Rhapsody in the desert

Rhapsody in Blue
The Scottish Rite Center
709 S.W. Morrison
May 24-25, 8 p.m.
Preview May 13, 8 p.m.
$12 general
$9 students
Tickets available at
Hawthorne Powell’s and Fastixx
(503) 236-9946
for more information

In a few weeks, one of Portland State’s own dance teachers is doing a show to artistically shatter stereotypes.

Elinor Friedberg, also known as Sharita, has assembled a group of talented singers, dancers and instrumentalists for a show like no other. On May 24 and 25, Sharita will present a Middle Eastern twist to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that she choreographed and directed.

Sharita, a native of New York, studied music at Reed College. While at Reed, she began taking belly-dancing lessons. Over the next 11 years, Sharita established herself among the local belly-dancing community as a prized talent, performing at theaters, coffeehouses, restaurants and festivals all over the country. She currently performs at the Casablanca Moroccan restaurant and recently won the Corvallis Classic Belly Dance Competition.

Friedberg is no stranger to PSU. For “somewhere around five years,” she has been teaching belly-dancing classes in the Stott Center to willing pupils. Two years ago she sang with the PSU Chamber Choir and traveled with them to Spain when they won second place in the World Polyphony Competition. She is currently in her 11th year as a dancer, and is ready to give Portland a show that is completely different than anything they’ve ever seen before.

It’s not the belly dancing that’s new to people. Besides being around the United States since the 1893 World’s Fair, the dance has been said to be one of the oldest dances known to man. There are many theories as to when and where the dance originated, but no one knows for sure. Goddess worship in ancient Turkey and in Indian Gypsy folk dances have been said to be the origins of modern-day belly dancing.

According to Sharita, people’s stereotypes and preconceptions get in the way of truly enjoying belly dancing and what it can offer.

Belly dancing is an art form that has carried controversy and stereotypes throughout its long history. The dancers have been likened to strippers and witches, their exposed midriffs shunned by fundamentalists throughout the ages. Few get the chance to delve into the world of Middle Eastern dancing, to see its many forms, styles and techniques.

Later this month, a group of over 20 dancers, instrumentalists and vocalists will take the jazzy/classical “Rhapsody in Blue” and morph it into a completely unpredictable performance with the infusion of Middle Eastern dance.

“The marriage of the dance and music has to do with stripping away the associations people have,” Sharita says. “People think ‘oh here’s classical music, I must behave in a more aristocratic way.’ Belly-dancing is generally a noisier thing, a more folkish thing and a more exotic thing. People don’t see that these two reactions are compatible. These reactions are associations. I want to strip those away.”

The way to do this is to dance keeping in mind the mood of the piece. Emotions, speeds and moods are all carefully reflected in the interpretation of the music.The show has all the makings of a great performance. It takes place at the historic Scottish Rite Center, “a beautiful old building” in the words of Sharita. The dance troupe’s performance will utilize the center’s turn-of-the-century sets, which are, according to Sharita, in excellent condition.

The show itself contains content worthy of not only the seasoned aficionado, but the green pupil as well.

It begins with what Sharita calls a sort of “belly dancing 101.” This segment shows the traditional dances along with the traditional music. It’s an introduction of sorts to those who don’t really know what to expect.

“Then,” Sharita says, “We show what you can do with belly dancing.” Sharita created characters such as the Rhapsody Cat, renegades, tribeswomen and “a ho.” According to Sharita, these characters all detail life in the city.

The Rhapsody Cat serves as a sort of “spirit of the city,” watching over the characters and sometimes haunting them. Featured in this segment is PSU student Randy Brown, the only male dancer in the show. Sharita Productions says Brown is “a rising talent in the world of masculine belly dance.”

“Rhapsody in Blue” culminates the first half of the show. During the intermission Sharita hopes to have a vendor manning the “Blue Market,” where everything for sale would be blue (in conjunction with the rhapsody). I suggested playing the Eiffel 65 song and selling Smurfs, but I don’t think she thought that was a good idea.

All the music is live starting in Act II. The second half opens with three solo dance performances. Chopin’s “Harp Etude” accompanies the first solo. This segment is special to Sharita because her father, a physics professor at Columbia University, was flown in to be the pianist for this piece. The second number is a performance by Sharita herself, belly-dancing to Rossini’s “Figaro” aria from “The Barber of Seville,” sung by Portland Opera vocalist Jim Jeppesen. Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot!” is the third and final solo, performed by Oregon Bach Festival pianist Elizabeth Harcombe.

After these solos is a repeat performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, this is with a twist. It’s a totally different interpretation of the piece than the first, something Sharita calls “making fun of the first version.” She relates this version to the movie “Noises Off,” where comedy comes out of the dramatization of putting a show together. The dance’s setting is backstage, where the troupe of dancers make fun of the theatrical process. It will be an uproarious ending to an anything-but-normal night of dance.

The “Rhapsody in Blue” performances are on Thursday, May 24, and Friday, May 25, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $12 general, and are $9 for students. If those dates don’t work, the troupe has announced a preview this Sunday, May 13 at 8 p.m. No stage or lighting crew will be present, but it’s just an opportunity to see what’s going on. Tickets can be purchased at the Hawthorne location of Powell’s Books or at any Fastixx outlet.