Contemporary dance in Egypt, looking for its right place
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Océane Besombes / Egypt
While still emerging in the country, contemporary dance is starting to generate a real interest in Egypt - especially in Cairo. Despite insufficiencies in training meeting an uninformed public and a lack of dedicated spaces, several initiatives are developing at different scales.
This morning of June in the Mohandessin district, not far from the city center of Cairo, a few words are exchanged as the bodies are warming up. We are at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, and every day in these studios, students are getting ready for the many hours of classes, with one goal on sight: becoming professional dancers or choreographers. A new generation of dancers who are expanding the circle of contemporary Egyptian dance, still very young.
In Egypt, the birth of contemporary dance dates back to the mid-1990s, thanks to the initiative of personalities such as Mohamed Shafik or Karima Mansour, who share their careers between Egypt and abroad. But, fifteen years later, something is still missing. The country suffers from a cruel lack of places of performance, almost no formation center and an institutional indifference. This is not surprising, given that arts and culture are often relegated to the background in the country - and even behind the background when it comes to contemporary art.
Unlike classical dance or modern dance, benefiting from official institutions under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture through the Academy of Arts or the Cairo Opera House, contemporary dance has to develop through more independent initiatives.
With its two studios in which the street frenzy of Cairo discreetly intrudes through the windows, the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC) is a very unique independent venue unlike anything else in the region. It is the only institution dedicated to contemporary dance in Egypt offering full-time professional training. Also the first in the Arab world and the African continent. In addition to a 3-year professional training program, the center offers artistic residences, open courses and workshops in various disciplines, and organizes or participates in shows and festivals.
This epicentrum of contemporary Egyptian dance was founded by the dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour. Mostly formed in Europe, at the London School of Contemporary Dance and at the Renato Greco School in Rome, she is against the idea of “nationalism in dance” - an idea that would constrain her style into bounds, and force her to fit certain movements to claim or prove where she comes from.
When she returned to Cairo in 1999, she launched MA’AT (Movement for Egyptian Contemporary Art), the first independent contemporary dance company established in Egypt. An initiative born from an observation. “When I came back to Egypt, there was nothing” she explains, “After spending 7 years in Europe, dancing 8 hours a week, coming back to Egypt was a shock. There was no festival, no company, nothing”. Indeed, contemporary dance didn’t have any dedicated center in the country. And is was almost impossible to find students to teach dance to, dancers to practice with, or places where to rehearse.
Karima Mansour, choreographer and dancer
Then, after spending some time working at the Cairo Opera, she decided to launch the CCDC, operating under the aegis of her MA’AT company, and recognized by the International Dance Council of UNESCO. For Karima Mansour, the CDDC’s goal is not only to train dancers, but also to enable them to develop their careers, and to allow one day a real ecosystem to exist in Egypt, fostering the development of the practice in the country.
Creating and maintaining the center wasn’t a long quiet river. For example, as a result of administrative disturbances, authorities suspended the activities of the center for several months in 2013. But it is clear that the 2011 revolution opened a gap in which Karima Mansour did not hesitate to jump by opening her center. Five years later, while a second generation of students in training is almost half-way in the program, she considers the CCDC to be “a major success given the rather hostile environment and the many difficulties to face”.
Contemporary dance still has a hard time finding acceptance in a society with a complex relationship with the body. Choreographer Mohammad Shafik, for example, says that a man who dances in Egypt is not considered to be a real man. The status of artists and dancers in general is also in a struggle to find its place. “Okay, you’re taking classes five hours a day, but what do you do in life?”. A question often faced by Hanin, one of the CCDC students who found out that the answer “I work and train to become a professional dancer” is often insufficient or even unintelligible in the society he lives in.
In spite of these difficulties, the organization of workshops, festivals and even the establishment of new dance centers such as Ezzat Ezzat for Contemporary Dance founded by Ezzat Ismail Ezzat in Cairo or Rezodance by Lucien Arino in Alexandria testify the ambition to encourage the practice of contemporary dance and its visibility in the country.
Initiatives supported by an increasing number of participants, but also by an enthusiastic audience although still limited. In Alexandria, the Nassim el Raqs festival, created at the initiative of the Rezodance school, even goes so far as putting contemporary dance on display in the streets. Organized every year since the last 7 years, this festival allows dance to go directly meet a new audience by putting itself directly on its way into the public space. Well-received by the locals, this festival is also a first step to move from the Cairoist centralism that often affects culture in the country.
A scene still very young
Far from the exotic clichés of oriental dance, contemporary dance in Egypt is not looking for folklore galore. There is no strictly identifiable movement in contemporary Egyptian dance, but rather a mosaic. According to the choreographer Mirette Mechail, "there must be fifteen choreographers currently recognized in Egypt and none of them have the same style, nor do they speak about the same thing. Everyone has their own style and is instantly recognizable. We do not have a structured style. It may come, but as we are still few in number and it is a recent movement, it is difficult to find a mutual language. "
With her company No Point Perspective founded in 2002, her performances are mainly the result of improvisations around personal and intimate problems, and human relationships. A process that leads to productions with a language both lively, intense and humorous, such as the last piece of the company called "Ma3lish". This word, which resonates in the streets of Cairo almost as much as the sound of the car engines, can be translated, depending on the context, by a multitude of things: sorry, it will be all right, it does not matter, maybe next time... A term set in motion by the bodies of the dancers in this Mirette Mechail play, illustrating with finesse and not without humor the social interactions in the Egyptian society.
For Karima Mansour, the terms "resistance" and "resilience" best describe the most recurring themes of her choreographic work. For her latest solo "Solitary" the dancer Aly Khamees chose to tap into the characteristic movements of the shaabi dancers. This dance, very present in the streets and in the marriages, borrows movements of the traditional dance of the knives. A style particularly popular in the districts and disadvantaged areas of the country where Aly is from. This type of dance simulating street fights is made of fast movements requiring great agility, although in its modern version, it is not uncommon for dancers to simply use their fists instead of a real knife. Movements which, from his point of view, are a true metaphor for present-day Egyptian society.
Aly Khamees, dancer
The number of dancers, choreographers and companies is constantly increasing in Egypt. But this enthusiasm of the younger generations leads to a desire to do, a desire to be fast — too fast, sometimes to the detriment of quality. This is what many dancers and choreographers in the country like Mirette Mechail or Karima Mansour regret. For the latter, the still small size of the contemporary Egyptian scene quickly limits the prospects for young performers. Some choose to go abroad, while others burn the steps. "Ambition is pushing some to want everything too quickly and too early," she says. "It is not possible to become a dancer, choreographer and teacher in a few months without real training or experience. "
Many young dancers and choreographers perform very early, before they’re ready, and are galvanized by an enthusiastic audience generally not very alert. Indeed, contemporary dance is still a discovery for the Egyptian public, which thus tends to be charmed by novelty rather than quality.
In spite of everything, between the faux pas of some novices and the talent of the most passionate, whether behind the walls of a building of Mohandessin in Cairo or in the streets of Alexandria, contemporary Egyptian dance is making its place. At his pace but with enthusiasm, no matter what society thinks.Tweet