x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

They had a dream

Dance Behind the scenes of a new music and contemporary dance tribute to the life of Sheikh Zayed.

Abdel-Halim Carcalla and his son, Ivan.
Abdel-Halim Carcalla and his son, Ivan.

The story of Zayed and the Dream, a dance and musical production that will be shown at Abu Dhabi's ­National ­Theatre from ­today until Thursday, is a tale of two great men, both ­intent on fulfilling their goals ­regardless of the obstacles in their paths. The first of these men was, of course, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the father of the UAE and the great man to whom this extravagant piece of dance ­theatre is a tribute. But behind the scenes of the ­production is ­another ­dreamer: ­Abdel-Halim Caracalla, the ­founder of ­Lebanon's Caracalla Dance Theatre. He defied the limitations ­imposed by his region's political ­circumstances to bring his ­vision to fruition. From its founding in 1968 (just three years before the ­establishment of the UAE), through civil war and devastation, Caracalla kept his company dancing, even as Beirut burnt. This ­determination to overcome all odds - and the ­almost exact ­contemporaneity of the UAE's and the dance ­ ­company's existences - is ­perhaps why the Caracalla Dance Theatre, the only ­professional dance ­theatre in the ­Middle East, was such a clear choice for the Abu Dhabi ­Authority for ­Culture and ­Heritage (ADACH) when it sought to celebrate the life of Sheikh ­Zayed this ­National Day. The production is also a ­family concern. ­Caracalla's daughter, ­Alissar, is Zayed and the Dream's choreographer. Meanwhile, his son, Ivan, is the production's ­director and co-writer, along with his father, three Lebanese ­poets and two ­Emirati poets. In a rare lull during the ­frantic rehearsals taking place at Abu Dhabi's ­National Theatre, in an ­office ­between the desert stage set and the ­glittering ­costumes, Ivan begins to outline the unique achievements of his father. "What caught world recognition is that even during the war we were performing, not just in Lebanon but in Paris, in London at Sadler's Wells, in North Africa, at Washington DC's Kennedy Center," he says. "On the news all you'd hear was ­terrorism and war, and here you had a company trying to give another image of Lebanon and the Arab world. "When we started, the studio of the company was our home: at night in our sitting room, we moved the sofas and this was our studio. And then my father's ­company grew, and he formed his ­little studio, in Beirut, which was completely bombarded over seven times. "And I mean that it was ­completely destroyed - the floor, the glass, the doors. Each time he rebuilt it. It was at the crossroads between the Christian side and the Muslim side of the city, and he just kept rebuilding and rebuilding. I think it's this incredible willpower inside him of continuing his message, his dream. "While different religious ­factions were fighting on the streets of ­Beirut, Caracalla had all the ­different faiths represented within the company. We always had a cultural identity, never a religious or ­political identity. Really he also became like the father of these children. The company is his family." Ivan Caracalla employs the same language - father, family, willpower - in his discussion of the plot of Zayed and the Dream, this time imbuing his words with the sort of reverence reserved for legendary figures of history. "It was a big challenge for us to take on this production, especially as you're talking about a personality from the era in which we have lived. If you take Alexander the Great or one of the great stories, ­nobody who has lived in that time is in the ­audience, but here you're actually performing to an audience who called Sheikh Zayed their ­father - and truly he is their father. During the research we did, we were ­overwhelmed with the great personality of this man, the great leadership, the care he had, and the ­political power he had to unite seven different tribes." Nicole Hill / The National That this production is not simply an all-singing, all-dancing ­narrative about the creation of the Emirates, but an exploration of Sheikh ­Zayed's extraordinary character, is a tribute to the Caracalla family's ­erudition and their internationally cultured lives. Abdel-Halim grew up in Baalbek, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, home to those great ruined monuments to the lost power of the Roman Empire and, more recently, to the Baalbek International Festival. Here, in his youth, he watched the likes of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev dance, he heard the music of Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald and he made the decision to train with the revolutionary choreographer Martha Graham in New York and at the London Contemporary Dance School. "You cannot not be inspired by such people," says Ivan. "He was immediately struck that this was what he wanted to do and he left for London against the will of his family and of all of the town, to study dance - it was like, 'What are you talking about?' A young boy from Baalbek going to study dance is just out of the question." Abdel-Halim also discovered the works of Shakespeare, which have been a perennial inspiration for his productions, from A ­Midsummer Night's Dream to The Taming of the Shrew. He has passed on this ­passion for the Bard to his son, who says that, regardless of their ­European origin, the tales of ­Shakespeare have a universal ­relevance - and even influenced this production. "It's overwhelming, taking ­inspiration from a man who is a hero, a hero of civilisation, in whose time you have actually lived," he says of the challenge of immortalising Sheikh Zayed on stage. "If Shakespeare was living in the time of Zayed, today on our shelves we'd have a play by Shakespeare called Zayed. His ­personality and ­character are timeless." The production of Zayed and the Dream eschews a chronological plot for a more metaphysical scenario in which the childhood Sheikh Zayed is ­nurtured by seven horsemen, each ­representing a ­virtue (honour, courage, justice and so on), until he grows to ­embody those values and becomes the man capable of bringing together the Emirates. But why such an esoteric ­approach? "We did research with many of his acquaintances - ­people who were by the side of Sheikh ­Zayed, people who travelled with him the whole time - we went to the deserts and to the people, and once we started talking about the achievements of Sheikh Zayed and we finished the script, it dawned on us that this looked like a documentary. "As a result, we put aside the whole script, which was just called Zayed, and prepared a new one. We called that The Dream. We wanted to talk about the man, about the person, about the child who grew up in this society, about the child who became a young leader, a young leader who became a great ruler, the great ruler who became a father. This build-up is just incredible, theatrically." Embodying the meeting of East and West that has been a ­favourite theme of literature for centuries, the ability of Sheikh Zayed to show a suspicious West that Arabia could have a peaceful, civilised face ­without losing its identity or culture was, for Caracalla, one of his most important achievements and his most lasting legacy. "The young people who are ­leading Abu Dhabi today are in their high-rise offices, connecting with the world, but in the evening they take their car and 20, 30 minutes away they go back to their roots - they put their feet in their roots in the desert. That's not just about honour and pride, but it's also such a powerful identity that ­ really I think is the driving force ­behind the ­Emirates and behind Abu Dhabi. "At the end of the production, ­after Sheikh Zayed [played by ­Yasser Massri] unites the people, the finale is about celebrating the Emirates. We wanted to give the idea that the whole world today is coming to Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi is going to the world. So we have the participation of the Beijing Dance Theatre, of a Spanish company called Carmen Cantero, we have a local Emirati heritage company, and a Russian dance company too. This gives the idea that Abu Dhabi today is a hub - a social hub, a cultural hub and an educational hub, that's spreading its wings like a falcon around the world. This production is ­supposed to have a world tour, under the name of ADACH and Caracalla. We are very proud, as Arabs, to be able to portray such an Arab leader." To encompass all of this in the form of dance may seem a near-impossible task, particularly in a culture in which dance has not traditionally been a ­formal ­discipline. However, there can be no group of dancers better ­qualified to accomplish this task than Caracalla's ­ensemble. Hailing from both Lebanon and abroad, the ­permanent company of 50 ­rehearses six days a week, performance or no performance, and the ­associated dance school teaches 900 Beirut students. "When you say dance in the Arab world you're usually talking about cabaret or belly dancing, you're not talking about a dance company or dance theatre," acknowledges Ivan Caracalla. "We don't have the ABC of dance - you have the spirit and sometimes the mind in dance, but you don't have the language - so we had to find discipline for the body. My father was a Martha ­Graham student, so this was really the ­discipline on which we built our identity - the Oriental identity. This created a ­balance of the three main things: the body, the mind and the spirit." Nicole Hill / The National

