I’m going to start this piece by telling you two stories. The first one is the famed Arabian Nights and the second one is about a group of blind men and an elephant.
Perhaps I don’t need to tell you about the first story. It’s called One Thousand and One Nights and this collection of framed stories has been delighting a wide range of audiences, from children to adults to adults looking for themed porn.
The second story deals with perception. So there’s this group of blind men. They don’t know what an elephant looks like. A zoo keeper is nice enough to place the blind men in a room with a very docile elephant. One blind man touches its ear and says, “Ooh, an elephant is vertical and flat and thin!”; another rubs its leg and says, “No! An elephant is thick and sturdy, although also vertical!”; yet another feels its trunk and says, “You’re both wrong! An elephant is squishy and a bit hairy and moves about a lot, and very, very long.”; another glides his hand over the elephant’s skin and says, “I don’t think so. An elephant is big and rough.”; another plays with its tusk and says, “I’m not sure what you guys are on about. An elephant feels pointy, and perhaps dangerous. I’m not going anywhere near it.”; and finally, the last one, the lucky fellow who gets to be close to the animal’s butt says, “Are you high? An elephant is very, very skinny, almost non existent, and it’s very slinky,” because he’s touching its tail.
An audience member viewing “Layla Means Night”, a dance/theatrical/installation arts performance presented by Rosanna Gamson may feel like one of those blind men.
As we checked in for the show, we received a slip of paper with different colors. Then we were served wine and mimosa and food and some dancers even offered to wash our hands. Here the story began immediately. We were introduced to three characters: The insecure, misogynistic bitch king (yeah, I use “bitch” for men. You should try it. It feels emancipating), the executioner (who painfully, ever so slowly raised her cleaver and brought it down on one poor satsuma after another every minute), and the wives (played by a charming cast of the teenage dancers ODC Dance Jam) taking turns visiting the king and doing a dance routine to no music. No, no belly dancing involved. This was strictly modern dance meets hints of Sufi and Persian dances.
A blonde Scheherzade fleeted about in an almost tattered white and light pink gown, greeting guests, while the narrator, Niloufar Talebi (who also helped with the text and translations for this show) was a vision in black and crazy-ass feathered headdress that she unfortunately took off as the night unfolds (I simply couldn’t stop staring at her face. Four words: gorgeous facial bone structure).
Then it got real. Remember the colored paper? Yeah, I didn’t get one.
The audience was divided into three groups based on the color of paper they received. I decided to join the Red group. I began to suspect that this was an all girls group (a relief from six years of all-male Catholic high school, which I couldn’t complain about), as we were given a fan to, “Cover our faces with when we encounter members of different groups.” And so began the concealment and the play of perspective.
In a way, the concept was sort of ingenious. The three groups were divided on gender (I guess I wasn’t given a paper either because I had a press invitation (ah, perks!) or because the greeters at the door simply couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl (genderblending FTW!). Anyhoo, I was glad that I made the decision to join the girl group. After all, red is my favorite color.
The problem with this was that each group would get a different show, and a carefully selected one at that. Not only did each group view the show in a different order (although all groups were in the same room in the first sequence where they introduced the story and in the last sequence where we were told the moral of the story by Scheherazade) but also had different stories told to them.My all-girl red group had the opportunity to see the guy group blindfolded with orange cloth as the dancers in black (teen ODC Dance Jam, the still living wives) were telling them stories. As a member of the girl group, I could see the other dancers (in red (souls of the dead wives)) perform near the men, almost touching the men, but of course the men could only hear stories told by the living wives. They were oblivious to what was happening around them. And as a member of the girl group, all I could hear was the whispers. Whispers. Whispers. Of the stories. And this scared the glitter out of me.
The whispers stayed throughout the show but were somehow passed on to the dead wives (red dancers), as the King blabbered to the guy group about negative space. He was obviously getting the guys to take on his side to justify the beheading of women.
I am not going to give you a play by play, but in the style of Edmund White’s States of Desire, here are some memorable details:
- Whispers. Seriously. As someone who constantly eavesdrops, it’s frustrating to have pieces of information so close within your reach yet far enough so that one cannot decipher the whole information. And what’s worse, the performers recited the different information at the same time, making it even harder to hear.
- Colors. Obviously red, black, and white play significant part. But orange? Well, according to Gamson, orange (cloths, even the satsumas and strung almost-dried dandelions that gave the rooms and stages a distinct scent) symbolized life. The new, still living wives wore black and the orange ribbon tied around their neck, signified that they were still alive. Gamson added that the making of orange juice in the morning signified a new day. I used to drink orange juice every morning for two weeks, until I realized every time I routinely drank orange juice (or strawberry smoothie or vitamin C), I would start getting crazy painful mouth sores.
