Nassim el-Raqs: A dance of mythical creatures on Alexandria’s streets
 
 

Now in its seventh consecutive year, Alexandrian contemporary dance festival Nassim el-Raqs is one of very few players remaining from the flurry of public space contemporary art events in Egypt that followed the 2011 revolution.

Although the festival was founded by French artists Emilie Petit and Lucien Arino as an independent project, by the second edition they needed an institutional umbrella under which to function. So Petit established Momken Association in Marseille, and Arino’s longstanding dance school in Alexandria, Rezodanse, became the main local partner. Later they established Nut for Arts and Media Productions (not to be confused by Nut for Dance, founded by dancer and choreographer Hazem Header) to take on the organizational side.

Due to the obstacles now facing art in public space, as soon as each edition of Nassim al-Raqs is over, the crew start preparations for the next year’s edition in order to get the necessary governmental permits and clearances in time. The organizers also go to great lengths to prepare the users of their selected public spaces for the performances in advance by introducing themselves, the festival and contemporary dance.

“It’s all about building relationships, which we have been doing for seven years,” says Yasmine Hussein, one of the Nassim el-Raqs organizers, about their approach to working in public spaces. “We work from the spaces we know and have performed in previously, and we expand in those spaces and their surrounding streets.”

This year Nessim el-Raqs opened on May 4 with Wild Descent by choreographer and dancer Olivier Dubois. Twenty dancers from Cairo and Alexandria performed the work in more than 10 locations in the city over the course of the day. Wild Descent is a contemporary adaptation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 ballet The Afternoon of a Faun, about the titular half-man half-goat mythical creature. The original dance, considered one of the first modern ballets, was choreographed to music composed by Claude Debussy in 1894 and based on an 1878 poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.

At Café de la Paix on the Alexandrian corniche downtown, one of the first performance locations, the street bustled with cars in the background, and clients and passersby paused to watch a segment of the performance by dancers Omneya Okasha and Salma Abdel-Salam. For some people, it was their first sight of a such a performance in public. “There’s something pharaonic about the movements,” I heard an audience member whisper.

“This is the first time for me to see a performance in public space,” said 61-year-old Om Ayman, one of the clients at the cafe.

“Their talent was enough to attract the attention of a lot of people,” Karim Amer, a waiter at the cafe, says. “They dressed so modestly and their was nothing offensive about them, it was beautiful.”


“It is my fourth time to attend Nassim al-Raqs,” says Christine Schatz, a German teacher living in Alexandria. “But this is the biggest edition I’ve seen yet in terms of spaces used and the involvement of the art community in the city.”

Around 20 dancers took over the corniche of Alexandria during sunset, not far from Cafe de la Paix. The performance intrigued many who were walking by. Some whispered questions, others laughed over what they couldn’t understand, but many were curious and hoping for more.

“I don’t know what kind of dance this is,” said 24-year-old Mohamed Abdel-Aziz. “I didn’t really understand, but I would like to understand more.”

“The best thing is that they are not concerned with who is watching, and are expressing themselves with respect,” Abdel-Aziz added.

“I like that they are dancing on the street because I personally like to dance on the street,” said Ahmed Mostafa, a 20-year-old student. “When I feel like it I play my own music and dance on the street regardless of what other people will think.”

“I liked it because it is something new and the dancers are trying to express themselves,” said Ahmed Mohamed.

Later in the early evening, curious passersby near Nabi Daniel Street, known for being the epicentre of second-hand book shopping in Alexandria, stopped to observe another point in the performance in which dancer Hazem Headar performed solo.

On Saad Zaghloul Street, in Omar Effendi, a local department store chain that was sold to Saudi investors a few years ago, Abdel-Salam and Nagham Salah danced to Debussy’s music blasting through the store.

“It’s a very delicate performance,” said Mohamed Abdel-Gawad, one of the employees at Omar Effendi. “There should be more of these activities happening in Alexandria.”

The final segment of the performance took place at the historic Raml Tram Station, where smaller groups of dancers gathered, drawing a large crowd of all ages. All 20 dancers went up to the roof of the almost 90-year-old station, in front of its iconic clock tower, and then made their way down to the large square to close.

All photos by Randa Ali. This article was commissioned and edited by Rowan El Shimi.

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