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Dancers impress in uneven ‘Empire’

This weekend, Princeton’s premier belly dancing company, Raks Odalisque, presents “Empire,” featuring a variety of pieces that showcase more than just the dancers’ mastered swinging hips and belly rolls, along with costumes that sparkle like no other.

At the beginning of the show, Nazli Senyuva ’12, the group’s president, explains the meaning behind the show’s title, “Empire”: The dances are meant to take the audience on a journey, and each dance represents a different culture. As I watched the pieces, I found this explanation to be somewhat lacking because the theme was not always well-supported throughout the show. While the pieces may have been from different cultures, some of them were indistinguishable.

The opening piece, performed by the entire company, sets the scene of the show with Disney’s “Arabian Nights,” choreographed by Maria Jose Dobles ’12. This piece does justice to the well-known song from “Aladdin.” The dance is characterized by more traditional belly dancing movement with interesting partner work that mimics both the smooth and softer side of the music while hitting the beats of the music with accents, demonstrating the dancers’ great musicality. The upbeat start did not follow through to the inconclusive ending, however, as the dancers lost confidence throughout the piece. It also had some awkward transitions that left the dancers settling into their positions earlier than the choreography demanded. Overall, however, the piece was a fun start to the show through this classic yet remixed Disney song.

The idea that many people have in mind when they imagine belly dancing is confirmed at the end of the first act by the heightened excitement of “Gypsy Caravan,” one of the high points of the show. The jingling sound of the brightly colored costumes accompanies the highly energetic piece, choreographed by Ceymi Doenyas ’12. Lili Driggs ’14 and Doenyas steal the show through their mastery and poise in movement. The use of clapping, tambourines and a drum section in the music provides a wide variety of acoustics. Though this original and energetic music is later interrupted by a somewhat tacky lyric, “Come and belly dance with me,” the dancers seem to be aware of their bodies throughout the piece and look like they are having fun while doing it.

“San Francisco,” a solo by Jacquie Nesbit ’12, is an unforgettable piece. The solo applies insane movement of popping, locking and contortion to the usual isolations and rolling seen throughout the rest of the show. Another piece to watch is Senyuva’s upbeat “Istanbul,” which makes use of group work that fits seamlessly with the music. Though the fouettes and cartwheel seem a little out of place, these technical movements showcase other talents that these belly dancers have. The frequent shimmies and Cha Cha-like steps engage the audience throughout the piece. The dancers look like they could shimmy for days.

While these belly dancers use their bodies nicely, their use of distracting props does not always fit well with the dances. In “Anthemoessa,” a dance by Briana Wilcox ’13, two dancers wear massive wings that distract from the other dancers’ movements. The dancers without wings later introduce swords that seem to come out of nowhere, and the dancers balance the swords while doing belly isolations. While the cool visual inspires awe at first sight, the continued use of wings takes away from the overall impact of the piece.

In the veil piece, “Marrakech,” choreographed by guest choreographer Kim Leary, it is easy to pay more attention to the brightly colored veils than to the dancers. The officers’ collaboration with Sympoh, choreographed by Leyla Aliyeva ’12, displays the dancers’ ability to do more hard-hitting movements, which is a nice change from the rest of the show. However, the introduction of the b-boys seems rather pointless near the end. Essentially, they serve as props that are mesmerized by the dancers’ sensual movements, and the boys add only limited and occasional movement of their own.

“Empire” includes a variety of exciting pieces that are offset by some less exciting ones. While Hernan Cortes may not have been as excited to conquer this empire as he was the Aztec one, the show makes for an entertaining two-hour experience full of talented hips, isolations and spirited belly dancers.

3.5 out of 5 paws

Pros: Musicality of dancers’ movement; fun music.

Cons: Lack of variety of movement and confidence by some dancers; distracting use of props.

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