Monday, April 4, 2016

Monday, July 13, 2015

Fo(u)r Women:  A New Project for Mosaic

by Samara with Gary Kupper


    The dichotomy of being a woman and a dancer in the world of Middle Eastern Dance has  at times been very complex.  Especially today, there is a cultural war within middle eastern society where woman are fighting to emerge from the chains of religious intolerance.
Gary Kupper
    I have always viewed  my career as a dancer to be complete freedom -- it is something I choose to do and I am grateful to be in a free society that allows women the choice to express themselves as they wish. In contrast, the horrible treatment and subjugation of women throughout the world, especially in Middle Eastern society, inspired my partner Gary Kupper and me to create the idea of Fo(u)r Women. We wanted to choose examples of women throughout history from the Greater Middle East who overcame adversity to contribute their gifts to the world.. The women we chose refute the notion held by male-dominated religious doctrine that women should be invisible and only function to serve men.

      These Four Women, a poet/priestess (Enheduanna of Ancient Sumer),  a powerful ruler (Hatshepsut of Ancient Egypt), an influential singer (Om Kalthoum of Egypt), and an inspirational activist (Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan), come from different eras in the Greater Middle East and span centuries from 2300 BC to the present day. 

     The first woman, Enheduanna, lived  in Ancient Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq), was the first non-anonymous author in recorded history.  She wrote devotional poetry to the gods and goddesses of her time. Her writing influenced writers of devotional verse throughout history. She was a princess, daughter of King Sargon the Great who created the first empire in the history of the world.   excavations  in Iraq.  She was made a priestess and founded a temple in the city of Ur which served to consolidate her father’s power in southern Mesopotamia. When a rebellion took place, her temple was destroyed, she was raped and then sent into exile with her followers. She overcame this humiliating defeat and rallied her followers to take back the temple and reestablish her position and prominence. It was only in the last fifty years that her amazing story came to light through the archeological

      Next we have a Queen of Ancient Egypt who became a king. Hatshepsut was a female Pharaoh.
A daughter of King Thutmose I, she married her stepbrother Thutmose II  and became a queen.
As was the custom, she became a ruler upon her husband’s death, until her stepson Thutmose III would come of age. But instead, going against tradition, she declared herself a Pharaoh and held on to that title well beyond the young king’s adulthood, and lived out her natural days as a great Pharaoh. Hatshepesut was the fifth Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt and came to the throne in 1478 BC. She is regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. Hatshepsut promoted trade, opening borders closed by years of war and accomplished many other innovative things during her reign. Her legacy was erased upon her death by her stepson Thutmose III who himself was to become one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs. But Hatshepsut had broken the succession of males, and was punished by having her tomb and all her creations destroyed. Her amazing contributions were found by archeologists years later and her story became one of the most enduring stories of a woman of power in history. Or herstory if you will.

      We then jump ahead several thousand years to the 1950s in Egypt, to Om Kalthoum, who was one of the greatest singers in the world and one of the most revered women in the Middle East.
She overcame great obstacles of religious and cultural boundaries to attain world renown as a magnificent singer. Her father, who had a theater, recognized her talents early on. He had to dress her up as a boy to make it acceptable for her to perform. She eventually came into her own and became recognized by the great composers and talent promoters in Egypt at the time. She eventually became so hugely popular that Gamul Nasser, the president of Egypt of the time, would put her on the air prior to his speeches to assure that all of Egypt would listen. She became known as the heart and soul of Middle Eastern society and even influenced western artists like Led Zepplin, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and many others.

   The fourth woman we chose, Malala Yousafzai, was born in Mingora,
Pakistan in 1997. This brave young woman was shot in the head and nearly killed in an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman in 2012 because she and her father were advocates of education for girls. She miraculously survived and went on to become the voice for all girls and women in the world to have the right to education and equality. She is the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize which she received for her courageous efforts, and continues her work inspiring millions around the world.
    By incorporating Middle Eastern and modern dance, original music and the songs of Om Kalthoum and Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen, plus multi-media, photos and video,  we will  show the significant contributions by women to the development of thought and culture in the world.  Fo(u)r Women will make the statement that through their power and the gifts they possess, women can shape and change the world for the better.

