Dallas — Teatro Dallas is currently hosting its biennial International Performance Festival at the Latino Cultural Center. Over the years the concept has changed; during Cora Cardona’s long tenure as artistic director, the focus was in theatre from any Spanish-speaking tradition. Since my arrival in Dallas in 1992, I have enjoyed seeing Latin American, Spanish and other theatrical productions from the far corners of the world, otherwise unavailable for viewing here.
This year there seems to be a fundamental shift. This year, the title changes from "theater" to "performance," which opens the flood gates to all sorts of works not essentially made of theatre.
Billed as the 19th International Performance Festival is a bit of a misnomer. It is the first performance festival. Even the 2018 Festival still had the original TD focus (see our 2018 festival review here). That was the last truly International theater festival hosted by TD.
The first of three performances featured an artist with a Lebanese background who was born and raised in Oak Cliff but currently lives in Los Angeles. Electric Hamsa is a three-person musical, visual and dance performance piece based on Middle Eastern traditions, and it delivered a popular performance to the nearly full house at the LCC.
If you know little of Middle Eastern musical traditions, the best one could get out of this is that there was beautiful female belly dancer (Alia Mohamed), initially covered from head to toe in a golden, skintight outfit that shimmered in the light.
The show began with a man in a black gown (Jonathan Jones from the Dallas Chamber Symphony) infusing the audience space with deep musical sounds coming from a long-necked reed instrument that sounded to me like an Australian aboriginal didgeridoo, originally used in ceremonies. The otherworldly mood was set as this deep sound swept through the entire space. I am taking a guess here. There was no information in the program about which instrument was played when.
Seated upstage center was a percussionist (Jamal Mohamed, who teaches at SMU Meadows School of the Arts, and directs the Meadows World Music Ensemble), and later Alia Mohamed entered and played the Theremin, a rather ethereal instrument that emitts sound waves managed from her hands; tone is generated by two high-frequency oscillators and the pitch controlled by the movement of the performer's hand toward and away from the circuit.
The musical aesthetic of this show offers variations on traditional sounds, rather than blending instruments and rhythms from other traditions, yet maintaining a Middle Eastern flavor. There was a futuristic flavor to the presentation.
The visual aspect of the show was two-fold. First, a series of images from outer space set the mood as a transcendent experience, one rooted in the cosmos and not just those earth-bound. The visual show morphed with the musical score, eventually turning to Arabic geometric patterns, among other somewhat hallucinogenic ones. Frankly, this would have been great accompanied by friendly psychotropics from the vegetable kingdom.
The introduction and strictly musical portion of the show lasted about 40 minutes, followed by a 30 minute solo belly dancing performance to an appreciative crowd.
Secondly, the actual dancing began. Alia Mohamed performed beautiful hip slides but not many chest slides, lots of well-articulated hip twists, hip snaps, full and half hip wheels, beautiful wrist curls, arabesque steps from side to side, lots of Egyptian walks, along with camel action but few reverse camels, and lots of boat/side boat sways. I saw very few chest lifts/drops and no ribcage circles. These are standard belly dancing moves. Her strongest point were the hip shimmies. In short, there was plenty of hip action and undulations but minimal upper body moves, including shimmies.
The minimal choreography consisted of basic lateral movement across the stage, and static movements in place. Nevertheless, the audience loved the performance, giving it a standing ovation. This is clearly a case in which the critic and the audience diverge.
It is fair to mention that seldom is the Latino Cultural Center auditorium so full when Latinx performances are staged, so congrats to TD for expanding their audience base; on the other hand, the issue of audience numbers also leads me to question what was done to so effectively promote this show to the right audience, and what more could be done to bring Latinx audiences to the theater.
The International Festival continues at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1 with entitled Paper Piel (Paper Skin) performed by Jimena Bermejo, born in Mexico City with an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). Her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, pays homage to two women with dementia.