Kristina Koutsoudas photo by Delise Ward
Kristina Koutsoudas, Houston’s leading Middle Eastern Dancer, performs in Memories of Spain, presented by Sara Draper’s Dancepatheatre on June 20th Hobby Center. If you thought Middle Eastern dance was a small world, Koutsoudas sets us straight.
Dance Source Houston: Tell us about the your participation in Memories of Spain?
Kristina Koutsoudas: I will be dancing the Berber princess solo from Sara Draper’s Al Andalus show. It’s a contemporary American raqs sharqui style (belly dancing) and has very little if any traditional Berber movement in it at all. The piece was designed to fit the story line of the Berber princess character in the original Al-Andalus production. The character was found by gypsies after a devastating battle in which all of her kinsmen were slaughtered, adopted as part of the clan rather than left to die, and then raised by the clan with their traditions.
The second piece has been choreographed especially for Memories of Spain. The music, “the song of complaint,” was composed with the theme of exile in mind. It’s intended to illustrate her condition and her feelings about it.
DSH: How long have you been working with Sara Draper?
KK: I began working with Sara in May 2007 in the conceptual stages of Al-Andalus. I contributed knowledge of history, dance, and music in the great era in which Andalusia flourished, and gave a few classes of North African and Middle Eastern dance to her and her cast of the first incarnation of the show.
DSH: Give us a quick geography lesson in the parts of the world that you bring to life through dance.
KK: I have studied dances of the Near, Middle, & Far East, central Asia, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia minor/Anatolia, the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and North America. This includes training in Classical East Indian dance, all styles of Middle Eastern dance, classical Balinese Topang mask dance, Afghani and Persian dance, West and South African dance, flamenco, Greek mainland and island dances, Moroccan, Algerian & Tunisian dance, Iyengar yoga, martial arts, fitness training, and a touch of pilates.
DSH: Do you remember your first exposure to Middle Eastern dance?
KK: I do. It was a street festival in Bloomington, Indiana. A dancer performed wearing a hooded cape, character shoes, a feather mask, a classical white and pearlescent belly dance costume underneath it all. She danced with a sword on her head. She was part of the SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism) in Bloomington who performed at Renaissance fairs like here in Plantersville, Texas. I had never seen anything like it and have never seen anything quite like it since. Today, a style similar to this can be found in the American tribal style.
She was so beautiful and mysterious, so feminine. I wanted to move that beautifully. She had a sign up sheet for those interested in classes. So, I signed my name.
DSH: Did you grow up watching dance?
KK: Yes, I saw things like ballets and operas. I remember the Nutcracker very well, but my biggest influence was my family. We are Greek and we all dance, especially my mother, my grandmothers, and my grandfather. Everyone would join in the dance, the young, old, thin, fat, men, women and would set aside all differences and all cares when they danced.
The women, especially my mother, taught me to dance. She would take me by the hand in the middle of the living room and dance as if she was on stage with no one watching; she filled and exploded space. She soared and sang with each step, with each beat, and with each moment.
DSH: What kind of changes are made to take a dance from a village to stage?
KK: Village dance was performed for the benefit of the dancers, for the experience of the dance. For the stage, choreography becomes more complex to make it interesting to the viewer. Lighting is added in western performance space and costuming must be rich.
DSH: Can you talk about the process of traveling and learning these dances?
KK: We have a saying in Greek, “to learn dance, you must dance.” I have traveled across the globe and the country to study the different dances from master teachers in various styles. I have also studied videos of old movies, documentaries on dance, shows, and instructional videos of master teachers.
It’s also important to allow oneself to explore and open tradition, to open oneself to one’s own movement and not just the traditions from which they spring.
DSH: Do you have a master teacher?
KK: Several, Amel Taffsout, Ibrahim Farrah, Yoursy Sharif, Tayyar Akdeniz. Artemis Mourat and Mahmoud Reda. I am also highly influenced by Mona Said and Nadia Gamal.
DSH: What are some of the big misconceptions about Middle Eastern dance?
KK: Here are just a few.
That you dance with your belly. You actually dance with your whole body with complex isolations of head, shoulders, torso and pelvic region that are dynamically or rhythmically expressed.
Middle Eastern dance is just for entertainment. It’s for prayer, healing, meditation, preparation for battle, courtship, rites of passage, ceremonies, and learning/teaching social rules.
That Middle Eastern dance is all raqs sharqui (belly dancing). There are a myriad of forms both within the classical traditions which include Egyptian Orientale, Turkish Orientale, Lebanese Orientale, Greek Orientale, American Orientale, Danse Orientale (theatrical dance), American Tribal, and folkloric traditions.
That raqs sharqui (belly dancing) came from the Middle East. Yes, it was created from Middle Eastern dance, however, it was not a tradition as it is seen today per se. It was highly influenced by Western culture, especially Western perceptions of Middle Eastern culture. The costuming, the intent, and so on and were developed by western economic interests, foreign policy especially with regards to the Middle East, and the western fascination with the Arabian Nights image, the images of harems, and dancing girls and so on.
That raqs sharqui is something everyone is born knowing how to do. If this were true, why are there so many schools? It is deceptively difficult dance technique to perform.
DSH: Costumes are hugely important in your work. Can you talk about the level of detail in the costumes you will be wearing?
KK: My costume is designed with the intention to accentuate the movement and essence of the dance while keeping as much to the design of traditional dress as possible. Movements must be revealed or seen from a stage, especially in a more celebratory piece. It is very difficult then to stick to the style of Berber traditional costume design with ample drapes and veiling with heavy fabric and headdresses and still be able to perform the raqs sharqui movements. The Berber costume has therefore been altered for the stage to allow for ease and visibility of movement while still retaining a flavor of traditional design, texture, and line. This means the line has been slimmed to one’s form so there is no elaborate draping of material or headdress, the midriff has been exposed, and the hips and bust are adorned with jewelry for movement accentuation.
The “song of complaint” costume reveals the other aspect of Middle Eastern dance, the concealing part. Nothing of the dancer’s body is exposed and even her face is hidden from view. A great Moroccan burnoose or hooded cape covers the body, gloves cover the hands, and a type of shoe covers the feet. This costume would be typical of a very devout Muslim character.The dancer’s mystique is preserved and also enhanced, the essence of the dance.
DSH: Do you consider yourself as a preserver of culture or a person that is moving these dances forward?
KK: Both. I have learned the traditional dances, yet I have has so many influences from different styles and cultures I believe they are inherently innovative. Still, I strive to maintain the integrity of the traditional forms while being self expressive. I can depart from the tradition from a place of strength and not weakness, partly because of the knowledge, but also because of a grasp on the integrity of the form.
Kristina Koutsoudas performs as part of Dancepatheatre’s Memories of Spain on June 20th, at 7:30 pm at Zilkha Hall in The Hobby Center, Call 713-315-2525 or visit www.thehobbycenter.org.
Reprented from Dance Source Houston.