A festival for contemporary dance in public spaces — this is how one describes Nassim al-Raqs (A Breeze of Dance), which just took place in Alexandria between April 16 and May 3 for the fifth consecutive year. Born after the 2011 revolution, but planned before that transformative point — which is considered as the most important transition in Egypt’s contemporary history and this century’s most significant collective visual action in the Middle East — it engages citizens on Alexandria’s streets with an art form Egyptian society is unaccustomed to. Yet European cities more open to art in public spaces would still have found it unusual.
What are public spaces? And what is contemporary dance? These questions will not be answered here, but left for the accumulation of practices and the dynamics of the struggle between cultural actors and artists on the one hand, and the monopoly of authority (political, social, moral and religious) on the other.
Nassim al-Raqs opened with a performance directed by Karima Mansour. One Day… How Long is Forever? was performed in the hallway of the Damenhor Carpets Company on 49 Fouad Street, a passage between old buildings in downtown Alexandria. The audience lined up on the steps on each side of the empty space. A white-skinned European performer could be seen dressed in contemporary clothes the colors of official military clothing, specifically those worn by soldiers during war. She wore high boots, also army-inspired.
The dancer started to take wide steps, drawing the borders of her dancing space. Her movements were sharp. She delineated a large square, setting the boundary between herself and the audience. She started with a few simple moves, mostly using hands and torso. The image slowly became clearer. She was embodying the character of a soldier, or someone off to war.
Then, to a background of classical music, which usually accompanies ballet dancers, the strong violent dancer started performing classical moves from Western ballet, even as she still retained the soldier character. If the performance was divided into parts, this dancing scene was a transition to the second part.
A French children’s song then played, with a translation projected onto the wall. This pre-recorded song brought a diversity of sounds and voices to the performance. In addition to the child’s singing, one heard a strange metallic sound, reminiscent of alien creatures in sci-fi films or serial killers in American horror movies. At this moment, the dancer lay on the floor making sudden movements. These too were inspired by the movements of soldiers at war: crawling and fighting in the trenches, avoiding barbed wires and mines.
How long will this day be, the performance asked — how long will these eternal fights last? It seemed to be about the culture of war that grows with us, like children’s songs. We recall such movements in playing times and we recall them in moments of hatred. The performance was a challenge both in form and content: Perhaps strange and complicated for an audience of passers-by on a street attracted by the commotion, but inevitably leaving them with questions around the right of those to stir action on the street and the spaces of their engagement with them.
The second performance took place in a previously unexplored public space, in the Hano shops in Alexandria’s central, smaller Mansheya district, which leads to the older residential districts. We walked from Raml Station to Mansheya, a commercial area of interaction between social classes and a transport hub for the yellow tram and microbuses.
The Hano shops are located in an old European-style stone building, one of the remnants Alexandria’s early-twentieth-century architectural heritage. The three-story building was nationalized in the 1960s and is now owned by a public company.
We gathered in front of a shop window in which male and female dancers stood like mannequins. We gathered as a theater audience, not as shoppers eager to grab one item or another. After 10 minutes in which we stared at the silent opening scene, a smiling flautist appeared. It seemed as if he was bringing the mannequins to life with his magical tunes. An old and repetitive image, but not crude in its conventionality: The flute’s beauty and the dancers’ simple movements provided an exit from the conventional, stereotypical image.
We then moved inside the huge building. The dancers settled in a square area where carpets were laid out for them to sit. We didn’t know if we were going to stare once again at the silent dancers, this time as they were seated. Soon enough an English voice declared into a loudspeaker, such as those used lately in markets, protests and gatherings, that you could touch a dancer, prompting him or her to perform. This was a good entry point for a dance performance, after which the dancers began moving from place to place in a previously choreographed plan.
They ascended and descended the stairs followed by the audience and by contemporary music of which the guitar and the flute were the only distinct sounds — the flautist was always part of the scene. If it hadn’t been for this strong, well-employed music, the audience could have easily lost interest in the dancing and continued shopping. The dancers’ performance was great, but exhausting and out of context, for in a place full of electronic devices, clothes, desks and linen, it was restricted to a limited dance floor.
This was the work of Austrian choreographer and director Christian Ubl, apparently fascinated in a superficial way with the place and thus presented his idea with poor artistic means and the most direct of methods. Probably the most significant element was how the Hano employees gave way to the dancers as they moved up and down the stairs, for they had witnessed the final rehearsals. I don’t know whether these were assigned roles or if they had volunteered to do this, like how those performing Eid prayers or nightly Ramadan prayers volunteer their roles, performing their actions mechanically, unaware.
Did they grasp the message behind the performance? That contemporary dancers suffer because no one else understands the importance of dance? This is what Ubl said about the performance in a TV interview for Art is an Address, Egypt’s only non-state TV program about the contemporary culture scene. He said that when he came to Egypt he found the contemporary dance scene very limited, so directed a performance asking how much you’d pay for dance, and what the value of dancing is.
These are my impressions about the dance performance titled Collective Eulogy, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh. Sabbagh was killed during a peaceful memorial sit-in for the January 25 martyrs near Tahrir Square. She was from Alexandria, the hometown of Khalid Said, who was killed by police and whose death famously led to the mobilization of protests in public space (the internet, streets and the media.) Sabbagh’s death, which took place hours before January 25, 2015, was similar to Said’s — but the context was dramatically altered.
These are some of the thoughts in my mind watching Collective Eulogy. It was choreographed by dancer and theater director Mohamed Fouad, who lives and works between Alexandra and Paris. Fouad is a friend of Sabbagh’s. He had quickly responded to his friend’s killing through a flash mob in Paris’s Place de la République on January 29, 2015. Hundreds of thousands had gathered at the same square a few months earlier after the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and artists.
