by Amy Zhang
Calling: a dance with faith is a new workshop production by Ping Chong + Company. This dance theater piece centers on the religious and artistic journeys of Natsumi Sophia Bellali and Hala Shah, two women who are both Muslim and professional dancers. Directed by Ping Chong + Company member Jesca Prudencio, the show uses interview-based scripting and a devised process to create a wholly personal vision of the artistic self in relation to Muslim identity.
Our Communications Associate Amy Zhang headed over to Downtown Art during rehearsal, to ask the director and performers about their experience working on this unique piece.
The workshop production will take place June 22-23 at 7pm at Downtown Art–the free tickets are currently sold out, but there will be a waiting list at the door starting at 6pm.
WHY THIS PROJECT?
Natsumi: I just was yearning. I always wanted to have Muslim friends or a Muslim community, especially in this new city. When I saw the post, I couldn’t believe that the two words “Muslim” and “dance” were even put together, and right away posted on my Instagram story saying, “LOL I need to do this. I feel targeted.” And then a couple of friends were like, “I was going to send this to you!”
Hala: I first heard about Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity with Ping Chong + Company through Steven Hitt back in 2014 when I was creating a dance for the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center’s Beyond Sacred season. And then in April he forwarded me an email announcement for this project, saying, “I think you’re perfect for what Ping wants to do.” And I was like, “Yes!” It was that kind of moment where you’re like, “Wait, what? Really? Is this actually happening?”
ON CREATING AN INTERVIEW-BASED DANCE SHOW
Jesca: I’ve been with Ping Chong + Company now for ten years, and have written and directed my own Undesirable Elements shows. When I was on the Julie Taymor World Theater Fellowship last year, I was thinking about how I can use the interview process as the trigger to create something.
For this piece, I posed the question: can the body be documentary? We know text, film, and theater can, but can dance be documentary? Dance is the text, movement is the text. We’re saying the body is a language in this piece, dance is a language. So this piece started with interviews and I did some writing, but they created a lot of movement and we started shaping together.
Hala: The interview was probably the most unfamiliar part. It brought up so much that was the underbelly of our movement. If Jesca didn’t dig that out of us and get it to the forefront of our minds, the movements we created wouldn’t have meant anything. She was digging it out, tilling the soil, getting us ready, and then we would dance and the movement would come out.
ON REHEARSING DURING RAMADAN
Natsumi: On a religious side, I really struggled with Ramadan in New York for the past few years because I don’t have my family here and I don’t really have a Muslim community. Last year was rough—I didn’t know how to be a dancer and still fast, and be alone doing it.
So, when I learned that this was during Ramadan it was like the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I right away grabbed it and it was just such a privilege. We’re fasting and we’re dancing, and the dancing is about the religion.
Hala: It’s always hard as an artist. You want to be as open for the director/creator as much as possible so they can not only extract the info from you, but so that you can make yourself available and take in whatever they’re throwing at you. So, it’s a constant stream going both ways. In other times of the year we’re so saturated with our jobs, with all of our other things, and it’s just like, “I don’t have room, I don’t have space for anything more.” But, in Ramadan, this is the time when we’re trying to find our focus and get down to the core.
Natsumi: What’s really cool when you’re really hungry and feeling powerless and tired, you don’t have the energy to overthink things. You don’t have the energy to choose extra options or be insecure about things. You just let yourself go and be what you really are, versus your thought taking over.
Hala: This is the first Ramadan as a dancer I’ve actually enjoyed because it usually is “ugh.” This is the first time I’m like, “Wow, I actually had a real Ramadan. This is what it’s about!”
Natsumi: It’s real! And I don’t want it to end.
WHY PEOPLE SHOULD SEE THE SHOW
Jesca: As an art form it’s a really exciting, riveting piece that mixes testimony and movement. It’s an exciting evening of dance theater. It’s also two people not only telling their stories, but having a really honest, emotional experience on stage, because it’s not all text. Their body is their primary language. It’s an evening of pure honesty.
Hala: We were saying as we were walking down the street…there’s nothing else like this.
Natsumi: Nothing else. And it’s questions that we’re still exploring, questions that are pending for us and that are forever going to be, throughout our entire lives. It would be lovely to have people think with us and experience that with us through this show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.