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East meets West: Caracalla Dance Theatre brings Arab folktales to life on stage

Source: The Post and CourierJune/06/2019

It took Abdel-Halim Caracalla, the founder of Caracalla Dance Theatre, years of travelling around the world and examining fabrics to come up with the costume designs featured in “One Thousand and One Nights.”
The dance production, running June 7-9 at the Gaillard Center, took nearly six years to develop, according to Abdel-Halim’s son and current director of the company, Ivan Caracalla.
“It’s always been a story we’ve been very attracted to,” he said. “Sometimes you want to do something but you don’t know how to do it yet, and so it takes you time, until one day you wake up and you discover that you’ve developed in some way. You’re wiser, perhaps.”
“One Thousand and One Nights” is a collection of ancient Middle Eastern and Indian folktales compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. It features stories such as “Aladdin,” “Ali Baba” and “Sinbad the Sailor,” all of which have been popularized in the West.
The prominent Lebanon-based dance company is a family affair. Founded in Beirut by Abdel-Halim Caracalla in 1968, and directed now by Ivan Caracalla, the company’s choreographer is Ivan’s sister Alissar.
Abdel-Halim Caracalla, now 81, remains active, working as artistic director and costume designer for the large company. Their school has over 1,000 students and productions can feature up to 100 dancers per show.
“One Thousand and One Nights” is very much “East meets West,” according to Ivan Caracalla.
“All these very famous (European) artists used to travel to the Middle East to be inspired by what goes on,” creating paintings rich in color and atmosphere, Caracalla said. This cross-culturalism inspired him to create the show.
The subject matter resonates strongly with him.
“When you are familiar with the theme, or familiar with a certain storyline or identity or tradition, you’re able to work with it better,” Caracalla said. “You’re able to inspire with it, you are able to develop it in a different way.”
The “East meets West” theme is common to many of the company’s productions. Abdel-Halim Caracalla studied under the renowned American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and uses her techniques, along with Eastern practices,to create a fusion unique to Caracalla Dance Theatre.
“He wanted to create a dance company from Lebanon that would represent Middle Eastern roots, heritage and culture, (but) would be based on this universal language of dance,” Alissar Caracalla said.
Raised in London and schooled at Loyola Marymount University and UCLA, Alissar Caracalla felt disconnected from her own culture, she said. When she travelled back to the Middle East in her mid-20s, she had to go on her own journey to rediscover her heritage.
“When I came back (to Lebanon), I think my biggest challenge was to take what I had studied in the West, but find my true Arab identity,” she said. “It’s through dance and choreography that I was able to discover who I was.”
Much like her father, Alissar Caracalla now puts her Western training to use, combining it with Middle Eastern culture and choreography. For “One Thousand and One Nights,” much of the choreography stems from classical and modern techniques, but with more arm and torso movements. Some of the dances took nearly eight months to create, she said.
“When you create a show, it’s like giving birth,” Alissar Caracalla said.
The production is meant to show her part of the world in a positive light.
“We always hear bad news from the Middle East,” she said. “And I think, through art, you can give the most beautiful image about any culture, any country, all customs.”

Madalyn Owen is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.
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