Monday, March 29, 2010

Sandstorms (Part 2)

“Stay in the car,” I said to the passengers in the back seat.

Pulling up to the Book Fair in Manama in our dusty white Crown Victoria I had the first “alarm bell” moment of my combined six weeks in the Middle East in the last 48, and that included time in South Lebanon. In the back seat were Daniel dressed in full as a Jungle Books monkey and Kaitlin in a skin-tight and distractingly sexy snake-skin unitard as Kaa. Out my window was a sea of white and black. Of all the places we had traveled, whether through CityDance or through the Iraqi Voices Amplification Project, from Ramallah to Damascus, Jerusalem to Amman, this was by far the most conservatively dressed I had ever seen a gathering. Women in full black abaya and niqab, faces covered at least to the eyes and often completely veiled and hands gloved. Men in dress white. Most children – and there were an endless stream of them – were clothed as formally as I had seen them as well.

I had images of a culture clash of a manner I really didn’t want to step out of the car and into.

We had been invited to come to the Bahrain Book Fair by one of our hosts to celebrate our performances of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books, the why of our coming to Bahrain. In the theater the night before a crowd of 700 had fallen in love with all our characters, and the 400 turned away testified to the popularity of the concert and the characters. But here we were, on the equivalent of Sunday, walking into a Book Fair not simply dressed as cartoon characters (American cartoon characters for that matter) but I had made a decision to bring the one figure in all the show who was an absolute, straight ahead sex symbol of a snake. The night before this made a ton of sense to me because she’s invariably the most popular figure in the show after Mowgli, filled with mystery and menace and able to knock out an entire pack of monkeys with a glance. But in the bright light of day and the considerable separation between theater and street that decision seemed in the moment to rank right up there with the dumbest I had ever made.

Add to this the fact that we were really, really late. I went looking for someone who would be there to meet us, because I wasn’t about to get out of the car in my 19th century, borrowed from the Opera costume and glued on maxi-mustache and lead my band aimlessly into street and the Hall, asking “anyone know where we’re supposed to be?”

That person was not five feet from the car and as reassuring as possible – which did nothing to take my blood pressure down.

My reaction had created a similar spike in Kaitlin and Daniel’s own blood pressure, and as we walked the probably 100 yards from the car to the entrance of the Hall I kept thinking to myself “this is a hell of a way to start an international incident.” Normally you want every eye in range to be looking straight at you – it’s the point behind performance. But in this moment I really wanted to just cover Kaitlin in a tarp. She, of course, was the picture of elegance. She stood up taller, walked in perfect snake-character and owned the character--- this as the center of an unending series of glances (again, that was the point).

I glued our guide to her side, thinking that at least if someone walked up to us and asked, flat out, who the Hell we thought we were to be walking around that way he’d be able to say we were invited.

At the front of my thinking were the endless admonitions, and requests for cultural sensitivity, we had been given before coming over. Modern dance, with all its contact and, often, sexuality, is about as close as you can get to whacking the sensitivities of conservative cultures, who place a premium on female modesty, upside the head. A few years back a company from Lebanon had created an enormous scandal with their dance program – one that led to trouble for the entire Spring of Culture Festival. When we had first started discussing coming to Bahrain much of the conversation had been about appropriate programming, and how a modern repertory program was definitely not going to fly. Jungle Books, because of its story line, seemed safe and right – and the interest in the program was bearing that out. It didn’t matter that they were wearing skin-tight costumes, they were doing so in service of beloved characters from a timeless story well known it seems in every corner of the world.

And here I was walking down the sidewalk with a skin-tight snake……

To be continued

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