Define your generation here. Generation What
In conversation: On 2B Continued and performing arts in Egypt
 
 
Hend El Balouty's Shadow of a Fish - Courtesy: Mostafa Abdel Aty
 

Mada’s Rowan El Shimi and artist Hanaa Safwat sit down to talk about this year’s three-day 2B Continued festival and lab, which presented to the public last weekend. They discuss the three performances — two contemporary dance shows and one play — and then zoom out to look at some issues affecting non-state-affiliated performing arts in Egypt today.

Rowan El Shimi: 2B Continued creates very specific parameters for shows, including timeframe and format. I felt the artists were working within this framework rather than working on how to make a text more interesting or deliver it in a new way.

Hanaa Safwat: To be honest, when you read the text about the festival, that it helps artists produce their own shows and production grants, it feels condescending. The truth is many people know how to produce their own shows and how to manage things. What’s not really available is the opportunity to show works to audiences.

Of the people showing this year, choreographer Hend El Balouty is a relative newcomer to the scene, but Sherine Hegazy has been active as a dancer and choreographer since 2008, and she’s also an engineer, so she’s more than capable of efficiently producing shows, while Hani Sami has many plays under his belt and earned a postgraduate degree in film in France — also very capable. Maybe what’s missing is mentorship, feedback and engagement. If 2B Continued is a lab, they should pick people much younger, really at the beginning of their careers. It’s not Sherine or Hani’s fault, because 2B Continued is one of the few opportunities to use a real stage and have financing to do your performance properly.

RS: But 2B Continued has two layers. There’s the mentorship for the directors, who are mentored on developing the artistic side of their performances. But the real training is for workshop participants — the crew working on the stage, lights, costumes and sets.

HS: All these elements were fine in the performances. My issues were mainly with the directing and artistic content. It is a great opportunity for technical crews but I wonder where the mentorship is if I feel the performances are not self-aware or missing something.

The play Hani Sami directed felt too familiar. Working with an existing text [The Newcomer (1966) by late Egyptian playwright Mikhail Roman], one should be aware that it has been done before, who has done it, in what context and why. I felt this awareness was not present. But the play didn’t feel inaccessible. The text was fine — overly dramatic perhaps, even though it’s very simple. The struggle is between the lines, and that’s why absurdist plays are interesting — the tension is subtle, it’s not shouted out, people don’t talk about land or martyrs, they try to remember names, they’re confused.

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2B Continued

RS: I think you have a more critical eye because you have a background in practicing dance and theater. Even though I agree with you that we’ve seen this type of work before, I felt that countering the absurdist were too many details about the characters, so it was confusing whether they were anonymous or whether I should know their backstories, whether the narrative drama was important. It was unsure what it was trying to be. It felt a bit rushed and didn’t give the audience much context, although I did like that the text was from the past yet we realise how we’re still in a similar position — there was a lot of relevance there.

HS: I agree. The character is skeptically questioned right in front of us, about whether he belongs to the hotel, and he keeps shouting that he exists. That’s probably why the director chose this text. The truth is, as long as you live in a society, absurdist plays will be relevant.

What did you think of Hend El Balouty’s dance piece, Shadow of a Fish?

RS: I really felt it. The way they created the routines of the first dancer and the other three and how these collisions were happening in a very systematic way. Sometimes in a predictable manner, sometimes unexpected. I personally related to it very much, whether in the context of my own life or looking at our generation’s lives in the city with this sense of feeling trapped, the need to achieve the best and compete, and self-criticism. I felt the play visualised it and created movements cleverly around it.

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2B Continued

HS: I saw Hend’s performance a year ago during the Cairo Contemporary Dance School show Front and Back where she and Nermine Habib were belly-dancing. This time she was doing something different, with a very different process. An abstraction happened, I think; she constructed an idea in her head:  “What if you tried to be a fish?” First a fish in the sea, happily swimming, then a fish in a tank. The movements of the fish in the tank are almost mechanical. She used it as a wide-brushstroke metaphor for something. I thought it was really interesting. Also, it was very well cast. Each dancer’s strengths and qualities worked totally in the position they were in.

I did have a problem with how they threw out the fish from the buckets at the end, because the title of the show asks if I want to be a fish, and now I know that I don’t want to be. They gave me the answer. Conceptually it could have been different.

RS: I always look at a contemporary dance performance in terms of how it resonated with me and how I related to what the choreographer and dancers were doing. This performance was very deep in terms of how it affected me, and it was also very interesting to watch them be fish, the way they related being a fish in a tank, with people watching you, to being human, living in a society that’s watching you. Also, aesthetically, it was interesting to watch the stage split in two — with things happening on each side of the stage.

HS: I’m excited to see what Hend will do next.

RS: What about the third performance, Sherine Hegazy’s Ya Sem?

HS: First we should mention that this was the audience’s favorite. I haven’t seen a standing ovation and that amount of clapping in a very long time. The performance is extremely entertaining. We start with four women, dressed in beautiful dresses, drumming. They’re gorgeous, very strong attitude and presence. People are glued to them. The percussionist, Sabrine al-Hossamy, is amazing at what she does — not to mention the simple fact that she’s a woman drumming.

But I was disappointed that it was so didactic, so extremely straightforward. It expressed an anger everybody felt because they care about the issue of sexual harassment. As for what it means to really change and what this show calls for, in terms of social and political structures of family and sexual relations, would anyone really do it? I don’t think so. Not everyone. In a show calling for action, “let’s all go down” (when they all held sticks) — when it comes right down to it, after all that applause, who is willing to reflect on their own misogyny, change it, face their families, other men, the judgement of society? Who are the people carrying the sticks and against who? It didn’t ask those questions.