(Fo(u)r Women will premiere at Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield, NJ, on December 12 & 13, 2015.  It is directed by Gary Kupper, choreographed by Samara.  Cast members:  Samara, Morgiana Celeste Varricchio, Nina Brewton, Kendra Dushac, Mary Susan Sinclair-Kuenning, Anika Blodgett, and Dana Irwin.   This program is made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts and administered by the Essex County Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs. )


Friday, October 17, 2014

All About Ubar -- The "Atlantis of the Sands"

Mosaic Dance Theater Company presents its new production of Tales from The Arabian Nights on November 1 & 2, 2014 at Westminster Arts Center, Bloomfield, NJ.  The following is some background information on Ubar, The Lost City of Brass, one of a trio of tales in the program. (Rehearsal photos by Bob Greenwald.)

The magical tales told by Scheherazade over the course of those thousand and one nights hold endless fascination:  Where did they come from?  Were they based in truth?  The answer to the first question is debatable, but the answer to the question, at least where the City of Ubar is concerned, is yes!  Referenced also in the Qu’ran, the fabled City of Brass has long fueled and frustrated the search attempts of archaeologists.  Recorded expeditions began in the first half of the 20th century.  (T.E.) Lawrence of Arabia christened Ubar “the Atlantis of the Sands.”  Not until the 1990s however, was the actual site located through the help of NASA and its Landsat satellite, equipped with the “thematic mapper” which revealed the hidden topographical features belonging to the legendary city.  Ubar was discovered at last -- buried in the sands in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, in the Sultanate of Oman.  The source of Ubar’s tremendous wealth was frankincense, and the ancient world’s demand for this precious oil and its derivatives put the city on the map as a major trade hub on the caravan routes of the times.  Built on limestone caverns above a tremendous water table, the city also served as a vital oasis in the desolate area.  When the water source had been exhausted, the limestone grew dry and brittle and collapsed into the sands.  Destroyed by its greed and corrupt pursuit of wealth, Ubar poses as an eerie parable for our current times.  And, as the wise Sheikh Abd-al Samad does in the story, let us take note and remember.  -- Morgiana Celeste Varricchio

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mosaic Nominated for 2013 Sunshine Award for the Performing Arts

SUNSHINE Awards Organization
Announces Nominees for New York City Program

New Jersey, October 24, 2013.  The SUNSHINE Awards Organization today announced in New Jersey the nominees for the 2013 SUNSHINE Awards Program scheduled for Saturday November 2, 2013 in New York City.  The SUNSHINE Awards Program was founded 25 years ago to recognize and honor talented exponents of the performing arts, sports and education of the various Caribbean countries.  Over the years, the canopy of the program was extended to include South America, Central America and Africa. 

Mosaic Dance Theater Company is among the five nominees to be honored at the New York City milestone event and will perform Raks al-Sai'id, a dance of Upper Egypt, at the awards ceremony.

The milestone, black tie event will be staged at the AXA Equitable Center, 787 Seventh Avenue (corner of 51st Street) in New York City. The program will begin with a cocktail reception at 6:00pm followed by the presentation of awards and live performances at 8:00pm. The 25th Annual SUNSHINE Awards Program in New York City is sponsored in part by United Airlines “the preferred airline of the SUNSHINE Awards”, the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort of Tobago, National Staffing Associates and All Star Motors/Essex County Touring.

Tickets can be obtained online at or by calling 201-836-0799. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

My Love Affair with The Arabian Nights -- Part Two: Riding "The Ebony Horse" by Morgiana Celeste Varricchio

Erin, Nina, Samara, Kendra, Mary Susan

In adapting one of Scheherazade’s tales from the Arabian Nights for the Mosaic Company, dance must always remain in the forefront.  The action that moves the plot forward becomes the springboard for Mosaic’s re-telling of the tale through dance and movement.

“The Ebony Horse” is one such story with much intrinsic movement: the mechanical inventions presented to King Sabur at the start of the tale; Kamar Al-Akmar’s initial ride on the ebony horse and the subsequent flights; the women in the harem; the “exorcism” of Shams Al-Nahar, and then, of course, there are the transitions from scene to scene.  Once I have the adaptation in a rough preliminary draft, my next step is choosing the music. 

