My day began at 6.30am when I set off for Paris to meet Raphaelle for what was billed as France’s ‘First Oriental Dance Choreography Competition’, organised by Massai Arts, on 10th February 2008. (Not quite true, I discovered, as there already exists an Oriental Dance Competition in France, though only for soloists.) Little did I know as I started my journey, that it would be a marathon day for all concerned.
The usually reliable Eurostar broke down at the entrance to the Tunnel, and there we waited for about an hour. Given that Raphaelle was picking me up and that we were going straight to the performance, I was understandably anxious. I needn’t have worried. Oriental dance aficionados are well used to working to Arabic time, but we were still waiting to enter the theatre an hour after the show was due to begin! Thankfully, there was a jovial atmosphere as we waited in the crisp Paris sunshine, but the general enthusiasm had began to wane slightly when at 3.30pm we had still not seen any dancing.
The arrival of the show’s hip-hop host to the tune of ‘Thriller’ and lots of dry ice was followed by a lengthy introduction to the panel of judges and video footage of some of the participants. Raphaelle’s four year old daughter, Sidonie, voiced everyone’s sentiments when she piped up plaintively, “But where are the dancers?’
The show itself was an ambitious project. The dancing was very varied - both in terms of interpretation, choreography and technical ability. Raphaelle and I both agreed that it would have been better to have divided the competition into two categories: amateur and professional, because whereas some groups were made up of extremely polished and experienced performers, others were far less so, consisting of a teacher and enthusiastic students.
The groups were each allowed a maximum of five members and a five-minute slot. There were 17 groups from all over France taking part, interspersed with video footage of the sponsors, a dynamic performance from hip-hop group Spectacle Cie Fonky‘s Vibe and lots of ad-libbing from the MC. The show itself lasted a staggering five hours - a marathon by anyone‘s standards!
There were some very imaginative choreographies , but sadly some were let down by poor technique. I was struck by how little authentic Egyptian dance there was - if this show is anything to go by, it is definitely out of fashion. It was refreshing therefore to see Compagnie Traffic Jam produce an innovative take on a baladi solo. With a simply dressed solo dancer and two puppets playing the accordion and drum(?), it was elegant and highly effective - and very different from every other performance in the show.
Most of the dances were Arabic fusion, using a variety of props, sometimes to dramatic effect: Companie Marumba, for example, made a eye-catching and rather eerie entrance, completely shrouded in gold capes which they removed one by one, while spinning.
I was interested to see the Bollywood influence on the performances.
The rather cliched Indian arm snakey arm movements performed with
dancers one behind the other appeared in at least three choreographies.
I was particularly impressed by Compagnie Nejma’s imaginative use of cubes, saris and flowers to recreate the atmosphere of a Bollywood film.
Compagnie les Roses des Sables chose the wonderfully dramatic song Dola Re from the musical Devdas. Their movements were well executed and their gestures elegant, but their performance lacked the necessary dynamism.
The same could not be said of Compagnie KTEO’s blend of Bollywood musical and drum solo. The only group with a male dancer, they really fizzed with energy; the dancers performed acrobatics, cartwheels and shimmies at breakneck speed - and the audience loved them for it. Compagnie Naga combined Indian, Oriental, Classical and Oriental dance to great effect in their depiction of a dancer being pursued by three Amazonian warriors. Their movements were sharp and dramatic and there was a real energy to their performance. Compagnie Hazaar made a similarly strong impression with their gypsy/ghawazee/tribal fusion, thanks to the appealing blend of dramatic music, excellent technique and creative choreography.
By far the most technically accomplished group was Compagnie Es Saada. Their performance displayed imaginative choreography, humour, excellent use of space and great technique. Raphaelle believed them to be interpreting a cat and four mice, while I thought it was a ringmaster and four horses - which just goes to show how subjective dance can be!
The winners were decided by the panel of judges: Paola Ruggieri (Oriental dance choreographer), Tony Kouadio (jazz and hip-hop choreographer), Guy Weladji (producer) and Fanny (founder of the Oriental dance forum, Sharqi Girl). The audience also had their say thanks to a clapometer. It wasn’t the most accurate of methods, given that same groups had apparently bussed in hoards of friends and family for support, but everyone seemed to enjoy the participation. The judges marked the groups according to various criteria: the originality of the choreography, synchronisation, technique, artistic interpretation and musicality.
The winners were controversial - at least if comments that have appeared since on the various dancer forums are anything to go by. KTEO won first prize, beating Es Saada into second place. Compagnie Evidanses et la Vie en Kdanse won third prize. This was an interesting choice; the piece began with a tableau with each of the five dancers in a different guise - hip-hop, Indian etc - until they removed their outer garments to reveal identical sparkly outfits. It was high-energy but lacked the finesse of some of the other performances. Nejma came fourth, and Naga was voted the judges’ favourite.
In general, the show was a success, and the organisers must be applauded for undertaking such an ambitious enterprise. Yes, there were technical problems, the show was overly long with too much ‘padding’ and there should have been pre-selection to reduce the number of performers, but overall it was very entertaining. It deserves to become an annual event, and one that hopefully in future years will be supported by a greater number of professional dancers and by groups from even further afield. The first European Group Choreography Competition, perhaps?