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Volume 28, Number 2March/April 1977

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Choreography in Cairo

Classical Ballet comes to Egypt

Written by Barbara Farrar Karkabi
Photographed by John Feeney

Classical ballet is not an art form generally associated with Egypt. Normally most visitors expect to see a belly dancer in action rather than watch a classical pas de deux. But since 1966—when five nervous ballerinas and a cast of young students moved a Cairo audience to tears—classical ballet has been an important, if little known, part of Egyptian cultural life.

Ballet, certainly, is new to Egypt. But to its enthusiastic supporters—whose 18 years of admirable struggle brought ballet to the country—the introduction of ballet is simply another addition to the millennia-long cultural history of that ancient land. Perhaps significantly, its source is a school on the ancient road to the Pyramids of Giza.

Called The Higher Institute of Ballet, the school is part of Egypt's Academy of Arts, a large complex which includes the Conservatory, the Institute of Dramatic Arts and Arab Music and a projected center for folk arts. And, since 1963, the vocational home of a tiny corps of dancers who pioneered Egyptian ballet and eventually won for it a place in the history of Egypt's modern cultural growth.

The idea of starting a national ballet school originated with the Egyptians themselves. In 1958, Dr. Tharwat Okasha, then Minister of Culture, approached the Russians—long renowned as patrons of classical ballet—and asked for assistance. As the response was favorable—the Russians immediately sent an expert from the Bolshoi Ballet to Cairo—the ministry then placed an announcement in the local papers and from the flood of applicants chose 35 children between the ages of eight and 15.

Prior to this time, ballet had been taught in a few private finishing schools, more as a way of trimming the figure than of practicing the art. Now, with the start of the ballet school, the ministry offered classes to anyone at any level of society. Reda Sheta, for example, one of the best male dancers the institute has produced, was the son of Dr. Okasha's chauffeur.

From the original 35 students, there gradually emerged five girls and three boys who showed special potential. These eight were the real "pioneers" of ballet in Egypt, according to Mrs. Enayat Azmi, the current dean of the institute. It was through their energy, dedication and courage that the Cairo Ballet Company was eventually formed, in spite of numerous setbacks. It was also due to their growing skill, for without it dedication alone could not have brought success—or the much-needed government support.

Most of these first eight are still involved with the company in some way. Of the men, Reda Sheta currently dances with the Berlin Opera Ballet, but Ahmed Shukri and Abdel Moneim Kamel remain first dancers with the Cairo group. Of the women, Aleya Abdel el-Razk teaches at the institute and Waddood Faizy directs its Alexandria branch. Two others, Magda Saleh and Maya Selim, are on a leave of absence from the company. Magda is working on her Ph.D in dance at New York University and Maya Selim is studying choreography with the Paris Opera Ballet. Only one woman, Diana Hakak, has actually left the company.

The beginnings of the school were humble; two rooms at the Institute of Physical Training, where the institute held classes three hours each evening. But if humble, Magda Saleh remembers, they were also exciting and demanding. Each evening the young students rushed from their regular school to dance classes and managed, despite tremendous pressure, to keep up standards in both schools. The classrooms were cramped and the students seemed to grow out of practice shoes and leotards as fast as they got them.

Gradually, conditions improved. In 1959, the school moved to the Cinema Institute, where it had the luxury of three rooms for ballet and another three for piano lessons. In 1960, a special teacher was brought for the girls and in 1961 Enayat Azmi was appointed director of the institute, a position she still holds. The same year, the Minister of Culture and Education agreed to organize the school along the lines of those of England's Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi. The plan was to combine academic and dance studies in one building so students could study ballet mornings and attend regular classes in the afternoons. In this way young students could concentrate on their dancing without neglecting their basic education and without being pulled so abruptly from one world to another.

Under Mrs. Azmi's guidance, the primary school opened in 1961, admitting students up to the age of 12. The following year the school added a preparatory section, bringing the age level to 15. In 1963, the building which now houses the school was finished and in short order the second section, ages 15 to 18, and the Higher Institute, equivalent to a university, were organized. In just five years the school had grown from two small rooms with one dance teacher and a pianist to a building of 50 rooms in which were offered ballet classes in the classical tradition and a full academic schedule taught by 12 teachers.

That was also the year that the five leading female students received two-year scholarships to study at the Bolshoi Ballet, one of the world's most difficult ballet schools. They did well-and were, in fact, considered outstanding in character dancing—but remember it today with mixed emotions. "Our technique . . . improved incredibly," says Magda Saleh, "but we suffered tremendously from culture shock. You must remember that none of us had ever been away from home before."

