This week, we feature Nepenthe Ahlam, and to make it slightly less awkward to interview myself, I asked Facebook what people would like to know.
Christina Ackley asked: “I would like to know more about your artistic process, how you create the choreographies, choose the music, how long does it take you create your show? what’s your favorite part? Any surprises along the way?”
That’s a long question.
To begin with, I create these choreographies the way I create all choreographies. After studying the style I want to emulate, I dance to the music and see what comes out. I try to make the choreographies simple, so that they are not difficult to execute as a group. So, I look for repeating patterns in the music and make combinations to match.
Some of the show is improvised, and I leave it up to the performer, as long as they hit certain beats along the way. For example, the shepherd and magi solos are improvised. For some roles, I selected dancers I trust and allow them to create their own piece. Johara jumped wholeheartedly into the role of Little Drummer Boy and made it what it is today. For the Star of Bethlehem, played by Najmat this year, I simply gave her the music and told her to just do her thing. Whenever Najmat is on the stage, people see a star – so it works.
My favorite part is collaborating with other dancers. I have been working extensively with the village girls on the melaya leff piece, and I have so enjoyed the cameraderie! There are always lots of laughs in rehearsals.
The biggest surprises have been just how much you have to do to produce a show. I experienced most of that last year. This year, I’d like to think I have it more in hand. In some cases, I’ve outsourced some of the more onerous tasks (like handling tickets) – and with the help of Amy Smith, we have done much more promotion this year.
Most of the show music was chosen by Maia Selene, Nadira Jamal and myself. We went mostly with House of Tarab, because Nadira Jamal had a good business relationship with them. Their music was appealing and many of the songs seemed to fit the scenes well. Nadira Jamal did a lot of the initial song mapping. We received permission to use the music from all the labels, so our music decision-making has also been rooted in which music labels have been amenable to that agreement.
Amity Alize asks: “What would you like to accomplish? What is your message with this performance?”
I see my goals breaking down in three ways. First, I want everyone to have fun and enjoy the show. That’s always priority #1. Secondly, I want to expose this beautiful dance – in all its variety – to the American public and the cross-over genre makes it particularly appropriate, as well as the fact that it’s only an hour long. Thirdly, of course, I want to raise money to Cradles to Crayons, a charity that has impressed with me with how much impact it has right here in Massachusetts.
Samantha Selig asked: Did you worry about the religious tone to the story and how people would react? And did you consider taking the show on the road?
For the religion question, of course, we did. After last year’s successful run, I feel more confident. We actually had one charity turn us down, saying we were too religious to partner with them. We did take great care to respect the religious nature as we designed the dances and the costumes. For example, the costumes are all quite modest and only the celestial beings wear anything similar to a Raqs Sharqi costume. When it came to the religious scenes, like the Annunciation, we kept humor well out of the way. On the other hand, we felt we could have some levity with the shepherds.
I absolutely respect and appreciate all religions, and I would not want to exclude anyone. Some Jewish friends of mine have declined to attend because it is a show about Christianity, and I regret that. I want this to be a show for everyone. For Christians, it is of course about their religion. But for other religions, it can be simply about helping a family in need, about people coming together. A person can see it as a myth or as truth. Either way, I hope they can enjoy the show.
Aleksie asked: What advice would you give to others pursuing this kind of endeavor?
My best advice is to get this book – “An Idiot’s Guide to Amateur Theatricals”. It has helped me more than anything else. There is not a lot of information on the web about putting on theatrical productions, that I could find anyway. This book is geared at amateurs, though it isn’t at all about dance.
Ultimately, it’s hard work, but it is achievable. You do need to be very organized. I’m a project manager by profession, and I still find it a challenge to keep all the balls in the air since running the show isn’t my main job. I use Google Docs to keep track of a lot of things.
I am so pleased to see many other people beginning to produce shows. I am very happy about this.
Amy Smith asked: What does the Virgin Mary have under that blanket?
No comment! We have used all sorts of things in rehearsals, but last year we were lucky enough to borrow a very real-looking baby doll from one of the cast member’s daughters! Likewise, in rehearsal the other day, one of the magi presented baby jesus with a cannister of Brazillian coffee.