At Townhouse Rawabet, the stage appears set for a performance. Half a dozen chairs surround a rectangular table.
Sitting in them are dancers, choreographers, festival programmers, funding organization representatives and a curious onlooker. They are the attendees of the Euro-Arab Dance Performance meeting, a week-long gathering of European and Middle-Eastern practitioners discussing the challenges contemporary dance faces in the Mediterranean region.
Held under the umbrella of MAAT Dance MECA and co-organized by Danse Bassin Mediterranee (DBM), it culminated in three nights of dance performances by students of the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC), also run by MAAT and DBM. Fittingly, the discussions held between December 15 and 21 often resembled a complex and drawn-out performance in and of themselves.
ACT 1: Institutionalizing yourself
We are offered plenty of themes to choose from. But there’s one particularly disputed premise: What does it mean to be an independent artist?
Enter stage left, a dark-haired female character
“There is no such thing as ‘independent’,” says Karima Mansour, director of both MAAT Dance MECA and CCDC. “You’re always dependent on space or money.”
Prior to its location in Dokki since January 2014, the CCDC’s home was the Creativity Center in the Cairo Opera House. Mansour says the center was created to host performances from the “independent scene,” but is so inaccessible to artists working outside of state patronage due to a combination of poor organization and internal politics, that she had never set foot in it until 2011, when she began using the space for CCDC’s three-year dance school program. A year and a half after that, Mansour’s collaboration with the Opera House came to a sudden end when she was told the available budget could no longer accommodate CCDC activities.
A boyish voice interjects
“For me, independent is a word I understand more artistically rather than financially,” says Willy Prager, a Bulgarian dance activist and founder of a contemporary dance festival called Anti-static. “The idea of independent arts is not to be able to cover the costs of a show using ticket sales alone. If a country wants good independent arts, they should pay for it.”
This view is contested by other attendees, the more hardline of whom see any governmental involvement as directly compromising a work’s integrity.
Enter stage right, a young woman in a bandana
“But there is limited scope for growth outside an institution without institutionalizing yourself, because often institutions prefer to deal with other institutions,” says theater maker Laila Soliman.
Dealing with governmental institutions can be a daunting task. With an estimated 35,000 full time employees as well as tens of thousands of part-timers, the Culture Ministry manages, among other things, the government’s nationwide network of over 200 cultural palaces, which mainly program state-sponsored theater performances with a developmental undertone, or host book signings of state-supported literature.
Enter stage right, a slender bearded man
These locations remain inaccessible to independent artists, says Adham Hafez, choreographer and director of TransDance festival, HaRaKa and ARC.HIVE for dance research. After the decline of Nasser’s national culture project, “we are left to navigate and contend with all these structures that have become obsolete,” he says.
Center stage, a young brunette speaks softly
“It is strange to consider, but recently I have sort of become an institution myself,” says Anne Breure, recently appointed director of Het Veem Theater in Amsterdam. She had earlier described how, as a post-graduate student, she transformed the University of London apartment she shared with five others into an pop-up art gallery by the name of Flat 34, in an attempt to hijack existing structures and figure out how to shape them differently.
Her acknowledgement of her metamorphosis into an institution seemed a reluctant admission of defeat. Silence prevailed. The one Egyptian Ministry of Culture employee in attendance had long since stormed out of the discussion.
The lights dim
ACT 2: Getting more creative
Enter stage left, a brown-haired middle-aged woman
“We have to ask ourselves, who funds the ‘independent’ arts in this part of the world?” says Laila Hourani, Ford Foundation’s program officer in Cairo. “The funding comes mainly, sadly, from foreign entities.”
With the current political environment in Egypt increasingly suspicious of, and hostile to foreign funding of local activities, we need to ask ourselves, can such a dynamic be sustained?
Enter stage right, a short-haired middle-aged lady
“You can’t be complacent about sources of funding … You have to get more creative,” says the British Council’s Cathy Costain, who pauses a few seconds before adding, “But having said that, I don’t know how exactly you get more creative.”
This is a sentiment much-echoed by Egyptian performers. Local non-governmental sources of funding are practically non-existent, with the exception of a few notable initiatives such as the literature-oriented Sawiris Cultural Award. But securing local funding for this most ephemeral of art forms has proven more difficult. Ticket sales can’t cover production costs and pay salaries.
One prominent organization that helped channel in foreign financial support for performance art in Egypt recently halted operations in the country, further straining the existing funding model. Those still operating are funded by a handful of European countries’ governmental organizations. Glancing at the back of the flyer advertising this discussion event, I see that this conversation about lack of funding could not have taken place without funding from Dutch, Austrian, German, British and French entities, to name but a few.
Enter stage right, a brunette with her hair pinned up
“But what are you Egyptians doing to become autonomous?” asks Tunisian dancer and choreographer Malek Sebai. Then, turning to the Europeans present: “And maybe your role is no longer just to fund — maybe your role now is to talk to governments, to convince them to change their cultural policies.”
There are glimmers of hope in alternative models (crowd-funding is an obvious, but not very sustainable model) and in a gradual recalibration of power dynamics, but there is clearly confusion about what that recalibration should look like, with artists like Sebai calling for both less and more involvement from foreign entities in Mediterranean countries’ art scenes.
Laila Hourani reenters with a rebuttal
“[Local] service organizations, Mawred, the Young Arab Theater Fund, Arab Fund for Arts and Culture — they’re not just sustaining the same dynamic anymore,” says Hourani. “They are trying to influence cultural policy. Arab service and re-granting organizations now sit at the same table with foreign donors.”
