Backstreet Festival: A roundup of Alexandria’s cultural jamboree

Ati Metwaly , Sunday 29 Apr 2018

The fifth edition of Backstreet Festival which took place between 12 and 16 April brought Egyptian and international troupes to Alexandria

Backstreet Festival

The spring season in Egypt is not accompanied by changes in nature we know from countries in cooler latitudes; there are no leaves sprouting on the naked branches of trees and no little flowers covering the emerging loan carpets. If the transition from winter to spring is noticeable, then it is more so in rapid changes of temperatures, sudden winds, the occasional rains followed by blue skies and the annoying visits of sand storms. Each year this repetitive state of affairs makes us wonder and question the metrological surprises, despite the fact that they always come at the same time of year.

But what makes Egypt’s spring unique is the tendency of cultural players to start peaking out of their office windows, to see large audiences awaiting the artistic events they have been preparing for several months. In Egypt, March and April are festival months with each targeting large sectors of the audience and delivering satisfaction to numerous viewers.

The Hakawy festival for children, D-CAF, India by the Nile, the Season of the University Theatres, the Jazz Tales festival, a sizeable number of often overlapping film festivals and many more events bring arts and culture to several cities.

Ann Droid
Ann Droid performance (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

One unique, multidisciplinary event is the Backstreet Festival (12-16 April) whose fifth edition filled Alexandria with an assortment of films, clown performances, circus arts, creative visual technologies, puppets, music and even zar at all kinds of indoor and outdoor, unconventional locations across the Mediterranean city.

The events took place at several venues: the Jesuit Cultural Center, the Saint Gabriel School, the Lycée Français, the French Institute of Alexandria, the Spanish Consulate and the Teatro Eskendria.

But it was not the number of venues and their geographical spread that allowed the Backstreet Festival to reach a large audience but rather the intelligent programming which included valuable and accessible events that drew viewers to the performance locations.

Founded and presided over by Mahmoud Abo Doma, an Egyptian playwright and stage director, the festival is an extension of all kinds of theatre-focused activities he has undertaken. In this endeavour he is joined by his daughter, Amina Abo Doma, the festival’s co-founder, artistic director and curator, who is passionate about arts and art management.

Mahmoud Abo Doma
Mahmoud Abo Doma, fonder and president of the Backstreet Festival (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

“We launched the festival after the revolution,” Mahmoud Abo Doma recalls, reminiscing about a time when he was working at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where he established the Creative Forum for Independent Theatre Groups with Europe and the Mediterranean countries as a focal point.

“Around the same time and after 12 years of serving the Bibliotheca, I resigned. I also left Alexandria University where I had taught at the acting and directing department. I wanted to become independent and use my skills, knowledge and connections for this purpose.”

Abo Doma established Teatro Eskendria, a coffee shop and cultural space which soon embraced the artistic scene of Alexandria. The profit-generating entity has since become one of Alexandria’s important cultural hubs and a nucleus for other creative activities, including the Backstreet Festival.

“The months following the revolution saw a large number of theatrical productions that spoke of the events in Tahrir. What I felt however was that they all lacked the depth and perspective that comes with time. At the same time, Egyptian contemporary theatre had its own problems. Taking all these factors into account, I realised that bringing joy and laughter to people through theatre was what was needed the most. And I am not talking about silly or pointless laughter but laughter that comes with an idea, that has educational, social, cultural or even political idea hidden within its artistic layers and coloured by creative irony. Isn’t comedy one of the oldest art forms and irony, which started with Aristophanes, comedy’s best backbone?” Mahmoud Abo Doma asks.

Amina Abo Doma
Amina Abo Doma, co-founder and artistic director of the Backstreet Festival (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

The Backstreet Festival was launched in 2011 as a biannual event, its slogan “The Joy Project”. As the motto suggests, the festival aims to bring happiness to audiences while introducing educational and developmental values to regular viewers and the artistic community.

Despite her huge load of responsibilities, Amina Abo Doma’s cheerful disposition reflects the positive vibes the event awakens in the community. As she sits in Teatro Eskendria chatting with the people around her, her energy is contagious.

“We wanted to spread joy through quality arts,” she briefly sums the festival’s original mission explaining that in the months following the revolution, the organisation of street events was hampered by daunting governmental regulations and the inability to obtain the necessary permissions, especially in Alexandria. This fact has shifted the festival’s activities to semi-outdoors and unconventional spaces.

“It was also very risky to hold events on the streets even if we got a permit; it could always be easily cancelled a few hours or days later. We were obliged to tweak the festival’s idea a little bit,” Amina explains, enumerating locations such as the French Institute’s yard, the open area within the Goethe Institute, school playgrounds, etc.

