FJK Dance
New York Live Arts
New York, New York

October 2, 2021
“Reset” Program: Mirage, Forbidden, Bolero

Jerry Hochman

By this time I shouldn’t be surprised that I find pleasant surprises in performances by New York dance companies previously unknown to me. The four-performance program presented by FJK Dance which opened last Thursday at New York Live Arts, under the rubric “Reset,” is an example.

Simply put, the program of choreography by company co-founder Fadi J. Khoury, executed by Khoury and a fine assemblage of dancers, is highly enjoyable, as well as enlightening.

Khoury is a native of Iraq, born into a performing arts family that introduced him to Arab / Mesopotamian culture and diverse dance forms (his father was a dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of the National Iraqi Ballet). After moving to Lebanon when he was thirteen, he trained in ballet, modern, jazz, ballroom, and folk dance, and by seventeen, he was dancing professionally. He emigrated to the U.S. in 2009, eventually becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.

After several years of success dancing ballroom, he co-founded FJK Dance in 2014 to further explore dance forms and create his own personal style. This NYLA program demonstrates that he’s done so. I have some criticism, but in the overall scheme of things they’re minor.

The program, a reset of live performing following the worst of the pandemic (hence the program’s title), might be described as Middle-Eastern crossed with balletic and contemporary dance sensibilities. It’s lyrical yet powerful, sweeping in its presentation without losing the individual dancer in the process, intelligent without getting mired in cerebral quagmires, and highly entertaining.

Elisa Toro Franky and members of FJK Dance in “Mirage”
Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

The opening and closing dances most clearly display the cross-cultural fusion that is Khoury’s goal. Indeed, I can’t think of a better way to describe his choreography than the way he describes it in the program: “At its core, FJK uses partnering techniques from Standard and Latin ballroom dance, connecting it with the lines and flow of contemporary ballet” to create a “unique fusion of dance genres from classical ballet to ballroom and Middle Eastern to jazz.”

The program opened with Mirage, briefly described as telling human stories from the Middle East. I must confess that I couldn’t decipher discrete “stories” in the presentation; what I saw were multiple related “episodes,” possibly from one continuing “story.” Regardless, this doesn’t matter in the least. Choreographed to Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-Flat, it successfully, and wonderfully, grafts Middle-Eastern images onto Western music, without missing a beat – or a step.

Mirage is impressive from the beginning. Dancers appear as if from a desert mirage of memory. One senses a group of Bedouins gathering around a small oasis. But when the dancing begins, it segues into real or imagined memories brought to life. These aren’t “character dances” from ballet, nor are they folk dances in any style that I’m familiar with. They’re dramatic dances about the interplay of people and relationships; universal themes in a plethora of dances, but here with cross-cultural flourish. The stage is in motion all the time, as individuals and pairs separate from the group of five, change partners, reassemble, change again, at each juncture including expressive nuances that add texture to the interplay of relationships, and repeatedly punctuating the movement with lifts that, surprisingly, enhance the flow. But it’s always the movement, the dramatic lines, the complex partnering, and the constant flow of choreographed emotion – abetted by the costumes (created, for each piece in the program, by Khoury) – that make the dance memorable. The “emotion” is expressed clearly, but primarily through the choreography – there’s little in the way of emoting; it’s more subtle than that – as is an overall sense of searching for something lost.

Elisa Toro Franky and Fadi J. Khoury in “Mirage”
Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

Khoury is the piece’s lead dancer, perhaps the alpha tribesman against whom the two other men compete, and the one who the two women seek. But I wouldn’t take that hierarchical description beyond that: there’s no sense here of submission or coercion: it’s simply midnight at the oasis.

Each dancer in the group executed well, but the bulk of the dance featured Khoury and whomever he was partnering at the time. In that respect, the laboring oar was carried by Elisa Toro Franky. Even without knowing her background, one knew instantly that she’s a trained ballerina. I checked later: she is (trained in her native Bogotá, Colombia and Miami City Ballet School, and with many years of professional performing experience). Her balletic fluidity polished the dramatic choreography, making it at once sharper and smoother.

Fadi J. Khoury and members of FJK Dance in “Bolero”
Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

When he wasn’t dancing with Franky, or at times even when he was, he was partnering Sarita Apel, a dancer with extensive contemporary and ballroom (specifically tango) experience. The contrast between her and Franky lent yet further drama to the piece beyond what Khouri crafted into the dance itself. Although she knew that Franky’s character was the favorite, she just wouldn’t give up. The other dancers in Mirage, Tim Ward and Estafano Gill, rounded out the group well, with Ward being Apel’s partner when her attentions weren’t on Khoury.

The program’s concluding dance, Bolero, is danced to Ravel’s composition. Dances choreographed to Bolero are plentiful, and many are very good. The one that Khoury has choreographed, however, is very different. Seeing Khoury’s essentially Middle-Eastern imagery grafted onto an iconic piece of Western music is shocking. Even more shocking is that it’s as good as it is.

Elisa Toro Franky and Fadi J. Khoury in “Bolero”
Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

Bolero seems similar to Mirage, including the nuts and bolts of the choreography. Although there are individual moments, most of the dance involves pairing, and changing relationships. But the presentation, and the impact, are different. Here there’s less sense of episodes from a story – the dance is plotless, and evolves as the music does. There’s also less of the little emotion beyond the choreography present in Mirage. That being said, as one might find some meaning in the music, and a definite sense of “place,” one might find some similar “meaning,” and a matching sense of place, in the choreography.

