DANCE: Suraya Hilal Queen Elizabeth Hall, SBC, London

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The Independent Culture
Suraya Hilal used to dance on tables (she was two years old at the time). Since then she has become an authority on Raqs Sharqi, the classical Egyptian dance tradition too often degraded into mere belly dancing. Part of Raqs Sharqi's appeal, like that of Tango and Flamenco, is the fact that they can be performed most successfully by artists who look like real people but whose mastery of their chosen form transforms them into creatures of beauty.

In her latest show, Spirit of the Heart, Hilal is flanked by a singer and six musicians. Those playing Egyptian instruments wear white robes and headdresses, the others sport double-breasted pinstripes like a trio of jaunty gangsters. Hilal has assembled a fine troupe and much of the drama of her performance rests on the interplay of improvised music and dance that is at the core of the urban folk tradition of Baladi. The non- dance highlight of the first half is an exhausting solo by Mustafa Abdel Aziz on the Arghul, which makes a haunting sound like a melancholy kazoo. The musician smiled with cheery embarrassment at the ovation that saluted his tour de force.

His virtuosity was instantly matched by Hilal herself. She was sumptuously sheathed in a red and gold dress whose fabric highlighted the play of her thighs, buttocks and belly as they quivered like a heat haze. Her ample torso and abdomen perform marvels of independent suspension while her arms languidly described circles in the air and her proud head remained stock still.

Much of this will be familiar to those who saw her pack Sadler's Wells in 1992 but the latest show has incorporated some new elements. In the first half Hilal is joined by a male dancer Ibrahim el Minyawi who does an unnerving routine with a large wooden pole. With his flowing white robes and debonair Ronald Colman moustache he makes a dashing partner for her in a traditional Sai'di dance.

The programme's other innovation is included in the third section of the evening when Hilal performs some Sufi and Thikr ritual dances on an incense-filled stage to the chants of the Moulid festivals that commemorate the saints and prophets. The mood here is far more intense with none of the arch smiles that punctuated the earlier dances. The sequence culminates in the extraordinary African trance dance in which Hilal wheels about the stage, her loosened hair flicking back and forth and her long skirt billowing around her like the wavy bell of a petunia.