Al Darb Al Ahmar school: Transforming communities with arts

Marwa Morgan, Monday 20 Jul 2015

The new performance Balalika by Al Darb Al Ahmar Arts School testifies to the big development that the school went through since it's inception five years ago

Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School performs Balalika (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Children and teenagers line up on the stage, spotlights add warmth to their bright costumes, their smiles brighten up their faces. They move in pride greeting the cheering audience.

This is how the students of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School walked down the stage of Al-Falaki theatre on Sunday 19 July, after giving their show, Balalika. The theatre was filled with almost 200 people of different age groups, despite the Eid holidays.

Musical performances, juggling balls, a clown show, dancing with ladders and bicycles, tabla (percussion instrument) performances, Balalika featured a diverse list of performances that left the viewers mesmerised for a whole hour.

Approaching the craft with professionalism, the show started on time, unveiling a group of well-trained performers with each showcasing a captivating confidence, despite their young age and the risk that some moves involve.

But the relationship between the children of Al Darb Al Ahmar and stage has not always been that smooth. The story of this group of young performers goes back to the establishment of El-Genaina theatre in 2005 by Al Mawred Al Thakafy (Culture Resource).

Located in Al-Azhar Park, the theatre faces Al Darb Al Ahmar, an economically underprivileged neighbourhood, a fact that proved to be a challenge for Mawred when introducing art activities in the area. 

Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School performs Balalika -- percussion (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

“The children of Al Darb Al Ahmar threw stones and acted aggressively towards El Genaina theatre,” explains May Mostafa, programme coordinator at El Geneina Company, a new body in charge of El-Genaina theatre, since early 2015.  Mostafa recalls days when Mawred had to find a solution to reach out to the neighbourhood.

“The idea for the school came up as a way to engage these children in a cultural activity,” Mostafa explains.

To serve the neighbourhood children exclusively, in 2010 Mawred decided to establish Al Darb Al Ahmar Art School with cooperation from Agha Khan Trust for Culture, an entity in charge of Al Azhar Park and Al Fanar Foundation, 

Although Mawred stopped all its activities in Egypt in November 2014, the school and the musical activities of El Geneina theatre have continued under a newly established company, also called El Geneina. The young students continued to be trained by professionals in respective fields of circus arts, brass instruments and percussion, all offered to them free of charge.

Since the inception of Al Darb Al Ahmar Arts School, around 150 students are enrolled in the school annually.

"Every two years, a group of students undergo an evaluation process that tests their skills, and then some of them graduate," explains Mostafa.

"In 2013, 36 students graduated from the school for the first time."

Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School performs Balalika (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

Throughout past few years, the students have performed in more than 30 shows in several countries.

In 2014, a two-week workshop by STOMP trainers from the UK gave the students an opportunity to boost their skills and participate in the troupe's performance at Falaki Theatre.

Earlier in the same year, a new theatrical performance, Lost and Found, showcased the skills of the school to audiences at Falaki and El-Genaina Theatres.

The students also joined other artistic events and participated in the 2012 edition of Cairo International Circus Festival (CirCairo) that was organised by Mawred on a biannual basis. In 2014, Al Darb Al Ahmar School gave an opening performance for the 4th Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children, held at Hanager Arts Centre.

In addition to helping the students develop an appreciation of arts, the school offers them a way of earning a living and opens a door for future employment opportunities, through the exposure it offers them.

“I had nothing before I joined the school,” said Donia Sami, 19, one of the percussion students in the school, “now I have a life- I have ambitions and aspirations.”

Sami’s dreams go beyond the school performances. She hopes that her dreams will come true, thanks to the school and her family, which have been very supportive and proud of her.

“There are not many women tabla players in Egypt,” she said. “This is why I want to become famous, so more women can play.”  

Donia Sami, 19, plays tabla. Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School's performance of Balalika (Photo: Marwa Morgan)

The general supervision and production of the balalaika performance is headed by Khawla Abu Saada, with artistic supervision by Basma El Husseiny.

The trainers include: 
brass and other wind instruments, Mohamed Youssef and Ahmed Ismail; 
percussion, Ahmed Ali and Shams Salem;
 Circus Arts, Adel El Bahdaly and Hussein Abou El Lail;
Singing, Bilal El Sheikh.

Balalika will be staged again on Monday 20 July at Falaki Theatre, 24 Falaky St., Downtown.

Dates of further shows are yet to be revealed.

A night of percussion and circus with Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts school

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