On 14 and 16 May, the Cairo Opera House audience was treated to a unique performance by Ballet Mimbipa, a troupe from Paraguay. They performed a selection of the country’s folk riches. Colourful dresses, lovely polkas and pulsating galopas were showcased alongside the traditional Paraguayan harp, the peacock fight and the bottle dance. All added to this musical and visual profusion from the heart of South America.
The arrival of the troupe to Egypt paralleled an important national date: on 15 May 1811, the Paraguayan people gained their independence by overthrowing the Spanish administration. It was the perfect occasion to introduce this distant culture to the viewers.
The troupe performed one of its typical shows titled Paraguay Omimbipa. The Mimbipa Ballet is the brain child of choreographer Sussy Sacco, also the founder of the dance academy, Academia de Danza Sussy Sacco.
“The idea of the troupe goes back to 1971, when I worked on my first dance project, the National Folkloric Company which I headed until 1981,” Sacco explains. “It was later on, in 1998, that drawing on my experience, I established the Mimbipa Ballet, with the word mimbipa meaning ‘brilliant’ or ‘luminous’ in the Guarani language,” an indigenous language of South America.
While immersed in Paraguayan folk traditions, the Mimbipa also reaches to the elements drawn from other Latin American countries: Brazil and Argentina, for example; occasionally it adds its own jazz components. The troupe’s main home is the Academia de Danza in the capital, Asuncion. Mimbipa does not have its own stage, performing only when invited by the many hosts.
According to the programme notes, previous performances of the troupe included extensive shows in Paraguay; they also participated in the many folklore festivals held across South America, and made a few visits to Europe. The Egypt performance came after Mimbipa’s show in Dubai in the course of the company’s first, small tour of the Middle East. Sacco recalls the troupe’s largest tour. It took them to France where within 40 days they gave 55 performances. “The tour included a multitude of street shows bringing Paraguayan folklore to 22 French cities,” Sacco proudly remarks, adding that the troupe also performed on the 2010 International Day of Cultural Diversity, at celebrations organised by UNESCO in Paris to commemorate two centuries of some Latin countries’ independence.
The Mimbipa Ballet includes a total of 40 dancers, yet the group that arrived in Egypt numbered 23 dancers, the majority of them women. The show is characterised by dynamism and sheer joy in art emanates from each routine performed.
The programme notes present the troupe as consisting of “Paraguayan dance professionals and students”, but I found out from Sacco that all of the dancers have other jobs with the academy presenting an additional hobby that they nevertheless pursue all their lives and practice to perfection. A few conversations with the troupe members reveal that many of the young women are graduates of Paraguayan universities: an architect, a psychologist, a German language teacher... What connects them is their passion for the dance and their country’s folk gems.
“Sussy Sacco has a great ability to bring the best of our traditional material to audiences worldwide, without undermining the folk authenticity,” so comments one of the dancers, who joined the academy when she was still a child.
And, indeed, the Mimbipa Ballet company performed some of the iconic routines drawn from their country’s folk reservoir to recorded music, mostly by the Municipal Band. The show included four segments, two in each half, each interspersed by a short performance of a small music ensemble.
Among several routines was the bottle dance: the performer balances a series of bottles on her head, one on top of the other, as she progresses with her show. Eventually the number of bottles reaches 14.
Another routine showcased Paraguayan patronal feasts where religious fervour is celebrated with dance and music. The routine brought to Egypt’s audiences the sounds of nature while groups of men and women danced together in appreciation of creation.
And another routine included a captivating cockfight, yet another iconic element of Paraguayan culture. The patriotic accents emerging in the segment entitled “Rhapsody to My Land” presented men dressed as soldiers coming on stage to the sound of horses and trumpets.
In some dances, the performers also sang. This particular element should have been either technically improved so it gains definition and becomes clear to the audiences’ ears or dropped to avoid the murky sounds coming from the stage.
In the singing department, the evening was nevertheless embellished by Paraguayan musicians, a quartet consisting of three guitars and the country’s traditional diatonic harp.
Paraguay musicians, Mimbipa Ballet, 16 May 2014 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Held by the performer in a standing position, Paraguayan harp is an emblematic element of the country’s traditional music, recognisable instrument in other folk traditions of the South America. The combination of harp and guitar is among the iconic formations of the region, and it no doubt generates a unique and splendid flavour. Topped with musical virtuosity, the ensemble was no less impressive than the colours of the dances performed by Mimbipa.
The parts showcasing the musicians would have been just perfect had they not been disrupted by the obvious technical hiccup of the loud sounds a fog generator’s struggling to exhale smoke, almost rhythmically accompanying one of the softer songs.
Though the evening included a multitude of breathtaking elements, the choice of stage probably restricted the bubbling energy of the Paraguayan routines. One wished the show had been performed in a more relaxed setting in the open air, which would have provided a better framework for the material at hand. The Cairo Opera’s Open-air Theatre, or — even better — the Midan Theatre erected in front of the Hanager Arts Centre, would have underlined the folk vibrancy and created a more effervescent link with the audience, an element characteristic of folk shows.
A different setting would also have avoided the problems resulting from insufficient knowledge of the location’s lighting design. The performance relied mostly on Fresnel lanterns projecting beams of light from the top of the stage. Though this frequently practiced in the performing arts technique gives a unique atmospheric haze, it needs to be well balanced with front lights so the performers do not end up with their faces hardly visible. This technical glitch might have not be an issue were the whole show been undertaken in a different setting.
To the Egyptian audience, the folkloric wealth of Paraguay is not well known; we can hardly recall any artistic showcase of the country presented over the past years. The audience therefore does not have a reference point at its disposal and has to reply on the host’s choice, believing it will present the most characteristic and artistically commendable option supported by equally strong technical ability.
One should applaud the important step of introducing such a distant culture to Egypt, however. The sampling of Paraguay’s folklore was especially inviting... Hopefully the next few months will bring about more opportunities allowing us to explore Paraguay’s artistic wealth in more depth. A better technical presentation can certainly make this journey among the most memorable initiatives on Egypt’s cultural scene.
Check Photo Gallery from the performance here
This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly