THE SERPENT OF THE NILE: A BELLY DANCER'S TALE by Laurie Fyffe, directed by Caroline Azar. Presented by the Cleopatra Conspiracy at the Factory Studio. August 7 at 11 pm, August 9 at 2 pm, August 10 at 8 pm, August 11 at 9:30 pm, August 16 at 5 pm, August 17 at 12:30 pm. Rating: NNNNN
Laurie Fyffe's the Serpent of the Nile must boast the longest and slinkiest gestation period of any SummerWorks 2003 show. A belly dancer since the early 80s in Vancouver, Fyffe got interested in the history of the art form and began writing monologues, some of which she performed at a Tarragon Spring Arts Fair a decade ago.
"What always grabbed me was the way so many women like me who don't have a Middle Eastern background are completely seduced by belly dancing," she explains.
When she discovered references to mid-19th-century courtesan and belly dancer Kuchuk Hamen, and learned that novelist Gustave Flaubert became obsessed with her during a grand sexual tour of the Mideast (he was working for the French government at the time), she knew she had the makings of a play.
In his explicit diaries, censored until the mid-20th century, the Madame Bovary author talked about his cross-cultural sexual experimentation.
"He compared various women he bedded and - his father being a surgeon - got very anatomical," laughs Fyffe. "He kept stressing that the landscape was bizarre, called it 'so different' and the people 'the other. '"
In her research, Fyffe began wondering about Kuchuk herself and what she'd thought of Flaubert.
"Then I wondered how Kuchuk would respond to me, a modern woman. What about my own interest in belly dancing? Am I engaging in the same process as Flaubert?"
In the piece, Fyffe plays Larah, who shows up to belly dance at a restaurant, meets another dancer named Kuchuk Hamen and is suddenly left to figure out the reality of her own situation in an unknown time and place.
"She gains confidence and experiences a cultural revelation about her place in the belly dance," says Fyffe, author of the hit SummerWorks 2001 show The Malaysia Hotel, another show that explored the West-meets-East theme.
Fyffe, who envisions a larger-scaled piece involving Flaubert as a character, still belly dances but nowhere near as much as she did before. For a time, she supported herself practising the art.
"I once even had a legitimate theatre gig, in a production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," she recalls.
"My character didn't get to say a word, but she danced and sang. I realized that if that was all that theatre had to offer me, I'd better write something."