Erin, Nina, Kendra, Mary Susan
The great composers of movie soundtracks have shown us just how important music is in telling a story.  And, certainly, they paid heed to the Tchaikovskys and Rimsky-Korsakovs who composed breathtaking scores for the ballet.  As I write my adaptation, each dramatic point conjures a certain emotional element, thereby needing a certain sound.  Not to be clichéd, but I must say that I’ll know it when I hear it.  A brief meeting with composer Kevin Keller  ( at APAP’s (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) Conference 2013 led to a follow-up correspondence, with Kevin’s introducing me to his beautiful, evocative music, with sounds of world fusion.  His composition “Dvija,” was perfect for “The Ebony Horse.”

Fitting the music to the action and the narrative is the next step, and certainly one of the most important in the pre-rehearsal development.  Does the emotional arc of the music match the story?  Is there appropriate music in the score to match up with the dance breaks in the script?  The solitary process of reading the script aloud to the music for timing requires editing, re-writing, and an occasional musical edit (with the composer’s permission, of course) to make everything fit.  Finally, when I am satisfied, we are ready to begin rehearsal with the cast.

Samara, Nina, Erin, Kendra, Mary Susan
Samara, Mosaic’s Artistic Director for Dance and Choreographer, and I have evolved our way of collaborating over the many projects we’ve created.  If I’ve done my job correctly, then the music and the words are in sync with my directorial vision.  At our work sessions, I review the story with Samara, as well as the particular emotion of the scene, whatever blocking and positioning I have already set, and what needs to happen within the music at specific times.  In the case of  “The Ebony Horse,” we also reviewed preliminary costume sketches (the costume design was inspired by those wonderful illustrations by Gustaf Tenggren) to see how use of costumes could be incorporated into the choreography.  Samara then creates the choreography,  and we proceed to set the show with the cast: Nina Brewton, Kendra Dushac, Mary Susan Sinclair-Kuenning and Guest Artist Erin Pellecchia portray the harem girls (and very busy) dance ensemble; Samara as Princess Shams Al-Nahar; Guest Artist Michael Baugh as Prince Kamar Al-Akmar, and myself as the storyteller.  Along the way from first rehearsal to final dress rehearsal, there are many changes, but the words and the music guide us.  (Rehearsal photos throughout this article show our talented dance ensemble hard at work. Photos by Morgiana Celeste Varricchio.)

Kendra, Nina, Mary Susan, Erin, Samara
 Scheherazade enthralled her husband King Shahriar for 1000 nights, thereby saving her own life and winning the king’s love and trust.  Her legacy has been a major force in my artistic career, and has given me many opportunities to share my personal sense of wonder of these tales with our audiences.  Which tale will be the next project?  I can’t say just now, but I can guarantee I am already thinking about the possibilities.

“The Ebony Horse” will be making its world premiere on Sunday, October 20, 2013 at the JCC Maurice Levin Theatre, 760 Northfield Avenue, West Orange, NJ, as part of “The Art of Sense and Soul, “ presented by JSDD’s WAE Center’ Global Beat Series.  The concert is presented free of charge to all. Here’s a link for more information:
"The Ebony Horse" will be presented at Mosaic's special 10th anniversary concert scheduled for November 22, 23, 24, 2013 at Martha Graham Studios in New York City.  Details to be announced.

Monday, September 2, 2013

My Love Affair with The Arabian Nights -- Part One: How It All Began by Morgiana Celeste Varricchio

During the many question and answer sessions in which Mosaic company members have participated, inevitably someone asks:  How did you get involved in Middle Eastern dance?  Each of us in the Company has our own reasons.  My path into this beautiful dance form began at the library, of all places.  I was a voracious reader as a child, and was drawn to the beautifully illustrated books of fairy tales and folk tales of different lands.  The librarians in the children’s department never let me down – each visit I would ask for their suggestions, and they would deliver.  On one visit, probably when I was in the third grade,  I was recommended the big, beautiful Tales from the Arabian Nights with illustrations by Gustaf Tenggren ( I read the book everyday until the due date, and then I renewed the book and read it again until it was due.  With great reluctance, I returned the book when my renewals had run out.  But after the book’s required “resting time,” I checked it out again, and the cycle continued.