To encapsulate the vernacular dance movements of the ­Middle East within the parameters of ­contemporary dance language could easily be a metaphor for the social and political movements and the aims of Sheikh Zayed's Abu Dhabi and the Emirates - ­retaining an Arab identity within a modern world. But Caracalla has been as ­concerned with portraying the essence of the man as with the theatrical spectacular. "The incredible simplicity Sheikh Zayed had was one of the main themes of our production, and his relationship with the desert, with his people, with the Bedouin, with the horses, the falcons, the environment - it's incredible how much care he gave to the issues that were connected to his own ­social environment. "All of this has a lot to do with his own identity. And my father has been a great, avid researcher for the last 40 years, going to the deserts, to the Bedouin people and observing their traditions: how they get married, how they dress, how they welcome their guests, how they put up the tent. "For example, when a Bedouin is on his camel, he adapts to the movement of the camel." ­Caracalla moves his arms sinuously to ­represent the up-down motion of a camel. "Then he starts singing a tune that goes with the camel. When he's on his horse you have the horse-singing. When he's ­fishing or pearl diving it's completely different." Abdel-Halim Caracalla's dedication and sense of purpose have driven his company through stormy times, and Ivan admits that he is in awe of his father's persistence. "Like a salmon he has been ­swimming upstream, against the current, all his life. I think it's ­something that my sister and I could have never done. But now it's our responsibility to progress on it, to find which is the best way to ­continue our cultural message - not just as a family entity as it is now but even after we're gone." A sentiment of which that great progressive Sheikh Zayed would ­undoubtedly have approved.
gchamp@thenational.ae