Returning to Egypt, however, was equally difficult. Having seen for themselves the opportunities available to their contemporaries in the Bolshoi, they realized the necessity of forming a company immediately—while they were at their peak. Mrs. Azmi recalls how eager they were. "If the girls had not been able to dance, they would have been like pianos that are never played," she says. Despite opposition, therefore—many thought it was a premature move—the Cairo Ballet Company was formed and began to prepare its first production for presentation.

It was a daring move. In less than a year a relatively new school and infant company were to choose a ballet, mount a professional production and present it to a city that had previously seen only visiting companies. On the other hand they were not without supporters. One was Leonid Lavrovsky, master choreographer of the Bolshoi Ballet for 20 years. Lavrovsky flew to Cairo to stage the production.

The company chose the ballet The Fountain of Bakhshisarai, a full-length piece based on a poem by Pushkin, in which a Polish princess, Maria, is kidnapped by a Tartar prince who falls madly in love with her. Maria is eventually killed by Zareema, the prince's wife, who in turn commits suicide. The company picked the ballet because of its Oriental flavor and because they thought the dramatic theme would appeal to Egyptian audiences.

It did. On December 3, 1966, with a nucleus of five ballerinas and a cast made up entirely of students from the school, The Fountain of Bakhshisarai premiered in the Cairo Opera House and brought down the house. By the final curtain the audience was in tears and its ovation brought the cast back for curtain calls again and again. Eight years of hard work had paid off: the Cairo Ballet Company was a solid success.

The following evening, Egypt's late President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, came to the performance and afterwards awarded Orders of Merit to the leading dancers and organizers of the show, an unprecedented gesture of support. Lavrovsky was so pleaeed with the production that he decided to come back to Cairo the following year to stage Antony and Cleopatra for the company. Unfortunately, however, the great choreographer died before he was able to return.

After their successful initial season in Cairo, the company went on tour to Aswan in the south of Egypt. As there was no proper theater in that provincial town they danced in a cinema to an audience consisting almost entirely of men dressed in traditional gallabiyahs and kufiyas. The few women present were the wives of Cairo officials. Although it is safe to assume that the majority of that audience had never seen a ballet in their lives, their reaction was the same as that of the sophisticated Cairo crowd. They loved it. At the end of the performance, an old man went backstage and approached Magda Saleh, who had danced the part of Maria. Tears streaming down his face, he clutched her hands and repeated over and over, "Oh lady, oh lady, how beautiful..."

Over the following years, the company extended its repertoire to include such works as Giselle, The Nutcracker Suite, Don Juan, Paquita, Francesca da Rimini, Don Quixote, The Great Waltz and, most recently, Hamlet, Chopiniana and Scheherazade. In 1970, Dr. Okasha invited the great French choreographer Serge Lifar, of the Paris Opera Ballet, to Egypt. He created a special interpretation of Daphnis and Chloe for the company in a lovely, neoclassical style. The dancers remember it because it was the first time they had been called on to work with the choreographer in creating their individual roles.

By 1971 the company was dancing fairly regularly and had up to three two-week seasons a year. Nevertheless, the year will probably go down as the blackest in the company's history, for it was that year that Cairo's world-famous Opera House burned to the ground. Built in 1869 to stage Verdi's Aida for the opening of the Suez Canal (Aramco World. September-October, 1969), the 800-seat Opera House was a small jewel of a building, and its loss was a tragedy, not only for the company, which lost its scenery for seven different ballets, but also for Cairo. Overnight it had lost the only stage to which it could invite international visitors.

Today the institute is housed in a rambling modern building atthe Academy of Arts. It is the home of both the company, now numbering over 50 members, and the school, which has nearly 160 students. The staff numbers 24—12 of them Egyptian. The building also houses workshops where all costumes, scenery, makeup and ballet shoes used by the company are made. Staffed entirely by Egyptian artisans. The workshops employ anywhere from 70 to 100 workers. The ballet shoes workshop is important to the company since a dancer can go through a pair of toe shoes in one performance. At the moment, the shop is only able to meet the company's own needs, but as the quality of the shoes is excellent, it is hoped that eventually they will be exported throughout the Middle East.

Students who wish to enter the institute are required to pass a very strict examination. Selwa Gallal is a member of the company and a teacher at the school. She is responsible for selecting and training new students and explains that applicants must be examined by a doctor and tested for a sense of music and rhythm. "Then I personally examine them. I look for a nice arch, long legs and neck, straight back and shoulders. If a child has not got what it takes physically, there is no use accepting him or her; it's just a waste of time on their part and ours."

Once children are accepted, they embark on a nine-year program patterned after that of the Bolshoi school. When they complete the program they are awarded an artistic diploma and allowed to join the company while they continue with a four-year course of higher studies including such subjects as the history of ballet and theater, anatomy and choreography. After graduation, many of the dancers travel overseas for further specialization.

