- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Kennedy Center’s wide-ranging Arab arts festival — with dance, drama, song, acrobatics, whirling dervishes, slapstick, oud players, a children’s choir and hip-hop artists all offered in just the first of its three weeks — is a savory feast of performing arts from throughout the Arab-speaking world.

One of the most dramatic sights was Friday evening’s Millennium Stage performance by Somali-born hip-hop artist K’Naan. The crowd, the most closely packed I’ve seen there, stretched all the way down the Great Hall. Under the spell of his rhythmic poetry, the audience listened with rapt attention, cheering, waving arms in unison, giddy with pleasure.

Three nights earlier, a radiant performance of Byzantine, Muslim and Arab songs by the Al-Farah Syrian children’s choir (all ages; most looked to be early to midteens) was captivating. Though part of the center’s free year-round Millennium Stage program, the choir’s performance was in the Eisenhower Theater.

When it came to the ticketed performances of the festival, called “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World,” there was more of a mixed bag.

There’s an element of chance in choosing what to see and hear among these mostly unfamiliar works. Sometimes it comes a cropper, as did something Friday night billed as a dance performance with whirling dervishes. Three whirling dervishes made a brief appearance and offered a short finale in a two-hour program of nasal singing by the Ensemble Al-Kindi. A purpose of the festival is to offer new experiences and different aesthetics, but for truth in advertising, it would have been good to know the program was about singing, not dancing. The Syrian dervishes evidently have become more of a tourist attraction, often paired on a program with belly dancers.

There was plenty to digest in the other two dance events last week.

A Moroccan group, Cie2k_far Contemporary Dance Company, springs from a witty and sophisticated urban sensibility with lots of non-sequiturs. At the same time, this group can be childlike, with all sorts of silly sight gags. The four male dancers have a remarkable ability to shrink into small shapes or rise to astounding heights. One of them takes his pants off, repeatedly.

“Knights of the Moon” by the Caracalla Dance Theatre of Lebanon was the most ambitious staged work of the week. The concept and style of the piece, which played at the Opera House Friday night, are so different from any ballet or opera I’ve seen that the only way to approach “Knights” is as a different form.

There is a grim story, but none of it is shown onstage; it’s merely referenced in an English translation projected overhead. The lead characters, in whom we should be invested, are not dancers but singers, so visual drama is lacking. The dancing is left to a corps that does generic movements. The men, looking very macho, bound about the stage brandishing spears or lethal-looking swords. Finally, one of the two men involved with the heroine is not only a dirty old man pursuing someone young enough to be his daughter, but a sadist who delights at the thought of his rival’s painful death.

Suddenly, all is forgiven. It appears the two men turn out to be brothers, and everything ends happily.

With all this, what’s to like? Well, plenty. The stage set is remarkably grand and sweeping. Towering stone walls appear, followed by large, changing vistas. Computer-generated projections provide glimpses of distant camels traveling in the desert, large sailboats gliding across shimmering seas.

In the final act, the deus-ex-machina reconciliation and wedding celebration bring a different level of energy to the stage.

The dancers, who spent the earlier part of the evening just running around the stage in phalanxes, suddenly are given more interesting choreography, and they throw themselves into it wholeheartedly. Who knew? They actually can dance, and with style. Their spirit shines across the footlights, and it makes for a happy ending all round.

“Arabesque” continues at the Kennedy Center through March 15. For program information, go to www.kennedycenter.com.

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