Fouad reincarnated the most famous photo of Sabbagh’s final moments, which shows her falling down as a friend held her by the waist. In Paris, the performance illustrated the photo: a kneeling man holding someone else by the waist to keep them upright. Some of Fouad’s friends and other concerned people in Paris had participated in this artistic and very visually effective sit-in. The images spread on the internet and consolidated Sabbagh as an icon in our minds.
In Fouad’s new performance in Alexandria, at the Sea Scout Club, he created a ritually expressive scene employing the audience, some dancers, the sea and a boat between two wooden bridges stretching into the water. In a solo dance on the boat, Fouad focused on holding on to emptiness. His body imagined the posture of holding on to Sabbagh’s absent body. He held onto the emptiness as if he could see her through an invisible layer between two worlds: that of the living and that of icons.
Nearby a group of dancers started to deconstruct Sabbagh’s last photo. It was as if we were following still cadres of Sabbagh as she fell. The audience was distributed over the two bridges, which formed the two sides of a theater; they held flowers in their hands as they watched. The fourth wall led you to believe that the audience might only consist of one person. It could be Shaimaa al-Sabbagh.
Fouad then dropped his flower in the water, and so did the viewers. This was how the performance ended — with those who held the flowers, and those who dropped them.
Happening was performed after Collective Eulogy, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh. It was directed by Karima Mansour and the students of the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, which Mansour founded after the 2011 revolution. The performance took place in the main street overlooking the sea. We left the Sea Scout Club and gathered on the pavement there. After a few minutes female dancers climbed onto the fence, with their backs to the sea. Each carried an ice-cream cone. They were silent, their stares fixed. They stayed that way for around 10 minutes. People started to gather around this strange scene, staring at the perfectly still women holding ice-cream cones.
Then a man appeared, using a tissue to clean up the ice-cream dripping down the dancers’ arms and wrists, one after the other. After a while, another young man appeared doing the same thing, then a third, until each performer was accompanied by another wiping ice-cream from their wrists. This was all performed at a pace more akin to slow motion than dancing — which is a divergence from the concept of dancing if dance is a quick complex motion accompanying a musical composition. The female performers climbed off the fence and were replaced with male dancers. The performance ended when the male performers climbed off too.
It was classified as live performance, specifically a “happening.” This art form and term appeared in the late 1950s and established itself in the 1960s. Among its most important practitioners was Joseph Beuys. It is an art or incident closely associated with the idea of slow time and the effect of time on an action. It is associated with the use of the body and the motions of simple human actions. It intends to engage the audience by slowing the pace of the original incident, causing boredom, forcing the audience to engage in minute details, as was the case with this performance.
Perhaps it would have had more of an effect if it had been performed in a quieter space. It was a challenge for the loud street to have these bodies without everyday protection mechanisms, especially the bodies of the female dancers holding ice-cream cones with dignity, as if they were monuments.
The final performance was site-specific, under the wider title of the week’s events: Composition and Movement. Two Egyptian dancers (one male and one female) and two Moroccan dancers participated. It was developed by the French group Ex Nihilo, which has specialized in street dances since the late 1990s.
We headed to Kom al-Dikka from Fouad Street. Kom al-Dikka is a densely-populated area overlooking Alexandria’s Roman district. We stood in front of an empty space where construction material was laid out. The first solo started. A dancer gave a fascinating performance, interacting with everything around him: yellow sand, cement, wooden ladders and collapsing fences. All this took place to the muffled noise of French and English songs coming from a transistor radio hung on a wooden wall.
Another dancer appeared. He performed on an two-meter-square area in front one of the old building’s doors. Next to him was an electronic guitar. He plucked a sharp chord, then danced until it ended. He moved to another and created a new dance to suit the length of the note.
Later the third dancer appeared. She led us to a different space. Most of the dancing there focused on the relationship between walls and floors. These performances were followed by another solo on one of the slopes of Kom al-Dikka, which looks like a small hill overlooking Alexandria’s most upscale neighborhoods. The movements of this dancer, a Moroccan, looked like they stemmed from a particular body composition and way of dancing — he was a hip-hop dancer like his colleague.
Each dancer’s solo followed the other. The Egyptian dancer Shahd’s dance was simple and captivating. She danced in the empty space between the two parts of a door of an old building. The dance was very simple, mostly engaging the head and torso. There were no difficult movements that relied on fitness. The movements were quite soft. But her dancing appeared like a filmed scene of someone trying to escape the captivity of the beautiful old door. She entered and exited as if tied to it, literally and metaphorically.
All this took place with the audience and some residents following the dancers from place to place. Sometimes children interfered in the scene by imitating the dancers. The presence of the guitar and guitarist Khalid Qadal assisted in justifying the presence of the dancers on the street, falling down and jumping high at times, attracting attention. Because of the music, some assumed it was just the work of a street music band. The performance ended by exiting Kom al-Dikka through the main street, where the dancers danced in front of the statue of Ismail al-Mufatesh, a powerful minister under Khedive Ismail.
I might call this performance “creators of Arabic forms.” It involved a high degree of skills and unity. All participants were aware of the meaning and vocabulary of dancing in the street, most importantly interacting with the streets, their moral codes and social compositions, fathoming their pace, whether sharp, slow or fast. It doesn’t matter if you break some of these codes and create new, even incomplete, forms — but they have to be honest and original, as honest as this everyday street.
Photography: Yasmine Hussein