• Sasha Topic

The Magic of Sima

A dance review for the New Journalist Project by Sasha Topic


We all love magic, right? I’m not talking about the type that includes tricks or deceptions. I’m talking about the type of magic that you really start to believe in. The magic that you can really feel. The magic that causes you to smile from your heart until suddenly you’re also smiling with your face. That’s the kind of magic I love. And it’s the kind I could see that others loved too, as we all sat in the audience watching magic unfold on stage with Sima Dance Company.


In the midst of a pandemic, this dance company opened its doors to a socially-distanced audience who were invited to experience a spectacular showcase. The stage sparkled, literally coming alive, with every movement they made. I even caught some of the dancers smiling, lost in the moment, as they let themselves go and enjoyed this renewed sense of freedom. As a student of Sima I was fortunate enough to see that showcase carried from rehearsal space to final performance - and yet it was more breathtaking than I could have imagined. It was beautiful to see these people on stage, rather than in class, because watching their journey between the two spaces inspired me to do more as a dancer.


A suspension of time from within 'The Fall'. Image © Hasan Elsayed.
When they were performing I saw them as strangers, telling us their personal stories through contemporary dance.

The performance was split into three smaller pieces, each devised and choreographed by a different dancer from Sima: Sentience by Elizabeth Stott, 1000 Feet by Tomomi Aramaki and The Fall by Lana Fahmi. The choreographers and dancers have worked hard for their art, juggling their responsibilities to families and careers, to create these performances. People with children would bring them to rehearsals while the team worked, making this even more of a family environment. There was also talk of intense negotiations to decide which member of their ensemble would bring the chocolate stash to each rehearsal! They knew what they were capable of creating together, so all that was left was their dedication to dance and to one another as they continued on this journey.


Sentience

Anticipation built up within me as a bright light shone onto the stage. It immediately grabbed my attention. Six dancers stood: two pairs in the front, one pair in the back, forming a triangle. It was the movement of their hands that initially intrigued me. The men gently placed their hands onto different places of their partner’s body, guiding them as though through the shadows just out of reach. The eerie atmosphere established through these movements reiterated a sense of the women being controlled. That when the barrage of questions shot through my mind: Why are they in pairs? What do the hand movements symbolize? Why are the women in front of the men? But, just as quickly as they came, the questions left me… because the dancers had started to flow across the stage.


The tussle happening inside a creative mind was depicted perfectly in 'Sentience'. Image © Hasan Elsayed.

The brain behind this phenomenal piece is Elizabeth Stott who graciously met with me to chat about the intentions for her creation. After finishing college Ellie did a few competitions here and there but it had actually been over 8 years since working as a choreographer so this was almost a brand new challenge for her. It was most interesting to discover that Sentience actually conceptualized the entire piece from her daughter’s school work which was all about helping students to be less critical of themselves when writing. “The piece is called sentience - which is about being self-aware.” Ellie believes that this awareness supports us all to disengage that ‘inner critic’ within us. You know the one - the little voice in your head that tells you that your work is not good enough, that you can do better. Her choreography is based on personifying that voice and showcasing that it is something that is capable of controlling us if we let it. Ironically, even when Ellie was in the process of working on this very piece, her own inner critic was there, waiting in the wings. She chose to disengage it, but made a conscious decision to pick it up again later, when her focus moved to polishing the piece.

“When I dance, it’s the most honest I can possibly be.” - Ellie Stott

Another mesmerizing moment, this one involving Mazen and Lana, performing one of the many lifts scattered throughout 'Sentience'. Image © Hasan Elsayed.

Ellie tells me that making Sentience was quite easy because all the action in the piece seemed to just fall into the right place. The only difficulty they had during rehearsals was with the sheer volume of lifts included in her choreography. In the studio, Ellie would give the dancers something seemingly impossible to try and as they attempted it for themselves she would pick up what she liked for the piece. It’s a solution that often yielded even better results than she expected. My mind drifts back to one moment from her piece: Rei and Mazen, two young dancers, meet alone on the stage. Rei’s expression of misery is written across her face and body as Mazen lifts her with such purpose, clearly representing the way he - as the inner critic - had taken control over her. I could feel the commanding presence of Mazen’s shadowy self over Rei. Ellie’s methodology in the studio was to remain separate from her choreography by not dancing in it. This has worked well because she was able to hand over a sense of creative freedom to her dancers whilst she controlled the bigger picture, crafting mesmerizing moments like the one with Rei and Mazen. “Yes, I created the movement with the dancers, but at some point I just preferred to give it over to them. When they are performing, I hope they are not trying to say what I want them to say because it’s not mine anymore, it’s theirs.” What a wonderful sentiment from a choreographer.


