Nejla Y. Yatkin’s “Oasis,” which had its official U.S. premiere on Friday evening at the Bates Dance Festival, gives the impression of a piece of art that has been honed until every millimeter and nanosecond is full of intent and commitment, without sacrificing its raw emotional impact.
The hourlong multimedia dance has been in development for more than a year, with several preview performances, and it was abundantly clear Friday that Yatkin and the other six dancers of her company, NY2Dance, along with composer-musician Shamou, have used that time to refine its vision and execution.
Yatkin structured “Oasis” in outline form, with three main sections, each comprising several pieces. The sections are framed by projections of giant shadow puppets, a grandfather and granddaughter. Their discussion is framed by the Middle Eastern traditional tale of star-crossed lovers, “Leyla ile Mecnun” (performed by Yatkin and Fadi Khoury), used by the grandfather as an allegory of love and fear, conflict and peace, spiritual and material values.
Also clear was the level of interaction that had taken place between Yatkin and Shamou, the Maine-based Persian composer and former dancer — and Bates mainstay — who created the score in its multi-instrumental entirety.
Nary a note, beat or instrumentation wavered from the sense of inevitability that a good music-dance marriage should have, and the mood for each piece was gorgeously matched to its message. While maintaining consistent style and without jarring transitions, Shamou gave each piece its own distinct flavor, with remarkable texture within and among them.
“Oasis” is extremely bold in political terms, showing, rather graphically, Middle Eastern repression and the Arab Spring rebellion. Musically, thematically and choreographically, it embraces the culture that inspired it, presenting that culture with near-equal parts of celebration and mourning.
At times, the celebratory and mournful appeared almost simultaneously. In “The Covering,” women danced their grief wearing veils, and the veils conveyed less repression than a sense of connection. Then they danced with wildness, unveiled, and other dancers arrived to veil them, depicting suffocation and violation.
A long-haired young man (Shay Bares) had burst onto the stage dancing joyfully and he was veiled, too, and further degraded by being feminized, with what seemed to be a wedding headdress. He was literally objectified, as another dancer used various parts of his body as a table for pouring tea. Finally, in “Hafiz, the Dancing Boy,” he had belly dancers’ finger cymbals fixed to his fingers. At first, he balked, but then he entered into enjoyment of their clear, bell-like tones accompanying his sinuous torso rolls.
One piece, “Torture(d),” was somewhat uncomfortable to watch. Torture was presented graphically, but artistically and with a message; it simply went on a bit longer than seemed necessary to make its point.
Another, “Rights Couture,” was decidedly odd: a fashion show for hijabs, with each dancer veiled but wearing ultra-high heels. This actually worked, though, thanks to the narration — in fashion-show style as the dancers walked a runway — noting the personalities beneath the veils, and to its ending, when each dancer took up a book for the first time, in a segue to the final section, “Discovery.”
Throughout “Oasis,” each dancer was absorbed in the story and choreography. Their steps weren’t flashy or extreme; instead, more impressively, they danced with absolute liquidity, precision and emotional commitment, and with single-organism interrelation.
“Oasis” is what every choreographer hopes for with a multimedia dance piece: seamless integration of each element. The puppet show (Iga Pusalski and Julien Smasal) is spoken (by Shamou and Lydia Myers) and is projected on a flowing fabric triptych that serves as set and prop for the dancers at other times, and as a screen for other projections (Patrick Lovejoy), including Arabic graffiti and inscriptions, and lighting effects (Ben Levine). The dancers also speak, during performance and pre-recorded. None of it seems out of place.
Yatkin’s choreography draws on both classic modern techniques and traditional Middle Eastern movement, but also perhaps on mime or even musical theater. Born of Turkish-Muslim parents and raised in Berlin, Germany, she studied “tanztheater” along with a variety of dance techniques. Her multifaceted background surely lies at the base of her striking originality, which has already won her multiple prestigious awards. Judging by “Oasis,” they are well-deserved.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.