Classically trained dancer and teacher Brandy Smith (most recently seen in Christina Aguilera’s video “Hurt”) never expected to spend last October in the United Arab Emirates. But when celebrated Hollywood choreographer Otis Sallid (whom Brandy works with at CHAMPS Charter High School of the Performing Arts in L.A.) asked her to help him direct a project for the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, she couldn’t refuse.
She found herself a world away from L.A., and not just geographically. The United Arab Emirates, on the Persian Gulf, is a very wealthy nation. Nearly all citizens are observant Muslims and the culture is very traditional. “The only thing I knew about the United Arab Emirates is that the islands are shaped like palm trees and that Abu Dhabi has the world’s best jewelry market,” Brandy says. “When I arrived, I found out that it’s a very rich city. The women dress in burkas and hijabs, but carry Coach bags and are dripping in gold jewelry.” Read on to learn all about Brandy’s experience.
August 25, 2007
I got a call from Otis Sallid today. He was commissioned to choreograph and direct dance numbers for the opening and closing nights of the Middle East International Film Festival, and he asked me to be his assistant director! Otis plans to take 25 of L.A.’s hottest dancers with him to Abu Dhabi, along with his assistant choreographer Brooke Lipton (who did the Beyoncé tour and is Wade Robson’s assistant), me and two stage managers. The dance numbers we choreograph will be performed live onstage in the Emirates Palace, as well as broadcast on TV all over the world.
To perform in the Emirates Palace for kings, queens and sultans—what a dream come true! And what a huge responsibility to represent the U.S. through dance. I’m nervous, excited, anxious and a little scared. I’m not sure how people will react to Americans—I worry that we won’t be welcomed with open arms.
September 26, 2007
Today we had our first rehearsal. Otis has come up with an amazing concept: For the opening of the film festival we will do 12 mini-dances in 12 minutes. Each piece will be inspired by a famous movie, like The Godfather and Cinema Paradiso. While the dancers are moving onstage, clips from the films will play on three giant screens behind them. They’ll have insanely quick costume changes. Thank goodness for Velcro! Otis choreographed one scene based on a European circus, inspired by the Fellini film 81⁄2. There’s a stilt walker, a fat ballerina, a clown and a ringmaster. It’s a glimpse of the avant-garde. The dancers looked strong today. They have vivacious energy, but I’m concerned that their ferocity will be too “Hollywood” for the conservative United Arab Emirates.
October 1, 2007
My head is spinning with phone calls to make, e-mails to return and things to pack. I make continuous lists of things I never seem to get done. Working as an assistant director on an international project like this is challenging! I’m writing the “script” for the stage managers, helping run rehearsals, helping with marketing, working with the composer and the tech crew, and creating the shot list for the TV cameras.
October 5, 2007
I watched the coda in rehearsal today. It’s one of my favorite parts of the number. It’s lyrical and modern and technically challenging. The space the dancers have to perform in is small, so their battements have to be extra high and their sharp turns tight. The dance has great dimension. It’s visually beautiful for TV and powerful for a live stage opening.
October 8, 2007
On a plane to London, then to Dubai, from LAX. I’m so excited that I can’t sleep! Flying over Iraq, I pray for our troops below. It’s surreal being in the Middle East.
October 10, 2007
After 27 hours of travel, Otis, Devin Curry (the assistant stage manager) and I arrive in Dubai. It’s hot, like Palm Springs, and beautiful with this amazing coast, like Miami. We take a car to Abu Dhabi, which is about 90 miles from Dubai. The view is spectacular and the city is already buzzing at 7 am. The driver points out the coast, the markets and the construction. He tells us that 80 percent of the world’s cranes are in Dubai and Abu Dhabi! The government is attempting to build the perfect city—they want Abu Dhabi to be the most beautiful in the world. We finally arrive at the Emirates Palace, where everything is made of pure gold. I’ve never seen anything like it.
October 14, 2007: Show Day
8 am: Breakfast at the InterContinental Hotel. The food is awesome: African fruit, pastries, fresh juice, hummus—yummy!
11 am-5 pm: The dancers rehearse at the theater.
5-6 pm: Dinner and into makeup.
6-6:45 pm: Most of the dancers are rockin’ out to their iPods, warming up and getting last-minute costume fittings.
6:45 pm: Stage manager Justin Mabardi calls, “Five minutes to places.” I quickly go through the show with the TV director one last time. We hear a rumor that Penélope Cruz and other international celebrities are in the audience. Among the local luminaries is His Excellency Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun al Nahyan, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
10 pm: The show’s a success! The dancers and Otis receive huge applause. Afterward, we enjoy hours of fireworks and a celebration at the Emirates Palace terrace.
October 15, 2007
It’s our day off. We head to the beach, the pool, the spa and then take a trip into the Arabian desert. We finally see camels! We shop at the Gold Souk, the Abu Dhabi mall, have tea with a shop owner and eat Arabic mezzah, or appetizers.
October 19, 2007
The festival’s closing night is amazing. Otis invites a group of local Emirate dancers to perform with our dancers. He doesn’t choreograph; instead, he asks the dancers to do their traditional dance within an allotted time frame. They move primarily with their heads, necks, wrists and feet; they remind me of beautiful birds. Nashwa Al Ruwaini and Jon Fitzgerald, the festival directors, applaud our production team and dancers. At the wrap party, we do even more dancing with all the film stars!
October 20, 2007
The entire cast and crew boards a plane to go back to L.A. Mission accomplished: We created a successful show and made friends through the exchange of art, culture and mp3s.