Gillian onstage with diverse performers in cultural and modern dress

An American Dancer in Pakistan, Volume 6

Beginnings are easy to write. At that point it’s just impressions, first thoughts and ideas, things are different like this, life works like that.

But once I’m in the middle, I lose my words. I don’t know what to write anymore, what to tell you that I haven’t. Life dwindles from the initial sightseeing and learning to — well, life. It’s not that it’s any less astonishing or new, it’s just that I’m so deep in the middle of it it’s hard to see.

So here I am, trying again. The past month has been filled with new experiences and performances, including new cities, movie shoots, and new dances. I don’t know where to start, but I’ll do my best to throw in a few thoughts on each.

New works and performances

When I last posted, all of my performances had been new works made here in Pakistan (such as with Adnan Jahangir, Rehan Bashir, or Versatile Dance Company). But this past month I got the chance to perform my own work — Parce Domine, my solo about Pierrot — in the three top cities, Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi.

The first was Islamabad, as part of Kuch Khass’ Special Dance Day PechaKucha nights. I performed outside at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts’ amphitheater. I also gave a PechaKucha presentation about why I dance and why I came to Pakistan. It was a lovely, laidback evening with a full moon rising in the background, celebrating dance with a huge variety of dancers, choreographers, teachers, and practitioners.

The second was the day after in Lahore, at Dance Day Manao with the Institute of Performing Arts (headed by Nighat Chaoudry). Many of the same performers from Islamabad, though this was a special show particularly targeting children and families. Besides some pretty awful tech (several missed music and light cues), it was a fun performance. The audience had a good time, and so did I — though that was also because most of the performance I was backstage inventing various stick-em-up movement dramas with my two best friends, who were there to perform bhangra with Versatile.

The last one was in Karachi, at this absolutely gorgeous little theater at the Karachi Arts Council. I flew into Karachi for a day only. While they did give me a bit of the VIP treatment by booking me into a quite nice hotel, it wasn’t the same sort of over the top celebrations that I described in my last post. Rather I felt like they were celebrating me as an artist, which is always really cool. The audience was quite active and I got to play with them a lot during the solo, which was great fun, and afterwards ended up giving quite a few interviews for the media. They all wanted to know how I liked performing in Pakistan — I had to tell them I’ve been doing it for three months already.

Collaborations with Wahab Shah

The past month I was particularly fortunate to do a fair amount of work with Wahab Shah, who is one of the top performers and choreographers in the country. He does a lot of work for films, TV, and corporate events, besides his own work fusing contemporary and Sufic dance.

Besides performing with Wahab in all of the three performances above, I ended up performing in one of his choreographies for a fashion show in Lahore. The piece was a blend of Sufic dance and symbolism with contemporary, and incorporated a number of symbolic movements from yoga, Hinduism, and other religions. It was set to the song “Alif,” which is the first letter of the alphabet and is kind of the same thing as “Alpha.” It also had some of the famous whirling that is most commonly associated with Sufi dances.

I learned the piece in a day — I had seen other people in the studio rehearsing it so I was pretty familiar with it already. Wahab likes to make sure the dancers also know the philosophy and story behind the movements as well, so I got a basic sense of what the song was saying.

I did have a few stumbles in the performance — particularly after the whirling, when I was trying to stand in a line (!), but otherwise it went well. The event itself was quite something, especially backstage with a bunch of models and a whole lot of people wondering what the hell I was doing there.

Working on a film set in Pakistan

The other project with Wahab was in the realm of glitz and glamor but to a whole different level — I was his assistant as he was choreographing a dance song as part of an upcoming film. While we were only a tiny part of the eventual feature film, it was a pretty large time commitment. It included putting together the piece, rehearsing with the actors, and then the shoot.

The shoot itself was a long and rumbling process that I’m sure anyone working in film is quite familiar with. I arrived by 2pm the day of, though shooting didn’t even start until past 5pm, and that for the scenes before the dance. The banquet hall where the scene was set was full of people scurrying around, having meetings, or mostly just waiting. If you wanted tea, you shout “Production.” Everyone has a job, from the camera, to setting up the lights, to hiding things behind mirrors, to distributing fake drinks to extras (that’s “Art!”).

Each camera angle took 3–4 takes, with long breaks in between to look at the playback and figure out what needs to be fixed. We shot the dance from one side with at least 5 camera angles, a steady cam and a camera moving in a circle. Then there was a break to film the following scene from the same side, before switching everything to the other side and filming the scene and the dance.

Needless to say, it was a long night. One of my friends came by to keep me and another of Wahab’s assistants company, and we drank countless cups of tea to stay awake. By the time we wrapped for the night, the extras were starting to mutiny and the Director was begging for ten more minutes. It was 6:30am by the time I called a taxi and went home.

Time in the studio

Last but not least, I still of course spend most of my time in the Versatile studio. Besides the crazy antics with my two best friends (such as the stick-em-up dramas, bodyguards, and etc) and learning a new Bollywood song, they’ve made a bhangra performance especially for me to add to their usual lineup of cultural performances. It’s a bit of an eyebrow raiser for me, as the song is literally about a white girl and I’m the main character with six boys — but people love it, so that’s that. It’s also just really fun to dance.

Since they added me to the lineup, I’ve performed it about four times — once at a spring festival just outside Lahore, once at an event for a university, and recently at both the opening and closing ceremonies of a huge boxing tournament.

I always attract a lot of attention at these events — naturally — though I’ve started to find my own ways of feeling more comfortable. I’ve stopped giving selfies unless it’s with the whole group, which always earns me some disappointed looks, but I can live with those. The boxing match particularly earned me a lot of stares, and one person came up to ask my friend if I was a boxer.

Really, a boxing tournament??

That’s one of the interesting things here, by the way — usually, if people want to talk to me, they speak first to my friends. I think it’s a gender thing, or perhaps a language thing. I’m actually grateful for it — it gets me out of a lot of random, awkward conversations. The same courtesies don’t always extend to selfie requests, however, which are usually more like demands — one of the reasons I stopped automatically agreeing.

Either way, as much as the staring and the fuss tends to bother me, I’m very grateful for the opportunities. It’s all very new for me, and I’m learning much more this way. I also get to be onstage performing a Punjabi cultural dance, which is such a crazy thing to think of.

As we were walking off stage after the closing ceremony performance this past week, I heard the MCs talking (in Urdu, but with enough English words to give me the full meaning) — “actually,” they said, “that wasn’t just a Punjabi bhangra, it was an international bhangra! Where do you think the girl was from?”

It had been a challenging day — for whatever reason I was really tired and totally dazed out. The performance came suddenly — a changed time — and boom, we were onstage in the middle of an open air stadium. Cameras were everywhere, the lights were flashing, people were standing and dancing.

I pulled the world down to the limits of the stage, and time down to the present second. I blacked out the audience and focused only on my dance partners, the space between us, and the next move, and the next, and the next. I fixed a smile on my face, and let my body remember what my mind didn’t.

At the end, there was a sincere roar of approval from the crowd, and my smile turned real. For the rest of the evening — including a sudden burst of fireworks exploding directly overhead — I was awake again.

Maybe that’s why I don’t have any words. I have to think hard to put the experiences into language, to articulate what they were and how they were and what they looked like. Inside, it’s just life — days of dancing, and the stage. Each performance might be different, but they feel the same.

Stay tuned for more updates about my life in Lahore! If you want to know more about anything here or other aspects of my life in Pakistan, please feel free to leave a comment. I’m happy to answer in the next blog.