Middle Eastern traditions for women are a cloudy issue in this part of the world, but they’re more complex than we know.
It’s a history of conflict with modernity that director and choreographer Armineh Keshishian explores through dance in her new multidisciplinary work, Behind the Veil.
“Sometimes people say it’s always men who prevent women from expressing themselves,” says Keshishian, “but women do it too. They have a lot of power, and are the keepers of tradition.”
Keshishian’s own Evolution Dance Theatre presents this work through dance, video and spoken word. It’s a history of one woman’s quest to transcend tradition and realize her own potential. According to Keshishian, this goal still has yet to be achieved.
“The West cannot change the Middle East,” she says. “The Middle East has to change itself, and (in this production) this process is illustrated by dance.”
For people who know little about Middle Eastern dance, this show will be as instructive as it will be a feast for the eyes.
“We use many different styles of dance, including jazz and modern, explains Keshishian, “and of course belly dancing. Many Westerners think of belly dancing as just sexual. It certainly can be. But long ago, belly dancing was a form of prayer, and a social activity for women. They would dance for each other. It was only later on that women danced for money.”
The story’s protagonist tries to find her way toward freedom. This is also a quest for modernity, and by default, the West. The styles of dance change as her journey continues, so that ancient styles are gradually integrated into new styles, and belly dancing itself evolves in purpose and technique. The histories of women and dance are fused into a single entity.
“We start in Egypt, 4,000 years ago, and move on to 800 years ago, toward Europe’s Middle Ages, which were all doom and gloom,” says Keshishian, “and then on to two centuries ago, leading up to current times.”
Anyone who watches the news knows that women are still in the process of emancipating themselves in many parts of the world. Keshishian’s Behind the Veil suggests the solution dwells within the individual, and that personal freedom leads to collective freedom.
“(The story’s protagonist) slowly has an impact on others,” concludes Keshishian. “You are welcome to embrace tradition or change, but you have to have the right to choose.”
Behind the Veil is on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles St. W. Tickets: 416-978-8849, uofttix.ca, Sat. $35, Sun. $30. For more information, visit TheEvolution.ca.