1000 Feet

The intensity emanating from just two dancers was palpable during the opening of '1000 Feet'. Image © Hasan Elsayed.

Suspense. Ferocity. Strength. Each of these came crawling towards me in the darkness as I sat in the audience. Suddenly the drums took hold and a surge of tension went straight to my stomach. It was quite frightening to experience this feeling as it built up in the venue until, in an instant, a corridor of bright light showcased the absolute power on stage. Two dancers hold their positions in a low squat, hands held in fists, eyes staring ahead and straight into the audience. They are clearly ready for the fight to begin. The aggression was felt throughout the venue and it was something that shone through in one of the most memorable scenes later in the piece. A sharp spotlight hit the dancers from the above as they stood still, facing the audience, drawing us in. I was suddenly so cold as I heard them unstoppably march together as the music gave way and all we could hear was their heavy feet hitting the floor. Tomomi tells me that this was done to represent the rain drops, falling harshly onto them and onto the ground. As they started to move, the dancers constantly changed their patterns to signify the way that they were gaining the energy from the ground up. Repeatedly reaching and grabbing with their hands on different counts, the ripple effect felt so forceful - as if their entire life depended on this!


A lesson in maximizing the foot count on stage, seen here during a pivotal sequence in '1000 Feet'. These evocative costumes were crafted by the amazing Sandhya Lallo. Image © Hasan Elsayed.

Tomomi Aramaki first started ballet when she was just 6 years old and it’s now become her whole life. She has always pushed her boundaries and tried different styles of dance. Her knowledge of jazz and contemporary, the styles of dance she enjoys the most, is still quite bizarre to me because I know Tomomi as my ballet teacher. We have many opportunities during her classes to see her using every muscle in her body during improv sequences and it's obvious that she enjoys passing skills on to us. To see her produce something like 1000 Feet, this fusion of styles was as shocking as it was inspiring.

I must admit, though, I simply loved seeing this other side of her!

1000 Feet was unlike the other performances, especially as I failed to see their feet pointed once. From a ballet perspective, their flexed feet immediately set them apart as they used every last muscle in their body to layer every movement with such energy. It was so effective that the entire piece I felt as if one of the dancers was going to charge into the audience and attack.


The ripple and cannon effects used in '1000 Feet' made the audience feel like we were experiencing more dancers than the small group on stage. Image © Hasan Elsayed.

I sat down with Tomomi to discuss her process. She spoke about how many images came to mind as she listened to a particular piece of music. Loud and violent. She conceptualized around the image of people praying in the rain with their bare feet. It caused her to think about her home country of Japan, where there have been many natural disasters that her people have suffered through. And, with dance, everything starts from the ground, right? Tomomi desired to show the connection with the ground and the way people dig out an energy from it. By focusing on her own heritage, she pictured the opening part of the piece and moved her way through it from there. I am amazed when she tells me that it only took one week to create this piece and that she was able to teach it to others straight away. Tomomi tells me that she was happy with the final choreography but has bolder plans for any future iterations. "I hope that one day, in a much bigger space, I will be able to make the performance even stronger by adding more feet to the choreography." Who knows, maybe one day Tomomi will reach her one thousand...


The Fall

The exhausted tumbling and falling were happening across the stage, all at once. The dancers each wore their own clothing in an assortment of colours, causing the stage to appear jumbled and messy which gave me the sense that we were simply in the midst of watching a snapshot of our very own society these days. People running down the streets or in the malls due to a lack of time. Crowded spaces and dangerous atmospheres. Different people, different personalities, each going about their business in isolation from one another. In theory, any individual doing anything different to the norm we have created for ourselves should stand out from the crowd. But perhaps it's not so much about what we do as it is about how we do it?


The essence of human connection and disconnection as seen in 'The Fall'. Image © Hasan Elsayed.

This is why dance is so significant in our world today: it has the power to portray a measure of truth to us. You see, all of the performers were doing the same set of movements yet each one of them encompassed a completely different story.