It’s also visually different from other Bolero dances I’ve seen. There’s a central focal point that remains throughout the dance – a structure that appeared as a jagged-edged elevation upstage center, a rock around which some of the dancers initially pose when the dance begins and to which they return at various points in the piece. And although dancing takes place in front of it, similar to the “oasis” in Mirage, that focal point never changes. The impact is similar to central focal points in several Martha Graham pieces.

As in Mirage, Khoury’s “main” partner is Franky – who here wore toe shoes. Going en pointe added a more explicit connection to the balletic component of Khoury’s intended style, elevating the ballroom-type partnering to a more lyrical level, and adding another subtle sense of variety to the choreography. Last, and hardly least, are Khoury’s costumes. As he did in Mirage, Khoury here works with black, red, and (to a lesser extent) brown colors. But here, this same color palette made for a more dramatic presentation. The dancers aren’t just dressed differently, the color variety flows as the dancers do – the colors becoming part of the choreography. Accordingly, despite the limited number of dancers in motion at any one time, the presentation matches the relatively limited melodic variety in Ravel’s score: the components may not be extensive, but the color interplay ratchets up the visualization as Ravel ratcheted up the decibel level and instrumental complexity of the score.

Elisa Toro Franky and Fadi J. Khoury in “Bolero”
Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

The dancers previously identified in Mirage were those in this piece as well, but, with the balance of the company also participating, and a lengthier score, there was more to be done. Khoury and Franky were still the lead dancers, executing as well as they did in Mirage. At one point I noticed a slight partnering glitch (their hands didn’t quite meet as they were supposed to), prompting a quick, shy smile from Franky – which made the overall presentation endearing as well as accomplished. If there was one minor quibble with the overall program, it was the relatively stoic demeanor of the dancers – though that was consistent with Khoury’s concept and not inappropriate at all. This split second minor episode emphasized, at least to me, a quality often lost: dancers aren’t machines.

Apel repeated her excellent execution, but Ward was given more to do than in Mirage, and delivered a convincing performance. Additionally, Dayanis Mondeja and Gianni Goffredo had isolated, but compelling individual performances. In addition to Gil, the balance of the highly capable cast included Sayuri Tanabe and Leonel Linares, both of whom made positive impressions.

Forbidden, is more straightforward then the opening and closing dances. It’s also, to some, controversial.

Forbidden is a solo that Khoury created, and that he performed, choreographed to Middle-Eastern music by Abdel Wahab and Hosam Shaker. In a nutshell, Khouri played a Middle-Eastern male dancing as a female dancer in a location where such a portrayal, or such self-identification, is forbidden.

I don’t know whether Forbidden is autobiographical, and whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter. Khoury was simply amazing in the role.

Fadi J. Khoury in “Forbidden”
Photo Courtesy of FJK Dance

The dance begins as smoke (artificial) flows from the stage left wings. Khouri then appears, dressed darkly with a cape around his shoulders. I don’t know if I’m recalling the order correctly, but after Khoury attempts to put on black shoes with medium size heels (high enough to be appropriate for a woman in some character dances), snickering laughter is heard emanating from the off-stage “smoke” area. After hearing this laughter, Khoury’s character, appearing angry and dejected, removes the heeled shoes (apparently deciding not to put on the show that had been planned and expected by the audience); and, audience be damned, converts the cape into a full-length skirt, leaving him bare-chested, and dances the way he wants – or the way he is, like a belly dancer or similar Middle-Eastern female dancer (if there’s a specific name for it, I’m ignorant of it).

What Khoury’s character then proceeds to do is dance like the woman he is or believes he is. Brilliantly. Every movement one sees in stereotypical Middle-Eastern female dance that one might see in a movie in which the scene takes place in a smoke-filled nightclub or similar venue, with the solo female moving seductively and shaking every inch of her body – most emphatically, her rear, Khoury does. [A certain scene from a James Bond movie pops into my head, but I don’t recall which specific film it was in.] It wasn’t a parody, or in any way a comic presentation. What he did was seemingly not physically possible for a male to do, but he did it – and did it well.

More than that, however, Khoury integrated his dramatic, expressive, ballroom / ballet dance style into the mix. This was a female (belly-dancer or otherwise) Middle-Eastern solo dance done his way.

Fadi J. Khoury in “Forbidden”
Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

And, of course, the point of all this, aside from demonstrating what Khoury can do, is to thumb his nose (and other parts of his body) at those who consider such a display morally offensive or criminal, particularly those in the Middle East. My only criticism is that, to me, it lasted too long, becoming somewhat tiresome. But that too, in the overall scheme of things, is minor – especially given Khoury’s performance.

One cannot sit through Forbidden without one’s mouth agape – regardless of one’s identity. So I must emphasize that this isn’t a dance that only members of the LGBTQ community would appreciate; Khoury’s performance in Forbidden (as well as in the other pieces in the program) can be admired, even celebrated, by anyone.

After Bolero ended, and after the company curtain bows to an extended standing ovation, Khoury, obviously exhausted, eloquently addressed the audience to express his gratitude, and to describe the rigors the company had to endure in order to rehearse within the parameters of a pandemic. He also thanked Genevieve (“Gene”) Young, who passed last year, who was instrumental in forming FJK Dance and who encouraged Khoury to dance what he knows and wants – and to whom this performance was dedicated.