x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ballet in Egypt enjoying an unexpected resurgence

The Cairo Ballet Company languished in the doldrums after Anwar Sadat severed ties with the Soviet Union four decades ago, but has enjoyed an unlikely renaissance in recent years, writes Mona Abouissa

A ballet class at the Cairo Opera House. JD Perkins for The National
A ballet class at the Cairo Opera House. JD Perkins for The National

Eight men in black tights turn on command and stare as I enter their studio. Their attention makes me blush. Together they cross their hands behind their backs and bow before their instructor Safwat Mohamed demands their attention once more and they shift their collective gaze away from me.

"Get ready for the move!" Safwat commands, "the studio under us must hear your sound!" They lift their legs and crash their toes against the floor again and again.

It takes military discipline to become a ballet dancer, but these men also know, of course, that only the very few will make it to the Cairo Opera House stage at the end of their nine-year programme at the ballet academy.

A gigantic Russian doll hangs by the entrance, dusty and red, to let those who enter know that the Soviets were here. Egyptian instructors mix Russian with French, "assemblé, e pliée, e jeté". Many speak Russian; the older generation learnt while studying ballet in Moscow, the younger learnt from their elders. Pianists from the collapsed Soviet Union say it is like a little version of the USSR here.

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"You might think I am mad," says Aleya Abdel Razek before wandering off to find her en-pointe shoes, which are as old as the ballet itself in Egypt. "I danced my graduation part on the Bolshoi's stage wearing these shoes. I used newspaper to wrap around my toes, there is still newspaper inside."

The daughter of an Egyptian military pilot who served during the reign of the monarchy, Razek was one of the first ballerinas to travel behind the Iron Curtain in 1963.

In the post-war years, Moscow sought allies in the Middle East to challenge the United States. After the end of the monarchy in 1952, the new Egyptian government formed an alliance with the Soviets for economic and military support. During the Nasser years, many young Egyptians studied at Soviet universities and military schools while Soviet experts travelled to Egypt.

The Egyptian ballet was born amid Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser's arms deals when, in 1958, Dr Tharwat Okasha, Egypt's culture minister, approached the Soviets and asked for assistance.

The Russians sent Leonid Labrovsky, the Bolshoi's former director, to Cairo to establish an academy. Five Egyptian girls and three boys were selected to study ballet in Moscow for two years.

Those eight young dancers became the pioneers of Egyptian ballet. Behind the Iron Curtain, isolated from their Russian classmates and monitored by the KGB, the young dancers lived a kind of dream at the Bolshoi.

Meanwhile, from 1958 to 1963, the ballet academy in Cairo took shape and became part of the Higher Institute of Art. Academic and dance studies were combined. The system continues to this day. In the mornings, the children dance in tights and afterwards change into yellow uniforms and attend classes upstairs.

In 1966, the first ballet production, The Fountain of Bakhshisarai, was staged at the Royal Opera House. Based on a Pushkin poem, a Polish princess, Maria, is kidnapped by a lusty Tartar prince. She is killed by Zareema, the prince's wife, who then commits suicide. Aleya performed Zareema. It remains her favourite role.

Okasha called Nasser and asked him to see the production. The next day he saw it and presented orders of merit to the soloists and organisers. Aleya's award hangs on the wall across from her father's medals.

When the Cairo Ballet Company was formed, it became the only Arab resident classical ballet company in the Middle East.

Then, one morning in 1971, the 800-seat Royal Opera House was engulfed by flames. Some speculated that it was a political attack on then-president Anwar Sadat. Whatever caused its destruction, a multi-storey car park would eventually be built in its place.

The following year Sadat severed Soviet ties just before the 1973 war, which ended with a ceasefire between Egypt and Israel. Without Soviet management, the academy kept losing dancers, who fled to Germany, the USSR and the US.

Meanwhile, Ala Shiveleva was studying at the University of Theatre Arts in Moscow. "When Sadat deported Soviets from Egypt, our Egyptian classmates were literally sitting on their luggage in classes, ready to be deported at any minute."

Japan later funded the construction of Cairo's new Opera House in 1988, and the company returned to the main stage. Twenty-five years later, Ala and her Egyptian classmates are together again under one roof at the Cairo Opera House, training a new generation of dancers.

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"Marina, la música por favor!" instructor Jose Chavez tells pianist Marina Davlionidze. Jose came from Cuba and Marina escaped from the USSR before it disintegrated in 1991. "Con la música, uno, dos, tres." Jose taps his hip, Marina hits the piano keys, and dancers creak the floorboards.

The troupe consists of 85 dancers, mainly Egyptians and Ukranians, Russians and Spanish.

For some dancers who are bred on Russian discipline, Jose's Cuban technique is unusual. Later Jose tells me, "the [Egyptian] dancers have energy, forsa, but no disciplina. Ballet is disciplina, no disciplina, no ballet."

Unlike Jose, Erminia Kamel, the troupe's artistic director, is strict and precise during rehearsals. It was difficult for the dancers to adjust to her attention to discipline when she took the post in 2004, "but they slowly digested me," she says laughing.

In a studio back at the ballet academy, a 33-year-old soloist pulls boys by the hair, splits their legs and arches their backs. Hany Hassan himself was pulled by the hair when he was young in the same studio. "I want them at the end to dance on stage, I must know from the way one dances, is he happy or sad, dying or alive, sober or drunk."

Hany's first stage appearance in Cairo's Opera was in Don Quixote when he was 12. Later, Hany, the son of a military officer, moved quickly to lead roles in classics such as Zorba the Greek, Romeo and Juliet, Spartacus and Swan Lake. He knew he must excel. Not all had Hany's luck and potential; many of the graduates fall victim not only to their limitations, but also to the limited places available at the only ballet company in Egypt.

Since 2011, Hany has produced Rasputin, the story of the infamous "holy man" whose ability to heal the Russian royals made him the supreme mystic at the court of Emperor Nicholas II. He was poisoned, shot, beaten, wrapped in a carpet and drowned in an icy river. "I can put all my experience as a dancer in this character." Hany was drawn in by the character's complexity, and the parallels with the current religious and political climate in Egypt.

By the end of the sessions, the studio is hot and smelling of sweat and menthol from muscle cream. The dancers take turns doing arabesques, pliées and pirouettes again and again. They grab their chests to draw breath and wipe off beads of sweat.

The audience sees them striding gracefully in their beautiful tutus, but don't see the sweat or blisters, nor hear their lungs gasping for air. Hany says every movement conveys a dancer's experience of how to save energy. "It is difficult - every day you do the same thing over 150 times."

As she wraps her red toes with plaster, soloist Ekaterina Ivanovna says: "It needs patience and a strong will to really, really love ballet. It is not about wearing beautiful tutus."

Mona Abouissa is a documentary journalist covering the Middle East and is based in Egypt.