From City Pages  VOL 19 #918 . PUBLISHED 7/8/98

The Wedding Present

by Caroline Palmer

ICE SCULPTURES, PUFFY-sleeved gowns, white limos, and dinner for 300 close friends: These are the things of a wedding planner's dreams. But with or without Martha Stewart's seal of approval, most Western nuptials pale in comparison to the elaborate week-long celebrations found in Saudi Arabia. From ritual henna parties to all-night festivities, the preparation for matrimony assumes special significance in a culture where gender segregation remains the law. Behind the doors that shield Saudi wedding parties from public view, the participating women are freed from the rigorous religious and social obligations that govern their daily lives.

This tradition provided a novel challenge for Cassandra Shore, director of Minneapolis's Jawaahir Dance Company, in her staging of Shoma, the historical tale of a female storyteller and daughter of a Bedouin shaikh. The work, premiering this weekend at the Southern Theater, includes a Saudi Arabian Haflat al-Zaffaf, a party filled with vibrant music and dance performed by and for women before the wedding ceremony. Although the groom and his father appear briefly, the occasion is truly a female affair where attendees ditch their abayas, traditional black cloaks that cover the body from head to ankles, in favor of boldly colored, theatrical costumes that loose the dancers' long, flowing hair. (The performance, it should be noted, features local artists from outside Saudi culture. Lecture/demonstrations prior to the Sunday shows will include a traditional feast and discussion of the bridal events.)

"Our perception of Saudi women is that they are downtrodden," observes Shore--and in many ways they are. In bringing a normally private occurrence to a Western audience, though, the choreographer hopes to dispel narrow preconceptions about the lives of Saudi women. "There is no religious connotation here," she continues. "Normally you must have a special entrance in Saudi Arabian society to hear women's dance and music. Even Saudi males beyond age 8 don't see it."

While women in Saudi Arabia have realized some educational and employment opportunities in recent years, the Saudis' customary adherence to Shariah law still bars women from activities most Western women would consider routine, like driving a car or traveling alone without permission from a husband, father, or brother. Shore recognizes the gender separation inherent in Saudi life, yet returns to the notion of the wedding party as a source of creativity and liberation for women. "Without men present they can do whatever they want," she explains.

Although Shore has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, she has never visited Saudi Arabia. Visas are issued only to individuals who have employment in the country or special invitations from the kingdom, a source of frustration for a choreographer who relies on authentic experience in creating her work. However, Kay Hardy Campbell, author of the novel on which Shoma is based, lived in Saudi Arabia for six years, and led a women's orchestra while there. Campbell, who has served as a font of firsthand experience for Shore, will reprise her conductor role by leading local musicians Miriam Gerberg, Laura Harada, Nicole LeCorgne, and Alexis Vaubel this weekend.

Shore has considerable experience with Egyptian belly dancing, which tends to rely heavily on the pelvis and utilizes more percussive musical accompaniment, yet she discovered that women living in the Gulf region move quite differently from their counterparts elsewhere. "We have a monolithic perception of the Arab world but the accents, the traditions, are completely different," she explains. "Most of the women's dances are united by rhythmic isolation, but style and sophistication varies from country to country. In Gulf dances, the movement has more to do with the manipulation of the dress, and they also dance with the hair."

Like her local choreographic colleagues Susana di Palma of Zorongo Flamenco or Ranee Ramaswamy of Ragamala Music and Dance Theatre, Shore has made a considerable effort to "contemporize her work," while staying true to its traditional components. This challenge is particularly prevalent in Shoma, a work that will raise discussion on Saudi women's lives beyond the veils. "I want this piece to have meaning to me," says Shore, "but I really want it to say something to both cultures. I want to show the things that are attractive to the Saudi Arabian community and the American community as well."

Shoma runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. through July 19 at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725.