrics like "The narcissus bends from right to left,/it sways and flirts on its stem," a bevy of women representing exotic blooms glide in and out of formations reminiscent of Busby Berkeley. "I like to blend East and West," says Shore, "Arabic moves with elements of contemporary modern dance and popular forms like musicals."

A fusion of the Oriental and the Occidental also surfaces in "Alf Leyla Wa Leyla," based on the tale of Scheherazade. Here, six women physically dramatize the sly storytelling skills that kept the Sultan on the edge of his ottoman. The narrative edge of "Alf Leyla" sharpens to a political scimitar in an as-yet-untitled collaboration with Twin Cities visual artist Hend al-Mansour. Her set of swirling fabrics, symbolizing the ties of tradition that bind many Arabic women, takes on a more personal spin for Shore.

"As a dancer, it's hard to represent a concept," says Shore. "I interpret the idea of a big cultural entwinement in terms of my relation to my dancers, and to the space. At one point I'm literally tied to the theater by a piece of cloth. Now that's a metaphor I can relate to!"

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