Lemon Squeezy Quartet
The Swedish a cappella Lemon Squeezy Quartet (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

“I have no time or money to lose. My fight will not be around working on the streets against all odds but rather to work on a valuable product in the best possible way while ensuring that people are interested and enjoy it,” Amina Abo Doma clarifies.

Amina herself enjoys many art forms and has practiced a few of them. An English literature graduate, her main interests lie in arts and music which she also studied in a professional manner, playing violin.

“Maybe it is the influence of my home and my dad, I don’t know. What I know is that art has always been my passion. I practiced a variety of different artistic activities and you might say that I am like a jack of all trades, master of none. But if you look at the positive side, you will find that exposure to many art formats has allowed me to understand the dynamics within. Such knowledge is important for an artistic manager,” she explains.

Indeed, Amina Abo Doma’s well-rounded experience in creative activities helps her with curatorial and managerial responsibilities and gives her a broader perspective on what she wants to achieve through the festival and how it can benefit society at large.

The first edition of the Backstreet Festival took place in October 2011, followed by a second edition in October 2014, then in March-April in 2015, 2017 and now 2018. Each edition featured shows alongside workshops or masterclasses and round table discussions. The duration of the festival is usually four-seven days; this year’s edition is five days long.

Cinema Paradise by ‘To R Mansion' (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby

The festival opened with Fault Line, the Urban Projections performance from British multimedia artist Rebecca Smith and Ann-Droid by Hungarian Band Art, both held within the Jesuit Cultural Centre. The following day, 13 April, included Magical Mystery from Germany, Easy Peasy by the Lemon Squeezy Quartet from Sweden and Egypt’s Asyad Al-Zar, moving the audience from the Jesuit to Teatro Eskendria’s intimate performance space in the basement.

The third day, 14 April, saw Time Traveller by Belle Etage (Austria), Cinema Paradise by ‘To R Mansion” (Japan), and the T.N.T. Show by Las Cossas Nostra (Spain). The highlights of the final days included To Have or Not To Have by Dutch Tam Tam Theatre , Pss Pss by Compagnia Baccalà (Switzerland) and Al-Sakia Puppet Theatre from Cairo among others. There were also film screenings.

The Swedish a cappella Lemon Squeezy Quartet was a new artistic format that added a fresh musical touch to a festival that focuses on the performing arts; it also gave the audience an opportunity to explore art that is rarely practiced in Egypt.

Lemon Squeezy Quartet, which was formed in 2010, is a very popular ensemble in Sweden with an established name across Europe. It won several awards for its varied repertoire, which takes in Elvis Presley and the Swedish Men’s Choir.

Tam Tam
To Have or Not To Have by Dutch Tam Tam Theatre (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

“I am happy we’ve introduced music to the Backstreet Festival,” Amina comments, revealing more of her interest in music and passion for contemporary theatre.

“In theatre I always search for tools that are accessible to all audiences regardless of their level of education or theatrical awareness, and this is what I hope to bring to our audience. Elitist art that speaks to a small number of viewers is not among my first choices. I also have a passion for circus arts so it is natural for me to want other people to fall in love with it too,” she laughs.

The duo Simone Fassari and Camilla Pessi, from Compagnia Baccalà (Switzerland), were undeniably the stars of the festival. Pss Pss, the show they presented, is the winner of many international awards. A captivating combination of virtuoso circus arts embedded in theatre and pantomime, where skills meet human emotions and an enormous dosage of creativity, since 2008 Pss Pss has been performed over 700 times in over 50 countries. No wonder it left the audience breathless and led to an endless shower of ovation.

Other shows incorporating light circus arts were the T.N.T. Show by Las Cossas Nostra (Spain), which relied on audience interaction and Cinema Paradise by “To R Mansion” (Japan).

Street performance
Interactions with the passersby (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

The four characters in the latter fused comedy gigs with high imagination, playing with concepts of time and space at the Saint Gabriel school yard, referring to scenes from well-known international films in a manga art framework and a burlesque extravaganza. While at many points the scenes were nonsensical, they nonetheless preserved a high sense of art and creative accomplishment justifying the popularity of the show across the world and its festivals.

With many highly artistic components, it is a pity the shows could not be performed on the streets since several of them would’ve benefited from interaction with passers-by. This was compensated for especially by the Saint Gabriel school yard where a small group of viewers gathered round the performers.

On the other hand, however, locations such as Jesuit Cultural Centre, the Teatro Eskendria or French Institute had their halls filled to the brim with viewers standing to the side whenever possible.

In its fifth edition, it is clear that the Backstreet Festival has already established itself as one of the most important artistic events taking place in Alexandria. In the next few years it will hopefully capitalise on those gains while continuing to provide Egyptians with high quality and very accessible art.

Asyad Al-Zar
Asyad Al-Zar from Egypt (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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