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