Laurel Victoria Gray has been rescuing, preserving and sharing dances from along the Silk Road in Central Asia since she founded her all-female company Silk Road Dance Company in the District of Columbia in 1995.
A student of Russian and Turkish language and cultural history, Gray spent two years living and studying with a family of professional Jewish dancers in Bukhara, the 2,000-year-old city in Uzbekistan that once served as a multiethnic center on the well-trodden route between China and the Mediterranean Sea. On the Silk Road, especially in Bukhara, Gray said, Muslims lived alongside their Jewish and Christian neighbors.
Since her return to the United States, Silk Road Dance Company has played an important role in preserving and presenting traditional dances she learned from these fading yet still vibrant cultures. “Some of these traditions just aren’t done anymore,” Gray noted about her efforts to maintain these ancient dances for future generations by teaching and performing them in the face of modernization and overwhelming Western influences.
On Saturday at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, Md., Silk Road Dance Company will present “Wedding in Bukhara.” It will feature little seen-dances, performed behind closed doors in the women’s quarter to entertain the bride. The sozanda – professional female entertainers who sing, dance and tell stories – lighten the mood of the jittery bride.
Gray said that in Bukhara, the sozanda was the domain of Jewish women as their Muslim women neighbors were prohibited from dancing even behind closed doors. The program Gray created draws from traditional Central Asian cultures including Farsi-speaking Jewish refugees from Merv in Turkmenistan. It will be danced by the dozen company members, all women, plus guest dancers and musicians The elegant and playful dancing will be enhanced by hand-sewn and antique costumes in rich and vibrant hues of jade and forest green, burgundy, raspberry, all decorated with gold thread embroidery and appliqués. The distinctive silk ikat cloth that is both woven and dyed in undulating waves of shifting hues is unique to Silk Road cultures, Gray said.
Gray lives by the aphorism, “If you really want to understand people, look at how they move.” She sees in the specificity of certain postures, gestures and movements telling examples of how the Bukharin people, Jews and Muslims, lived: tilling the soil, harvesting, weaving and sewing, cooking and socializing. A quick, reaching gesture with the fingers flicking came to life after she saw a friend pluck grapes from an overhead arbor and pop them in his mouth. “That’s the dance!” Gray exclaimed, recognizing the choreography that she learned from Viktoria Akilova, who is Jewish and is one of the last remaining carriers of the Bukharin dance tradition in Tashkent. Akilova, Gray’s teacher, comes from a long lineage of Bukharan Jewish dancers – including her late father, Isakhar Akilov.
Today, with barely 100 Jews left in Bukhara, according to National Geographic, the population has dispersed to Queens in New York and to Israel. Gray sees the importance of her work as part cultural preservation and part cultural conveyance. “How do people express sadness? The Tajiks have funeral dances. How do they celebrate? Like these Bukharan wedding dances. What do they think is beautiful? How should women act? How should men act?”
Choreographic details Gray noted include using props like a handkerchief, veil, scarf or even an oversized sleeve, which the female dancer manipulates to delicately hide and reveal a flushed cheek, for example. And then there’s the dance in which women hold china saucers and tap a rhythm with a thimbled finger – recalling the common women’s work of sewing together while drinking tea.
The dancers of Silk Road perform most frequently at weddings in Persian and other ethnic communities in the region and at embassy festivals and events. By day, the performers are doctors, scientists, government bureaucrats — typical Washington-area high achievers. They meet weekly at a dance studio at George Washington University campus, where Gray teaches global dance history.
A Spokane, Wash., native and a lapsed Mormon, Gray always had an avid interest in what was the Soviet Union when she was a teen. She began studying ballet and tap as a child, studied Russian and Turkish in college and in her 20s discovered the unparalleled beauty, simplicity and delicacy of dances from Uzbekistan and beyond.
“Wedding in Bukhara” has a simple yet beautiful meaning, said Gray. “The message is just what kind of beauty there is in simply being together, entertaining each other, sharing a moment, not being on the phone but looking at each other, performing for each other. I want this ancient women’s tradition to continue to exist and not be destroyed by the flashy new ideas. Don’t throw away grandma’s china!”
“Wedding in Bukhara,” Feb. 17, 7 p.m., Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, Md. Tickets $30-$40. Call 301-699-1819 or visit joesmovement.org/show_tickets.