Review: "The Zar Dance"

Published in the MEDANZ newsletter, October 2010

The Zar Dance cover.
The Zar Dance

This DVD is a reissue of "American Arabesque", a 1981 award winning documentary about the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group's performance of "Bait el Zar" (House of the Zar). It does not teach how to "do" a zar but rather how Bobby Farrah created a theatrical version.

For those who have not heard of Ibrahim (Bobby) Farrah, he was first generation Lebanese on the East Coast and became a major influence on belly dance from the 1960s as a choreographer, teacher and researcher. He formed the Near East Dance Group in 1971 which performed in theatres such as the Lincoln Centre and Carnegie Hall. He published "Arabesque" (an excellent source for cultural and historical information) from 1975-1997 and he produced the documentary video "Rare Glimpses". He also taught workshops in Australia and a number of significant teachers in New Zealand and Australia travelled to New York to study under him.

In this DVD there is about 15 minutes of pre-performance material - interviews with Bobby and members of his dance group, insights into how Bobby approached the project, and the group in rehearsal with both Bobby and the musicians. Then there is the performance itself. "Bait el Zar" is 15 minutes of theatre art. You see the build up with the priestess and the "possessed" and eventually the musicians and dancers (including Bobby himself) enter and perform what we more typically see as a stage performance of zar.

In addition, Phaedra has assembled another 30 minutes of material which ranges from further clips of rehearsals, performance, and interviews, the Ibrahim Farrah Near East Dance Group's repertoire, a very short clip of Nadia Gamal doing a zar within an Orientale piece, and actual zar clips a from Magda Saleh's "Egypt Dances". The last item is a huge contrast to "Bait el Zar". The real zar does not always use the ayoub rhythm which was de rigueur for Western zar performances for many years (maybe influenced by the "Bait el Zar" performance?) nor does it have such a sense of high drama. There is also some corrections of the accepted wisdom of what zar actually is/was.

This DVD would be worth getting for anyone who is interested in the development of the wider field of belly dance and Ibrahim Farrah's vision in particular. It is also interesting seeing how Bobby consciously took aspects of the zar and adapted it for theatre. You also get insights into his philosophy. Bobby Farrah says:

"The reason why this dance has so much to offer is it is both a physical and emotional experience. The rhythm sets the tempo of the feet and the body. The spiritual part comes from the melody."

This is echoed by his students:

"The music is the whole basis of this dance" and
"There is no reason to study this dance if you don't like the music"

To buy a copy of "The Zar Dance" please contact Phaedra.

For more information about Ibrahim Farrah: www.ibrahimfarrah.com

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