But if sitting at the same table were enough to reach a consensus, we would have seen that happen in the DBM meetings days ago…
The curtain slowly draws on another intriguing but less than fruitful conversation
ACT 3: Choosing a language
Enter a pleasant-looking woman with her hair up in a bun
“Either you have a heritage and tradition of dance in your country, and that creates a problem, or you don’t and that creates its own challenges,” says Zeynep Günsür, a Turkish dancer and choreographer.
Enter stage left, an older woman with graying hair
“Yes, but it is my right as a human to go to another country and to look and research and find what I need,” says Claudia Heinle, artistic director of Tanz Raum.
Heinle has been coming to Egypt for almost two decades, researching traditional dances and using them as a basis for contemporary choreography.
Just as Egyptian contemporary dancers are criticized for adopting a type of dance endemic to the Western dance tradition, Heinle says she faces skepticism from European counterparts for having dedicated her artistic practice to an Eastern tradition of dance.
Enter Adham Hafez
“But traditional ballet is a dance form that emerged from a very specific western socio-economic condition,” says Hafez. “Why should it be used as the basis for all modern or contemporary dance?”
Fair question, which would take a more in-depth look into colonial practices and the resulting structures of cultural hegemony. But for now let us concern ourselves with more practical questions.
Can Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham or Pina Bausch be used as references by Egyptian dancers? Can Reda Troupe’s mix of ballet and Egyptian folk inspire European performers? Is cultural appropriation a sin, or the new de facto practice?
Enter Karima Mansour
“I keep reminding my students, this is a language that you will use, but you need to appropriate it yourselves,” says Mansour.
I can’t help but feel I’ve heard this all before — in a documentary about DBM’s history screened on the first day of this gathering.
Then, as now, we listened to heated trilingual arguments taking place many years ago on the role contemporary dancers should play in developing artistic environments, on what it means to be an artist from “the South” as a condition and not just a geographical region. Then, as now, practitioners of an overlooked art catering to a niche audience sit in closed rooms and talk at one another, in an effort to come to some consensus on what purpose it should serve in this region, if any.
“We need to define a position,” says a Tunisian woman in one scene. “Contemporary dance in relation to what? For us, what did this contemporary dance disrupt?”
The debates in the film are interspersed with shots of men reading newspapers on trains, pushing wooden carts piled high with burlap sacks, menial tasks that contrast with the lofty nature of the conversations. The filmmakers seem to have taken an honest and critical look at the work of DBM, recognizing that while the dialogues center on urgent matters in the realm of dance, they are far removed from the day-to-day realities of people in the countries DBM targets.
Does that mean the art form shouldn’t be practiced here? Is it too inaccessible to “average” audiences? Who are these audiences we concern ourselves with? Should art even aim to be relatable to the “masses”?
“In Egypt, there is a requirement that the artist addresses society,” says a younger Karima Mansour in another scene. “If there is a common goal or enemy, the audience is interested. If you don’t have that, you lose them.”
Final Act: Appropriating the appropriate
There are no common goals or enemies at the final event of the gathering, a showcase of performance works in progress by CCDC students. But there are other, equally undesirable traits: overwrought emotions mixed with stale motifs of existential suffering and social pressure.
In one particularly unpleasant piece, Eshra Solb (Hard Shell), a solitary female performer struggles in a dazed state to untangle herself from the black shroud enveloping both her and the box on which she sits. She runs her hands all over it to discover a hole in the fabric, above her crotch, which she proceeds to poke at and explore. We then begin to hear terrifying noises coming from the box, otherworldly groans and moans that evoke both violent birth and gruesome prolonged death. A human form crawls out of the box and its contorted face presses against the fabric as it continues its unbearable cries. Its hands emerge from the fabric’s hole, and after a half-hearted struggle the woman surrenders and is pulled in through the hole, after which they both fall sharply to the ground. The end.
I clap along with everyone else, partially out of appreciation for the performers’ efforts, but mostly out of relief that it’s over.
I find myself straining to find within the pieces a convincing application of Mansour’s earlier comments, that her students are taught a language of contemporary dance and encouraged to “appropriate it for themselves.” Are these mishmashes of theatrical tropes the result of this appropriation process?
Judging by the performances, I start to become convinced that contemporary dance as a medium and language is only suitable for the expression of dire, urgent and tortured emotions. Two pieces prove me wrong.
Agui Y Alli (Here and There), a whimsical treat choreographed by Libertad Pozo and performed by Mohammed Yousry and Ahmed Azmy, who are real-life friends, is light-hearted piece full of facetious banter, seemingly heartfelt friendship and almost slapstick aesthetics. The duo walks offstage after ending their performance with a high five. I am refreshed by this surprising turn of events.
Then, Front and Back, choreographed by Hend Samy al-Balouty and performed by Balouty and Nermin Habib.
“Thank you for all your diseased heritage,” a voice booms out as the two women, dressed as the archetypal Egyptian woman (bride of the Mediterranean, wife of the Nile, call her what you will) with long dark hair unkempt, flowing against sea-blue dresses, dance. They dance a mixture of traditional oriental gestures and more jarring contemporary movements. They flash contrived stewardess smiles as they swing their hips and shake their shoulders at the audience. Their movements become more frantic, increasing in speed and intensity until they become completely farcical. The women shake and jump and swing and spin, rolling out all the moves they should, all in quick succession, until we begin to feel they are being held hostage in these gestures, trapped in these traditional forms.
Here lies the performance’s brilliance: What we have discussed has been said more eloquently by two women in nine minutes of choreography than it was said by several dance practitioners over the course of five days.
Mansour told us she wanted her students to be able to say, “I believe in these forms, but I’m not stuck in them.” Front and Back has taken that, turned it on its head, and said, “I do not believe in these forms, but I am stuck in them.” But I don’t necessarily want to be, and I won’t necessarily be stuck in them forever.