- Obviously the play is about hiding information. The girl group got to the banquet room very much later while the men went to the banquet room earlier (and therefore wined and dined and got to spend some minutes sitting and sharing stories and their feelings) as the new wives were being executed in front of them (the girl group was only wined and dined and got to spend some minutes sitting and sharing stories and our feelings with Niloufar Talebi and then write our stories on a tiny scrap of orange paper that hung from the ceiling).
- In the banquet, Niloufar, while sitting on an orange chair, told us a real story of her father asking her when she was just fourteen years old, “Would you rather be dim and happy or knowing and suffer?” to which she never gave us her reply. Something to think about. Also: I wondered if she told the same story every night.
- The shadow play with the story of the giantess. It’s amazing how distance and light can generate the illusion of size.
- The Persian musicians (Houman Pourmehdi, Pirayeh Pourafar, and vocalist Alireza Shahmohammadi), whose songs I could listen to all day.
- The strung butterflies and cleavers in the red voyeur room.
- They taught us to zaghareet, which is a high-pitched ululation sound that Middle-Eastern women make to cheer on something or someone. At one point, we were to zaghareet after each new wife was beheaded. Genius.
- I didn’t even mind going up and down and up and down the stairs, although seeing the Exit signs and the posters and photographs on the walls of the staircase (and signs that said “Please turn off lights or fan” or “Absolutely no street shoes in the studio”) kind of took away the illusion of being in a different world.
In the end, though, as fascinating as the concept of the show is, I don’t understand the merit of withholding information, especially since you’re trying to do a play about gender and sexism and feminism. Yes, each member of each gender will have different interpretation of the show, but with themes as dividing as gender and sexism and feminism, why not give everyone the whole same show?
We grew up being a boy or a girl (or both) and having sets of rules and morals and etiquette and manners shoved down our throat: what to wear, how to talk, how to behave; and our perception about members of the opposite gender is helped shaped by our society anyway, so why not just trust the audience to see everything, go home, and interpret the play according to her/his knowledge and social upbringing?
In an article published by InDance, Niloufar Talebi wrote, “What I grapple with working on this project is the fact that any mention of a performance inspired by the Nights conjured images of djinns and fairies and magic lamps and harem pants. And of course of the mighty “Scheherazade” reduced in Western Orientalist depictions to an enticing half-naked woman confined to entertaining a domineering man who can do as he pleases and have as man women as he wants. Which is far from the truth. She is much more than that, you will see.”
You know, this idea of “enticing half-naked woman” is starting to get on my nerves. I mean, I am a belly dancer (although I’m a dude), and Talebi’s statement sounds very reductive. There are belly dancers, just like jazz, modern, ballet dancers, just like poets and writers, who struggle every day to take the art of belly dancing to a respectable level. I mean, “half-naked”? It’s not like the costumes of the performers of “Layla Means Night” were less revealing than belly dancers.
Another thing: this show is billed as an “immersive dance theater work”, and I have to tell you, despite the climbing up and down and signs (which are all just logistics), it was quite immersive. The scent of the satsumas and the flowers, the banquet (a much deserved break for some of us, which also justified the ticket price), the sheer curtains, the theatrics. One couldn’t help but ask: did these theatrics actually help elevate the experience or merely become props on which those involved in the production relied (heavily or otherwise)? Because to be honest, there were moments when the dancers, who had quite uniformed body type, were not in sync when I supposed they were supposed to be synced, but I got so distracted by the dark lighting and the curtains.
Apart from the music, the only thing that’s remotely Persian (dance-wise, excluding the musicians and Talebi’s poems) is the performance in the Red Voyeur Box, which was eerie and fabulous.
I sat down with ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke who was kind enough to spare her minutes as Rosanna Gamson excused herself to prepare for the second show (“Layla Means Night” ran twice an evening, 7 PM and 9 PM) and I told her about my happy mixed-up with the girl group (I was so not going to join a group with that much testosterone). Then I asked her if someone had $150 to spend, would he or she be able to join each group and get the experience as a whole? The answer is no. I mean, you could ask to join the group of your gender or a mixed group, but not the group of a different gender.
So, if you are really, really curious, and you have that much money, this is my advice: dress in drag.
Rosanna Gamson / World Wide presents Layla Means Night at 7 PM and 9 PM, October 30 to November 3 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $35 – 50. Click here for more information.
Photos by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta. For more photos, go to the Flickr Album.