A DETOUR DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Gracefully moving bellies and all the curiosity of Lewis Carroll's beloved "Alice in Wonderland" book will come together, fittingly, at Aladdin Theater on April 9.
The Los Angeles-based company Bellydance Evolution will dance their way through the tale much like a ballet, featuring a cast of 25 international performers in elaborate costumes and choreography.
It's the group's farewell tour of the production, having performed it for the past two years across 20 countries.
And serious belly dancers like director and producer Jillina Carlano, will be the first to tell you that the art form — considered by some as the oldest known dance — is more than just a woman shimmying her tummy.
"A lot of people have that image of someone standing and doing a shimmy ... but this is really elaborate choreography," she says. "You'd be surprised, a lot of people think it's just about the stomach. It's really a whole body dance."
For the few unaware of Carroll's story, it tells the tale of a child called Alice who falls through a rabbit hole. On the other side is a fantasy land where she runs into curious creatures, such as the famous Cheshire cat, hookah-smoking caterpillar and Queen of Hearts. These characters will be embodied by the show's dancers.
One of the show's dancers is Southeast Portland's own Sharon Kihara, who also is the director of the Catharsis Dance Collective in North Portland.
Originally from the San Francisco and Oakland, California, area, Kihara grew up later in Eugene. She will depict the caterpillar in the show, while Carlano will perform as the Queen of Hearts.
When Kihara was 10 years old, entering fifth grade, she was deeply inspired by a belly dancer at the Oregon Country Fair.
"I saw a dancer there, her name was Aziza, also from Portland," she says. "I decided I wanted to be her when I grow up."
In a crazy twist of fate, Aziza is opening the show at Aladdin.
"That's bizarre full circle," Kihara laughed.
The fact that the show is at the Aladdin Theater, of all possible Portland venues, caused Carlano to chuckle, too. "Aladdin" is the title of the Disney animated film in an Arabic setting. Bellydancing is directly associated with the culture.
"We were booked at the theaters through our agency, and it just so happens to be called the Aladdin Theater. ... It's our destiny to be there," Carlano says.
Kihara says Portland actually has a "really wonderful" belly dance community, supplemented by belly dance festivals and a rich Arab community.
"Artists are ambassadors for culture," Kihara says. "It's interesting to be mixed into an art form that is subtly representing another culture."
But why do it?
Carlano says belly dancing is "very low impact and great for exercise."
But beyond that, she says, once you do it a little more, dancers find more "self-expression, confidence, body awareness and feeling confident and feminine about their body."
"It's a sensual dance, not a sexual dance. So there's a lot of misconceptions about it," Carlano says, adding that the show is for everyone, and is family friendly. She says that Portland audiences might be surprised.
"My personal goal is to not only entertain people through these big productions, but also educate them, that this is a beautiful artistic art form from the Middle East," she says.
Carlano created Bellydance Evolution in 2009, and outside of that teaches seminars about the art form. As the producer and artistic director, she works on choreography, books shows, deals with costumes, creates rehearsal schedules and provides studio space, including a spot in Los Angeles. Some of Carlano's highlights include performing on the main stage at Lollapalooza, The Folies Bergere in Paris, Queens Theatre in London and Theatre Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco. She describes Bellydance Evolution as mixingworld fusion and different genres of belly dancing, including Egyptian and tribal styles.
Meanwhile, Kihara has been a full-time belly dancer since 2010, and has traveled for more than 13 years.
A career highlight was when they were recently in Morocco and performed for the queen.
"Apparently she enjoyed it enough to stay for the entire show," Kihara says.
Though she's traveled all over the world to dance, Kihara loves coming home to Portland, but she knows the life will take her away again.
"Always, I never want to leave. If I had a choice, I'd never leave Portland. But you know, performing arts tends to take you around the world, if you're able to ride that wave," Kihara says.
The last stop for the farewell tour happens to be Portland, a city they haven't performed a large production in, in a long time. They expect tears will flow as they say goodbye to characters they've embodied the past few years and over long journeys.
"It's basically like saying goodbye to a friend, to let go of (these characters)," Kihara says. "All our moms are coming."
Bellydance Evolution's "Alice in Wonderland" takes place at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 9, at Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave. Tickets are $30. For more: www.aladdin-theater.com.