At present, the Cairo Ballet Company and the art of classical ballet in Egypt are at a critical stage in their development. The institute and the company have come a long way in a short time but they have reached the point where the direction for the future must be decided. One problem is isolation from the world of dance. During the '60's, before the destruction of the Opera House, visiting ballet companies were common and students could receive the stimulation and encouragement so necessary for young dancers. Now that visiting groups are less common, the students must settle for watching old film clips.

On the positive side, the company has made several appearances overseas in recent years, and with a good deal of success. In 1972 Magda Saleh and Abdel Moneim Kamel toured the Soviet Union to critical acclaim. They danced the leading roles in Giselle and Don Quixote with both the Kirov and Bolshoi companies. The whole company appeared in Moscow and Leningrad later that year, on their first tour outside Egypt, and in 1975, made a 10-day tour in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Members of the company have also participated in two international ballet competitions in Moscow, at four of the world famous competitions in Varna, Bulgaria, and in the first Tokyo International Concorde held last year. Enayat Azmi was invited to be a member of the international jury at the second ballet competition in Moscow and Magda Saleh served on the prestigious jury at Varna in 1974. So far, the company has danced best at the Tokyo Concorde, where two young dancers, Hassan Sheta and Sonia Sarkis appeared. They impressed the jury with a 10-minute piece based on the Arab legend Majnoun Laila, with music arranged by the Egyptian composer Halim el-Dabh. As a result, the entire company has been invited to make a tour of Japan this year.

The most pressing need, as far as the dancers are concerned, is to be able to dance more. At the moment, the company's season is extremely brief—approximately 20 performances. A dancer's prime is short and there is always the temptation to leave for the West, where there are opportunities to dance more frequently. "We must be the best-rehearsed company in the world," muses Sonia Sarkis, "as we spend most of the year in rehearsal." A dancer—like any artist—needs challenges; constant rehearsal without the excitement of performance is not enough. When each day is the same, the dancers tend to get discouraged and long for a return to normal life. The members of the company criticize themselves for what they feel is a lack of discipline, attributable to insufficient outside stimulation.

Selwa Gallal. a bright and verbal young woman, has suggested to the government that the company perform at least once a month for the growing number of tourists visiting Egypt. A theater in the center of Cairo would make their performances more accessible to the general public.

The main challenge ahead of the Cairo Ballet Company is that it cannot continue as a mini-Bolshoi in northern Africa. The company must begin to find its own identity. Egyptian dancers feel that although the Russians have given them excellent training and a classical background, they must now begin to develop ballets based on their own rich history and folklore. They must have a style of their own and a resident Egyptian choreographer. As Enayat Azmi says, "Our aim is to have a completely independent Egyptian company as soon as possible."

Several members of the company have already started to choreograph ballets with Egyptian themes. Abdel Moneim Kamel's one-act ballet. Fortitude, previewed a few years ago in Cairo. Based on the 1967 War, it was choreographed by Kamel to music arranged by the composer Mukhtar Ashrafi. The school children won a gold medal in Yugoslavia last year for Oriental Fair, a charming half-hour ballet choreographed to Arab music by Dr. Magda Izz, a teacher at the school who is also planning a full-length ballet based on the Majnoun Laila epic.

Magda Saleh is finishing her Ph D. on Egyptian folk dance tradition and has already choreographed two ballets drawn from this heritage. The first is a modern version of Egyptian "stick dancing" and the second is based on the myth of Isis and Set. Both works have been performed in the United States, and when Miss Saleh returns to Egypt and the Cairo Ballet Company she hopes to add them to the company's repertoire. While no one claims that any of these ballets is great, they are a beginning, and a bold step in the right direction.

The company is blessed with a number of talented young dancers that any Western group would be proud to have. In particular, there seems to be little trouble recruiting male students and there is no shame attached to a boy choosing a career as a ballet dancer. This reflects, perhaps, the Egyptians' traditional respect for art and beauty. And, considering the country's persistent economic problems, the government has supported the institute generously.

The Cairo Ballet Company is still the only resident classical ballet group in the Middle East. This alone is a tremendous accomplishment. The fact that the school and company were created and supported by their government is something else Egyptians can be proud of. Looking at the eager faces of the young dancers in the company and of the even younger students at the institute, one senses a tremendous potential. With continuing work, support—and luck—they seem likely to succeed in developing a style and an identity of their own which will both contribute something new to the ballet world and make the name of the Cairo Ballet Company known and respected internationally.

Barbara Farrar Karkabi, formerly a reporter for Beirut's Daily Star, now free-lances from London.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the March/April 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1977 images.