By Michael Aushenker
She comes from a far away land rife with sand and oil to entice audiences with her exotic dances.
Actually, the performer known as Amara does not live in Saudi Arabia or somewhere in the middle of the Sahara, but in Texas. Come Friday, Oct. 4 and Saturday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m., the accomplished dancer and choreographer will lead “An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance,” a program featuring various companies, including her own Ya Helewa! group, at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave. in Venice.
Amara, a former Californian who holds a PhD. in dance history and theory from UC-Riverside and a bachelor of arts in music history and literature and a certificate in ethnomusicology from Florida State University, has long practiced the art of American belly dance style, interspersing her act with veil, double veil, sword and zil work.
She has also mastered many Middle Eastern folk dances and taken all of her training and injected it with some avant-garde flourishes. Aside from her work in Middle Eastern restaurants and nightclubs, she has practiced her craft at the university level, conducting accredited courses at UCLA, UC-Riverside, and California Polytechnic State University-Pomona, among other institutions.
Amara, who comes from a ballet and folk background, has been a practitioner of Middle Eastern dance for 20 years. This, aside from the fact that Amara (neé Laura Osweiler) is not of Middle-Eastern descent.
“I’ve always enjoyed Arabic music,” she said. “When I started taking ballet, I found a dance form that was challenging and I can actually (move freely to).” She deemed bellydancing almost the antithesis to ballet, in which there is much locked knees and stiff legs. She says with Middle Eastern music, one can “move the core hips and abs. It’s just how my body wanted to move.”
Currently living in Austin, TX, Amara used to reside in Hollywood, Woodland Hills and Encino. But it was in 2000 in Santa Monica, where she began her dance show, which formerly had been an annual event. At the turn of the 21st century, she began combining the styles she learned — Algerian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, Syrian and Persian, to name a few.
In the mid-2000s, she performed her program at the now-defunct Highways in Santa Monica and later in North Hollywood. Amara recently returned to the Westside to begin her six-date residency, which concludes this weekend.
“The Electric Lodge is one of the best dance spaces,” Amara said. “There’s great lighting, great staff here, as well as an environmentally friendly theater and a nice urban environment big enough to dance on. The Westside has a tendency to support more avant garde.”
Amara noted that she began her dance programs at a time when America experienced much turmoil and tension with the Middle East.
“We did the show in 2001, two weeks after 9/11,” she recalled. Whether or not people would show up, “that was a real big concern.” To her surprise, “people actually came out and supported the show.”
If anything, she says the multi-cultural aspect of her program has been the crux of its appeal. Her Electric Lodge show will contain two pieces that she personally choreographed, and features dancers from New York, San Francisco and France, musicians from Australia, and “a much more national and international pull.”
But nowadays, a different geographical complication has dogged Amara: her recent home state.
“Producing something from afar is more challenging than producing something local,” admitted Amara, who finds it more difficult to “reach a community I’m not so directly a part of anymore.” However, she takes pride in the fact that “we’re still kind of the only show like this in the country.”
“Every show is radically different because there are so many elements dancers can play with,” she continued. “Every year, there seems to be an organic theater. This year, our theme tends to be very spiritual.” In 2008, it appeared that a lot of the performances harbingered death, she recalled. This time around, there’s “a lot of light costumes; almost a rebirth sort of happening here.”
Putting on these programs, Amara said, has been the ultimate rush: “I’m working with people who I love (hailing from around the globe) and being able to create what I love.”
Tickets are $25. Information, eemed.com.
The body Electric: A weekend of Middle Eastern dance returns to Venice
By Michael Aushenker