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It begins with a dim image of a woman dancing. Her skirt swirls around her. Sweat drenches her skin. With one hand she lifts long, damp tendrils of hair off her neck, smiling. Her free hand gestures lyrically as the camera closes in on her shimmying belly and rotating hips.
This sweet 30 seconds of film is the only footage remaining of Adrianaone of Washington’s premier Middle Eastern dancersduring her heyday. In the ’60s and ’70s, the nation was experiencing a craze for all things “exotic” and Eastern, and D.C. became a mecca for expatriates and aficionados alike.
“People came from New York City just to see the dancers here. We had the top dancers and a lot of the top musicians in Middle Eastern music,” remembers writer John J. Wayne.
Along with filmmaker Ray Schmitt, Wayne produced Adriana: Shadows on Yellow Silk, a documentary about the dancer’s life, which he compares to that of Nijinsky or Chet Baker. It may sound like a bit of hyperbole given that few people have ever heard of her, but Adriana’s story is dramatic enough to eclipse that of either icon.
With training in ballet, jazz, Indian, and Middle Eastern dance and a Gina Lollobrigida figure, Adriana worked steadily on the club circuit doing jazz dance and musical comedy. Born in Boston to Greek and Italian parents, she came to Washington in 1961 to dance at the Port Said and was soon headlining at the many Middle Eastern restaurants, such as the Astor Club, Club Syriana, and the Black Ulysses, then sprinkled throughout downtown D.C.
In 1972, at the height of her fame, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. In performance, she camouflaged her prosthesis with shawls and specially designed tops. Her two stepchildren had been killed in a car accident a few years before, and not long after the surgery her mother-in-law died. But the worst blow came in 1977, when her husband-manager Charles Miller was killed by muggers.
Adriana continued to dance, performing at the Kennedy Center and various clubs and theaters in the area. She also ran a school in Georgetown, Adriana’s Mecca for Middle Eastern Dance and Culture, which boasted 400 regular students. Rising rents, coupled with Adriana’s growing emotional instability, led to the school’s closing in 1982.
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“She was trying to hold up everybody else, but she was still in denial,” says Wayne. Never a shrinking violet, Adriana became increasingly difficult as her circle of friends diminished. She lost her sources of income, the restaurants she and her husband owned, her large house in the suburbs, and eventually her sanity.
She moved back to Boston but had a falling out with the few members of her immediate family still living. “With all of her illnesses and mental derangement,” says Wayne, “she had made a lot of enemies.”
“A lot of people thought I was a pillar of iron,” Adriana recalls. “I was like a statue to them. Even the doctors would say, ‘Look at youyou’re doing great.’ And I would say, ‘Well, I have to keep paying my bills.’”
Like a low-budget version of Unzipped, the 1995 documentary about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, Yellow Silk shows Adriana in all her glory and all her petulance. After the short opening sequence containing the dance clip, the hourlong movie shifts gears, showing the present-day Adriana in full tsunami mode, browbeating dancers, musicians, and stagehands during a dress rehearsal for a performance at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore, where she underwent treatment. “My blood pressure’s going up. I feel it,” she kvetches in a thick Boston accent. In talking-head interviews cut into her tirade, the dancers describe her in awe-filled voices. “She epitomizes theater, glamour, entertainment,” says one. “She’s one-of-a-kind. I love Adriana,” says another.
Adriana’s devotees, many of whom she trained years ago, have stood by her. “The dancers truly are a big part of the story, because they are so talented and so good-hearted. They are almost saintly,” Wayne says.
“It’s kind of a traumatic thing to have your life story told on film,” he continues. “She was brave enough to give us a free hand in that. Sometimes it’s raw and kind of grim, but there’s a comeback and a kind of happy ending.”
Shot on video, Yellow Silk was funded by Wayne and Schmitt, with assistance from the Library of Congress Film Society. “For us, the idea was that this would be Adriana’s valentine back to the world,” Wayne reveals. After a showing at the Library of Congress, he says, “a lot of women wrote testimonials, and she became a kind of feminist hero.”
The filmmakers treat their subject with great sensitivity. It’s clear that Wayne has tremendous respect and admiration for Adriana, a woman capable of both intense honesty and extreme vulnerability. If anything, the film’s weakness is that the filmmakers’ sympathy for their subject leads to egregiously sentimental editorial choices. After Adriana’s very moving account of her husband’s death, the film cuts to an uncomfortably long sequence of ever closer freeze-frames of a photo of Miller, closing in until his features fill the whole screen. Similarly, after musician Larry Denny relates some anecdotes about Adriana’s glory days, Wayne and Schmitt inexplicably cut back to a freeze-frame of Denny’s earnest mugeven though we’re already watching another scene.
When Adriana talks about her mental illness, we see her gesturing and speaking while a different voice-over plays. The producers were clearly trying to convey the dancer’s disjointedness after her mental breakdown, but the sequence ends up looking like an editing mistake.
For all its sentimentality and high-mindedness, the video inadvertently has moments of camp appeal. “It was like I was this goddess walking through the stage,” Adriana unironically reminisces. With her high cheekbones, red hair, and distingué mannerisms, she is still striking. And plenty of people testify to the star quality of her past performances, but without the aid of actual footage, viewers must rely on imagination.
“Adriana was sure there was film. She had danced for Elvis and King Farouk. And she’d been on television. It turns out that with television footage, stations simply don’t retain the stuff,” says a wistful Wayne, who for many years made a living archiving film footage at the Library of Congress. “Ray was such an artist with that when we couldn’t come up with the footage. We managed to combine some of the promotional photographs with a music track and with footage of her students,” he explains. “We also superimposed some of the footage of Adriana during rehearsal with old photos. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s beautiful. Thirty years have gone by, and the worst things have happened, but she’s still dancing.”
In an unguarded moment before her troupe’s performance at the rehabilitation center, Adriana begins to dance. Her hands manipulate a gold silk veil as she two-steps around the stage. Her hourglass form and revealing costumes have been replaced by a matronly figure, black leisure wear, and comfortable shoes. But the grace is still there.
“With the help of a few miraculous people, Adriana has been able to get back on her feet. She’s not rich like she used to be, but she knows that her world is in dancing. And as far as I’m concerned, her future is in becoming a great choreographer and teacher,” says Wayne. “She’s a great teacher when she stops yelling at people about the past. She sometimes insists on being a prima donna, but her prima donna days…it’s not the same.”
For anyone who has ever known fame, no matter how local or short-lived, stepping away from the footlights is never easy. The video ends with everyone onstage after the Maryland Rehabilitation Center performance. Adriana, who at first demurred when asked to dance, has joined the others. Her hips swivel, and her stomach makes subtle undulations. She is smiling againjust as in the old days, when everything was good.
For Wayne, the evening showed Adriana at her best. “I went to the show that night. The patientsthese were people in bad shape, presumably a cold audience,” he remembers.
“The show began, and the audience was responding, just instinctively. Some of the people came down in wheelchairs and crutches and started doing what they thought they just saw on the stage,” recalls Wayne. “It was just a big lovefest. And Adriana just charmed everybody. She totally hypnotized everybody.”CP
Adriana: Shadows on Yellow Silk screens Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. at George Washington University’s Marvin Theatre. Adriana will be present.