“I wanted to show regular everyday people to make the piece feel closer to the audience where it might help them relate.”

These are the words of the choreographer of The Fall, Lana Fahmi, who I first met when I joined Sima a few years ago. Back then, I only knew her in her capacity as my contemporary dance teacher and as someone who taught me a variety of new techniques that I never knew how to do before her. Lana has been dancing for 13 years, non-stop. Now, I must admit that I can feel her passion for her craft whenever it escape from her and bounces around the studio during our lessons! She has so much to give us as her students and she is dedicated to ensuring we all understand how important dance is. As one half of the husband and wife team who have built Sima together, I see the way Lana and Alaa influence each other for the better. It's not everyday you get to experience a married couple who are both as invested in the performing arts as they are. So invested, in fact, that as I watched The Fall, I realised that some of the choreographies we had been rehearsing in our classes were pulled from this piece. I love that they believe in us dance students enough to support us in learning professional-standard sequences like that.


Towards the end of The Fall, Lana decided to do something in opposition to the usual. The dancers structured a circle, each sitting in their chairs and staring out towards centre stage. One by one, they stepped into the middle of the circle and communicated something personal by improvising along the lines of their own emotions. It was all about their individuality and it revealed so much about this mixed group of different personalities. As they each took their turn dancing with a sense of spontaneity, it became a visual representation of their own human plight. These were real, personal stories that just made sense to them.

“I wanted to portray the group support sessions where people sit in a circle and share their stories.” - Lana Fahmi

Each dancer also chose one symbolic gesture that would express a struggle of being afraid to speak up, but the rest of the movement was made up as improv and was performed differently every night. It was a meaningful moment for any dancer, because their bodies simply did what the music and the floor were supporting them to do in that very moment. It was powerful to watch.


The chairs provided an interesting layer of meaning given that the dancers were also now part of the audience watching one another on stage in 'The Fall'. Image © Hasan Elsayed.

When enquiring about the message beneath The Fall, Lana says that it was found in that simple concept around the act of falling. This piece was also partly her personal journey. “It’s what I had to go through that made me fall several times and where I had to stand up and fight to survive.” The series of sequences were constructed by questioning the dancers - and later, the audience - to put themselves in the same situation and ask themselves what might make them fall. This brings us to mine and Lauren's favourite moment in the piece: when the audience was blinded by the spotlights that had turned to face us as the dancers sat in silence, gazing at us. This was Lana’s signal that it was our turn now. She wanted to shine the light and place the mirror in front of us to let us have a minute to think about everything we were feeling in that moment. The audience was glowing but there was a definite sense of awkwardness in the studio. The tension even led one of the members of the audience to perform a nervous movement with her hands as the rest of us remained in position as the most still tableau in theatre history! I wonder what the dancers thought of our reactions? And then, just as the tension hit a pique, the final moment of the piece had arrived and the dancers moved their chairs to place them in the audience. The performers were now in the audience and the stage was completely empty. This was a highly personal connection with The Fall for Lana, providing a moment to honour her friend who was once a dancer in the company and tragically lost his life. It was a time to remember all those dancers who are no longer able to dance any more. It was a comfort because, suddenly, we were all the same. There was no difference between the audience and the performer. There was just us, sitting together, staring at an empty stage, recalling those moments and memories that made us feel connected, as we were bathed in the warmth of the same spotlight.


Check out more photography by @hasanelsayed_ on Instagram!

Sima Performing Arts truly is an amazing place where choreographers with experience and dancers with passion collide. It’s a place where everyone wants to do more. The studio can be found on the quirky Alserkal Avenue where there are so many classes and opportunities for students of all ages and abilities. Sima explores the world through different kinds of dance and they desire to develop as a team in so many ways. It’s a joyful space that holds so much power, as can easily be seen in our review of Sentience, 1000 Feet and The Fall. As a member of their family, I can feel that family atmosphere and surge of happiness every time I step into Sima, allowing me the freedom to explore whenever I step out onto the studio floor to dance. Make sure to keep up to date with Sima Performing Arts by following them on Instagram via @simaperformingarts or @simadancecompany

 

© Sasha Topic (mentored by Lauren Noble as part of The New Journalist Project)

for co|laboratory | 2021

 

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