The thing I love most about Kanopy Dance is the company's devotion to relevance. The choreography in this year's annual "Fall for Dance" concert leaps across W's oil-drenched chasm between "us" and "Islam." Martha Graham's local heirs meet Sadira, Mad City empress of Middle Eastern dance, who's studied with masters and performed in Cairo. You may know her as the belly dancer at the Shish Café or the Willy Street Fair. She also teaches at Kanopy and the UW Division of Continuing Education, produces the Madison Middle Eastern Festival and directs Riad Dance Company.
Kanopy's third fall fusion fest takes its subtitle, "Bright Nights," from Sadira's seductive images of night culture in the Middle East - family and friends dining out and dancing under the moon. On the bill are five dances packing messages you won't see on CNN.
"Jasmine Nights," one of three mix-it-up fusions, co-choreographed by Kanopy artistic director Lisa Thurrell and Sadira, is danced by 10 women - five from each company. It has the feel of strolling under nighttime festival lights, the ambience redolent with textures and spice. "It's dreamlike," says Thurrell.
"Wayward" takes a different approach. Thurrell describes it as "a playful cowboy-Egyptian piece, mostly Robert [Cleary, Kanopy's associate director], with a little bit of Sadira." Set on 12 dancers taken from both companies, the dance blends postmodern push-pull and weight-sharing patterns with Middle Eastern hip rolls. "There's almost a can-can line," Thurrell says. "It has sequined hip belts and Western-style string ties. It's lots of fun."
"Nagwa's Tabla" is a duet for Sadira and Kanopy's new principal dancer/ballet mistress, Kerry Parker, who's danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Vienna Opera Ballet, among other companies. Sadira did her own choreography; Thurrell set Parker's part. "It's call and response," says Cleary. "It starts out with pure, separate styles. Both dancers are in black. We use moving spots to go back and forth 'til the resolution at the end."
There are three straight Sadira works, including the classical women's solo "Raks Sharki." Riad joins her in the other two: "Gol el Rabat," based on the Ghawazee, a traditional dance done by Egypt's outdoor performers, and "Gulf Dance," an Arabian Khaleegy performed by women for their own entertainment at social events.
Two modern works also point squarely to the Middle East. Cleary's "raW," a '60s pop antiwar piece, is set to Edwin Starr's "War," camped up with ex-neighbor Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura's machinegun-riddled cover of "Eve of Destruction." David Quinn's costumes are pure Peter Max psychedelic, says Thurrell. "It's vaudeville cabaret gone postmodern. It gets schlocky when the gestures line up with the song lyrics. It's very physical and in-your-face."
"Center of the Universe," a premiere, is Madison's first chance to see choreography by Parker. She set this piece on herself with Thurrell, Cleary and Kanopy dancer Elizabeth Fine (officially on leave this season following hip surgery), who dances in a chair. The bull's-eye the title refers to is the golden age of medieval Spain, when Jews, Arabs and Christians lived in relative peace and made music together. "Kerry used the Iba Baya Ensemble's 'Musica Andalusi,'" Thurrell says. "It's music from right before the Crusades, when the three religions were bound by common threads, and there are really bizarre overlaps in language, rhythm and song."
"Center" is a little dangerous, Thurrell says. It puts dark edges on "Bright Nights."
Kanopy Dance Company, Friday (7:30 pm), Saturday (7:30 pm) and Sunday (2:30 pm), Sept. 28-30, Overture Center's Promenade Hall