The good librarians soon became wise to my repeated antics, and would put the book aside for me until I could return to check it out once more.  These were wonderful years full of the discoveries that reading brings, but time passed.  I grew older, and, eager to be given access to the infinite selections in the adult library on the main floor, I no longer visited the children’s library on the second floor.  But, I never forgot the magic of Tenggren’s illustrations or of Scheherazade’s enthralling stories, and sought out the more adult retelling of the stories, even the 19th century translation of explorer Sir Richard Burton.

Let’s zoom ahead to when disposable income became available.  Before the Internet and easy book searches through such businesses as, working with a reputable book hunter was the only option to track down an out-of-print title not found in a local used bookstore.  Children’s picture books were hot commodities, and rarely to be had at secondhand bookstores.  So, after finding a book hunter, I was thrilled to plunk down a hefty portion of my paycheck to purchase my own (“excellent condition”) copy of that magical Golden Book edition full of Tenggren’s art.

Let’s zoom ahead once again.  I had just completed a successful tour to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, of my one-person performance of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and was looking to begin a new one-person project, done in story theater – a style of storytelling using mime, dance, narration, and playing several characters. This style (based upon improvisation techniques developed by Paul Sills for his Story Theatre) was introduced to me by Robyn Baker Flatt during my years at the Dallas Theater Center (Texas) and I loved it. 

Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves  (Michael Hess, Maurice
Chedid, Richard Khuzami, Morgiana Celeste Varricchio.
Photo by Bob Greenwald.)
In choosing this next project, I wanted to combine Middle Eastern dance and music, characters I could sink my teeth into, and a story I would not grow tired of.  The only logical choice, therefore, was Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, my most favorite story of all time, which even includes a climactic dance scene.  My director Donald Brenner and I worked tirelessly over a very hot summer in Fazil’s un-air-conditioned studios, and created a literate retelling of the tale, performed in story theater style with mime, movement, and Middle Eastern dance, with yours truly playing twelve different characters including the forty thieves.  (Three donkeys were part of the original coterie of characters, but were written out of the final version.)  Our efforts were rewarded with a touring contract with Lincoln Center, which enabled us to add three musicians for live accompaniment (Richard Khuzami, Maurice Chedid and Michael Hess). After our season with Lincoln Center, we toured Ali Baba to schools in the NY/NJ metro area and beyond for 10 years.

The Fisherman and The Djinni (Nina Brewton, Zahra Gamal,
General Judd, Cara WEst, Dena Stevens. Photo by Kristin
Reimer of Photomuse.)
In the meantime, Mosaic Dance Theater Company came to be.  Now working with a company rather than just as a solo artist, I had the opportunity to create a full cast retelling of an Arabian Nights’ tale, but which one?  As a solo artist, character actor, and dancer, I could do anything I chose.  For a dance company, however, the choice had to be adaptable for dance.  Again, I went back to my favorites, and adapted the consecutive tales of The Fisherman and the Djinni and The King of the Ebony Isles.  Fisherman had a cast of ten (five speaking roles, and five non-speaking roles), was directed in story-theater style, and featured choreography by Samara. The 80-minute piece was presented in 2006 in NJ and NYC.  
Ubar, The Lost City of Brass
(Mish-Mish B'int Amira, Samara,
Morgiana Celeste Varricchio,
Nina Brewton.  Photo byGary Heller.)

A few years later, in 2009, we brought another tale into Mosaic’s repertory.  This time, the choice was Ubar, The Lost City of Brass, a strange tale based on history, which has always fascinated me.  Again, we had a full cast, again the story was adapted with dance in mind.  Subsequent seasons brought new tales, also presented in story theater fashion – two solo works (Mohammed the Muallim and Abu Nuwas and His Wife), and one full cast work (The Paradise of Children,  the story of Pandora’s box).  2013 -- time to return to Scheherazade’s vast compendium of stories.  Enter The Ebony Horse.

End of Part One