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AUDIENCE REVIEW: Ping Chong + Company in "Calling: a dance with faith"
Ping Chong + Company
June 22-23, 2018
On June 22, 2018, Manhattan’s Downtown Arts premiered Calling: a dance with faith, an intimate, evening-length dance theater work directed by Ping Chong + Company associate artist, Jesca Prudencio. Using a dynamic interplay of movement, sound, and text, Calling tells the autobiographical stories of two dancers, Natsumi Bellali and Hala Shah, who navigate their shared devotion to two traditionally dissonant paths: dance and the Muslim faith. Pursuing artistry in dance is undeniably a difficult professional endeavor, but for many within contemporary New York City, it is less an act questioned, than a dream supported. Bellali and Shah each have a different, but crucially unique story to tell, and they do so in Calling with captivating spirit of discovery and wit.
Prudencio’s work expands upon Ping Chong + Company’s Undesirable Elements, a series started in 1992 that creates theater through an open, interview-based method of script building. Undesirable Elements interviews individuals who are peripheral in some way to their broader community, allowing them to perform their own stories on stage. Scripting deftly with dance and movement, Prudencio turns this approach toward the world of dance, with a keen understanding that a dancer’s story most often resonates beyond text, yet grapples daily with words.
Accompanied by a meticulously crafted sound and lighting score, Bellali and Shah help each other unfold layers of their identity growing up as dancers within multicultural Muslim families. Bellali and Shah did not know each other before this project, but their love for dance and Islam forms an empowering connection and understanding of one another, like close sisters and childhood friends. They become vital counterparts, exchanging story-telling roles seamlessly and enriching the one another’s text with supporting devices of commentary, echo, imagery, and mood. When Shah relates how she first met her husband, Bellali, positioned slightly upstage to the side, subtly embodies each character in Shah’s story, portraying emotional shifts otherwise lost with great sensitivity of body language and posture.
Bellali’s aesthetic emanates from a deeply cross-cultural, cross-generational experience in dance. Fluent in four languages (all of which infuse Calling’s text), Bellali grew up in Montreal, Canada, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Moroccan father, and older sister to three siblings. Having trained at The Ailey School, she weaves lithely between comprehensive faculty in classical ballet and modern dance forms, while infusing her rich sensibilities in afrobeats and dancehall rhythms. Radiating with joy and grace, she is both reverent of traditional physicality and dedicated to her youthful individuality. Her dancing features with particular prominence in the work’s later half when Prudencio gives unscripted time for the dancers to access open movement and improvisation. Words fall away here, and Prudencio lets dance, fittingly, communicate the dancers’ internal journey.
When Bellali’s solo begins, the lighting opens up from contained areas of warm light, to a stage-wide illumination of white light, as if entering another plain of thought. She dances to a recording of her voice reflecting on the complexity she finds in love and dating as a Muslim millennial. Her movements are thoughtful and scrupulous at first, contemplative of what came before, but like a mind letting go of the ‘what ifs’ and ‘shoulds’, her internal rhythms begin to tumble out in delightfully unpredictable ebbs and flows. The mood of reflection is overcome by the immediacy of the dance, the audience enters the practice of a devotee, and explanations are no longer needed. Bellali’s agility and precision is astonishingly fast, with horizontal momentum that cascades in asymmetrical patterns to and from the floor, arriving in beautifully simple balances and moments of stillness. She moves with qualities unadorned and essential, yet imbues the striking ferocity and vulnerability of an open heart. Her rapt and peaceful focus observes only the dance, reminding us that the essence of spirituality, whatever callings we hear in life, is abundant willingness to find devotion and awe in the world around us.
Ping Chong + Company is working to further develop Calling: a dance with faith. Hopefully this effort will manifest soon as Prudencio’s work is a rare and cherishable portrait of two dancers; a creation of space for their indispensable stories, dancing, and hearts. Moreover, Calling is imperative to broadening our understanding and support of Muslim identity within American arts communities.