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Ya Sem

RS: I didn’t feel that part was a call to action or change. The show started out quite soft, with beautiful dancing, very sensual and positive. They were all happy, and performing swiftly. The lights went off, and we heard catcalls and harassment, then they come back with the sticks. I saw it as a commentary on how women develop anger due to daily social pressures and the various layers of harassment they face. Also these sticks are more typically used by men, so when they use them it signifies a shift in gender roles and there’s a certain aggression that takes place in the second half of the show.

HS: It would have been more powerful if the performance examined the fact that everybody cheered, and the truth is that we all know that most people we know or we have met are misogynists who don’t have any problems with other forms of sexism. Their problem with street harassment is that it’s not classy or that it’s a pain.

It didn’t address the reasons harassment exists, and it was not self-critical in terms of all of us as women and the audience, who felt they’re 100 percent with them and clapped and went home happy. We should all go home and feel humiliated, that we should do something critical, examine ourselves and how we each contribute to the general structural misogyny in the world rather than cheer for women holding sticks and dancing.

But I give this show a lot of credit because it was so good to watch. These women are very strong and charismatic in real life. I wanted more though. And the set of hanging frames was flat. The language of putting women within a frame shows that the thought process was one straight line — “I want to do something relating to women’s bodies and harassment and then place them in a frame.”

RS: Is your problem in how it was designed or that they used frames?

HS: Both. I had a problem that it was flat and the metaphor of frames being very direct.

RS: But the show itself is very direct. That’s what they were going for. They’re dealing with a topic everyone in the audience could relate to in one way or another. Maybe if they had not done the bit in the middle with the catcalling, we wouldn’t have related it to harassment per se. It was clear from the very start that the show was about gender, but sexual harassment was introduced later — then came the batons showing anger, followed by them dancing in the frames society places for us and stepping out of them. Bullet points: 1,2,3,4,5. That was one of the reasons it got a standing ovation. Everyone in the audience understood what it was about, was entertained and enjoyed it.

HS: I personally enjoyed it very much. But when I want to talk about work I want to talk about it from a critical point of view. I agree that people got it and loved it and had a great time just watching it, which is something that’s missing from a lot of contemporary dance. It’s always either something you enjoy but isn’t intellectually engaging or vice versa. Sometimes it’s neither. We have to give it credit for that.

RS: Also, even shows that are straightforward, perhaps even simplistic, have a role to play in building audiences for contemporary dance. The audience has been growing in the past four or five years but it’s still very limited. If someone who is not very familiar with contemporary dance saw Sherine and Hend’s performances they would relate more to Sherine’s, even though Hend’s is also quite accessible.

HS: It’s not always the artist’s job to entertain. Maybe an art form wants to engage, and that is something missing from a lot of work. And engage a larger audience. But the audience also has work to do. I know so many people are skeptical about contemporary art in general and they want to believe it is bullshit. So no matter how much you do as an artist, you can’t get someone who’s doubting your intentions and what you are doing to come and take you seriously. They are coming with prejudice.

There are two reasons why the audience has grown: the performances have increased and the audience has been doing a lot of work. They come, they’re curious, they stay for the Q&As and ask questions. But we shouldn’t assume the audience is stupid and needs to be coddled. How long do we coddle for? When do we decide that the audience is ready to see something a little less direct? I think one has to think about the audience, but not in terms of, “Will they get this work or not?” It has been proven over and over, if you offer something of quality and it is complex, there is a response.

RS: There needs to be a mixture of both. It’s not like everyone will do this or that. You want the audience to grow, but you want to give the existing audience new things, challenge them and keep the conversation going. Both happen simultaneously according to the vision of the director and the type of work they want to produce. Different shows have different audiences. It’s not like “the audience” is this static group of people moving together in a herd.

HS: You’re right. All of it is necessary. And it’s really important when we talk about 2B Continued to talk about the underlying circumstances of producing performance art right now. There’s very little funding and only two non-governmental spaces you can really perform in: Falaki and Rawabet. Rawabet isn’t ideal because it’s not very well prepared — there’s no space for a set or large number of performers. But it’s cheap to rent, they support you and it’s a very good place to have with its limitations. Falaki is well-equipped but less accessible.

It’s hard to build audiences if I’m performing in apartments or public spaces. It won’t get as many people as 2B Continued, which hosted a full house each of its three nights. And Contemporary Dance Night is now discontinued. There are few opportunities to show work, get feedback, fail, succeed, try again, build experience. So it’s hard to sit here and be disappointed or heavily criticize them because we know they don’t have the chance to work on their stuff. Most performers only get to work on one show a year maximum, show it two or three times, and that’s it. We have to contextualise people’s work when we criticize it.

The Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (which I have been working with) is always struggling with funding, even though it’s the only center in the region for training contemporary dancers full-time. There is also very little critical engagement with the work being done, whether talks, writing or educational programs, so a lot of these artists do work and feel like they are throwing it into a black hole. It’s frustrating.

RS: I imagine also that 2B Continued choose according to the set criteria and from the proposals they get, and those with more experience are likely to have more solid proposals. Under 35 can include people who have an extensive careers already. But it also probably tries to choose people it trusts to deliver quality performances. The lack of opportunity almost forces a festival like 2B Continued, which is meant to be for emerging artists, to choose the usual suspects.

HS: People can’t afford to take risks. You have to deliver to please funders. And growth has a ceiling here. After a certain point, an artist has to go abroad and get support for themselves.

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Hanaa Safwat 
Rowan El Shimi