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by Barney Yates

THINGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME -- L: Penelope Thomas, who plays the Mother; R: writer, director, choreographer Salma Allam. Photo by Armando Tavarez.

"Things My Mother Taught Me: a daughter's journey"
Written, Directed and Choreographed by Salma Allam
December 14 and 21, 2012 (closed)
Brooklyn Music School Playhouse, 126 Felix Street, Brooklyn
Presented by Movement in C

In "Things My Mother Taught Me: a daughter's journey," her new play with dance, Salma Allam represents herself as the daughter of an Egyptian-Canadian Tiger Mom and a battered one, too: battered by her mother's relentless criticisms, threats, demands and New Age bromides. Everything the mother says to her daughter seems to drive them apart. Salma is too imbalanced in her chakras, too fat to be a ballerina, too un-committed to her dance, too dramatic--a veritable crucible of faults. This experience of living under incessant and withering maternal criticism is explored in a two-hour collection of dialogue and poetry punctuated by modern dance.

Salma Allam was born in Canada of Egyptian descent, attended the Ailey School, completed a two-year certificate at Merce Cunningham, trained at Deena Levy Theater Studio and toured internationally with Don Omar. She is on the dance faculty of Brooklyn Music School. The approach of her Salma Allam Dance Theater, in its mixture of text and dance, is described in the show's program, which reads, "the fluidity of poetry and reality of dialogue all lend themselves to creating a relatable world for everyone." Relatable, yes. Any young woman who has resisted parental domination with the cry, "You're not the boss of me now!," will absolutely relate with this piece. It makes bearing the burden of an overbearing mother into the human condition.

While the spoken play clings to the familiar theme of mother-daughter friction, there is a peculiar insight to be found in the concept of the dances. They are set to Arabic music without Arabic movement; they are traditional modern dance. There is no room in their dance vocabulary for impulses from the music. This postulates a metaphorical divide between mother and daughter. The mom (Penelope Thomas) can don a belly dancer's sash and shake her hips, but Salma can't. Allam seems to be saying, I was raised in North America and that's my culture now, regardless of my ancestry, and it separates me from my mother.

The establishing scene introduces the story as the fated journey of a daughter and mother who were paired up as a sort of cosmic practical joke. They will make each other miserable for a long time and, eventually, walk side-by-side on parallel paths, each guided by her own guardian angel, whose wry observations and bon mots will tumble out with a delightful sparkle.

Salma Allam and the guardian angels (Rachel Monahan, Elly Mandarakas and Androniki Prokopiou) dance together in graceful trios and duets. There is a lot of floor work. Cathy Richards, as mom's heavenly guide, has some clever comic turns and gets belly laughs.

Mom is never going understand her effect on Salma. She is spirituality on steroids. She takes weekend workshops to bring peace and harmony into the world and engages in healing through gathering of diverse energy in the air. She insists that her daughter develop her connection to her guardian angel through a crystal. When Theresa Whelan, playing a New Age Guru and mentor, assails Mom, played by Penelope Thomas, with the accusation, "You are unteachable!," we know there is no way of redeeming this Tiger Mom, who until she dies will simply be demanding and critical toward her daughter, never letting her find her own way.

"Write about what you know," we always say to young artists, and Salma Allam seems to know the mother-daughter thing very well. Being older than Salma, I didn't come away resenting the mother of her play, because there's an insight you get toward parenting after your own parents are gone, when you have watched your wife pushing your own daughter to achieve her goals and you've seen your daughter pushing back, sometimes with hurt feelings. You realize what's crucial in the parenting relationship. It isn't the particular guidance you give your kids, but the passion of your commitment that makes them feel loved.

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