Dallas — Over the last seven years Dark Circles Contemporary Dance’s Artistic Director Joshua L. Peugh has wowed us again and again with his insightful and unique perspective on the human condition as well as today’s social norms. He transfers this information to his dancers using a combo of classical and modern movements infused with his own special blend of grounded footwork, knee-bruising floor work and happenstance partnering. His aesthetic demands that the dancers be comfortable in their own skin, yet open and vulnerable on stage.
Peugh is asking this and much more from the company in his first evening-length creation, Aladdin, حبيبي, part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, Oct. 11-14, at the Wyly Theatre. The immersive 75-minute production focuses on American rhetoric regarding the Middle East and the stereotypes associated with Middle Eastern races and cultures. The work is based on the folk tale of “The Story of Aladdin” or “The Wonderful Lamp,” first written in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights).
Peugh says this process all began while browsing through a book store one Sunday morning. “I found a copy of Arabian Nights and the first line in the book is once upon a time in China. See when most people think of Aladdin they think of the 1992 Disney movie, but Aladdin was actually Chinese and the story was added later on by Frenchman Antoine Galland.”
He continues, “This was one aspect of the work. The other being company member Chadi El-khoury’s personal story, which includes his mom bringing him and his brother to America when he was 11 years old. We go to his Mom’s house every Sunday and she always calls her children Habibi, an Arabic endearment like ‘sweetheart,’ and it’s why the title of the work is called Aladdin, Habibi. We put the term in Arabic to signal to these people that their voice is being represented here.”
Peugh also points out that the work will feature a new score from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts alumnus Brandon Carson and will be performed live by a six-piece band. The production also includes costumes designed by Susan Austin and lighting by Bart McGeehon.
“I honestly didn’t know what the music was going to look like until I got started with the dancers, but we needed music before rehearsals began and so I ended up sending Brandon a list of plot points and asked him to make them musical numbers. We started off with 20 minutes of music and have gone back and forth a lot until we got to today’s product.”
In the work the dancers also double as stage hands, which was evident during the run through I saw at Preston Center Dance in Dallas last Wednesday morning. When not executing movement in the center, the dancers are constructing a tent out of canes and fabric, playing a game of cards and actively observing their surroundings, just to give a few examples.
Peugh explains, “We played a lot of theater games and one of them was about making yourself very present and aware and basing everything you do on things outside your circle so you are inviting things to happen instead of making them happen, which is already the principles that I run the company on in the first place, but we are now expanding that in different directions.”
The example he gives is in regard to the architecture of the room. Because this show follows a narrative, Peugh had his dancers do a lot of exercises that had to do with using what is there in the space. “Everything you see in the show is stuff that was laying around the studio. So, everything is sort of a found object and not a created one and that mirrors the world we are trying to create in this dance.”
There were a lot of moving parts just within the first 20 minutes that I got to see of the show, so I will try to break it down for you without giving too much away. Company veteran El-khoury portrays the role of Aladdin and we get to witness his inner struggle of questioning certain rules and customs of the culture that he was born into and then coming to America and trying to fit in here. El-khoury’s journey of discovery involves two genies: the genie of the ring played Jaiquan Laurencin and the genie of the lamp played by Lena Oren.
El-khoury moves with laser focus and incredible control during rehearsal. Deep lunges, swirling arms and rhythmic hip isolations are at the crux of most of his individual movement phrases. Over the last two years he has put on some noticeable bulk and his technical execution and artistic depth continues to flourish with every new piece the company puts out.
“He works really hard to make this happen,” Peugh says about El-khoury’s artistic growth. “He still works a full time corporate job and he works really hard to dance the way he wants. He has grown incredibly in the last several years. He’s fighting for it and he really loves dancing and it give him pleasure so that’s ultimately where it all starts from in the first place.”
Peugh admits that the creative process for this show has been a completely new experience for him. He doesn’t like to give his dancers too many details because he likes to see how the dancers take the material and make it their own. So, sitting down with the dancers after every rehearsal to talk about the narrative is really a foreign concept for him. Peugh says on the second day of rehearsals he asked the dancers to bring in a list or make a presentation to the group about the question ‘What is Middle Eastern?’ and from there he had the dancers take their lists and make a movement phrase based off one plotline in the story, and that is how the choreography for the show came to fruition.
“It was a really organic process,” Peugh says. “This has been one of the most fun, creative processes I have ever had. I have learned a ton and I am super proud of the work everyone has done. Everyone has put in a lot more than a few hours of learning steps.”
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com