INTERVIEW: Cairo Opera Ballet's artistic director on busy season, performances in Bahrain

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 19 Mar 2016

Artistic Director Erminia Kamel talks about the Cairo Opera Ballet's Company busy season prior to their yet another international appearance at the National Theatre of Bahrain in Manama

Cairo Opera Ballet Company
Cairo Opera Ballet Company's artistic director Erminia Kamel [C], performances of El Leila El Kebira at the Cairo Opera House, 2010 [R & L] (Photos: Sherif Sonbol)

Since the the beginning of 2016, it has been all hands on deck for the Cairo Opera Ballet Company.

The moment the company concluded its performances of Tchaikovsky’s demanding Swan Lake -- staged eight times between 22 February and 2 March in Cairo and Alexandria -- it immediately plunged into preparations for upcoming international commitments.

On 17 and 18 March the dancers performed at the National Theatre of Bahrain in Manama.

Shortly afterwards, two of the company’s first dancers, Ahmed Yehia and Anja Ahcin, will perform a scene from the Romeo and Juliet ballet during the closing gala of the International Ballet and Contemporary Dance Competition Domenico Modugno in Bari, Italy (18-21 March 2016). On their travels, the pair will be joined by Erminia Kamel, the troupe’s artistic director, who has been chosen as a guest of honour of the same competition.

Shortly after these international appearances, the company will be involved in four Cairo performances of Verdi’s Aida (28 March-1 April) before it moves onto rehearsals for the complete Romeo and Juliet in mid-April.

“Those are extremely dynamic weeks for the whole company,” Erminia Kamel asserts, hastening to add, “The ballet dancers are happy when they are busy, they concentrate on their work and keep in shape.”

Speaking to Kamel a few days before the company's departure to Manama, we learn that "This is the first time we are going to visit Manama and perform at the National Theatre there. This wonderful modern edifice emerges like a beautiful bird from the water,” Kamel described one of the more important cultural gems in the Arab region.

Inaugurated in 2012, the theatre’s interiors resemble a boat with white, shell-like staircases and a wooden interior. The theatre includes a large hall with walls and balconies covered in wood and a 1,001-seat auditorium reflecting The One Thousand and One Nights. The small hall, which accommodates around 300 people, can rotate according to the needs of the performance. The theatre is located in the vicinity of other artistic venues, including the National Museum of Bahrain.

“The company was invited by the Bahraini Minister of Culture, Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, who was particularly interested in our production of El Leila El Kebira,” Kamel explained. El Leila El Kebira has been in the company’s repertoire since 2001. One of the most important musical works of the Arab world, composed by Sayed Mekkawy to poetry by Salah Jahin, it is to be performed as Abdel Moneim Kamel adapted it, replacing puppets with live dancers.

“The duration of El Leila El Kebira is 45 minutes only. As such, I suggested that we should add other numbers to stress the variety of the repertoire performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. So our Manama performance will also include a short Pharaonic dance which is in a semi-classical style, an adagio from The Nile ballet by Omar Khairat, the short ballet Oriental Steps, based on Attiya Sharara’s second violin concerto, as well as the pas de deux from Le Corsaire. The last piece, though from a classical ballet, has an Oriental element in terms of dance and costumes, so it should be very interesting for the audience in Manama,” Kamel added.

Over 30 dancers participated in this ambitious endeavour. Yet, as Kamel pointed out, this was not the first time for the company to show its strength outside Egypt. Over the past years, the has company visited many countries, putting on performances in a wide variety of venues from European cities to North and South Korea, Beijing, India, South Africa and Arab countries.

“Sometimes we travel as a whole troupe, at other times in smaller ensembles. At times we are invited, at other times we take part in a cultural exchange,” Kamel continued, enumerating countless international appearances, many of which took place prior to the January 2011 Revolution. 

She also explained that on many of those journeys, the company is asked to perform something that would represent Egyptian traditions. “Of course, the company specialises in classical ballet, and it is this dance that we mostly perform in Egypt. It is natural however that the international cultural institutions would like to see something evocative of our country’s culture. Our international repertoire includes dances that are scented with the fragrance of Alexandria, Nubia, zar and other cultural specific traditions.”

From Bahrain, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company will move to the International Ballet and Contemporary Dance Competition, Domenico Modugno. The Egyptian Ahmed Yehia and the Egypt-based Serbian ballerina Anja Ahcin will perform a segment of Romeo and Juliet during the competition’s closing gala. Now married, Yehia and Ahcin have been dancing together for almost a decade and have presented numerous iconic duos already engraved in Egyptian hearts. Romeo and Juliet is among their most remarkable works, in which they fuse skill and the power of ballet power with a highly emotional performance. The Bari international ballet competition is held annually with the aim of promoting and encouraging young talents in the disciplines of dance and choreography. 

Kamel expresses her satisfaction with the company’s international commitments as well as its strong presence on Egypt’s cultural scene. It seems that the troupe is returning to the dynamism that characterised it prior to January 2011, when international travels were the company’s daily bread. The period 2011-2013 was probably the most difficult in the troupe’s history, with the revolution leading to the departure of many foreign dancers and a sense of instability reigning over the Egyptian cast.

In February 2012, Abdel Moneim Kamel, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s creator and “spiritual father” as many saw him, passed away, leaving a void in the hearts of the dancers. Then came the months dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, with Salafist MP calling ballet the “art of nudity” and severe budget cuts all creating additional concerns about the company’s future and impacting the dancers’ morale. It was in mid-2013 that the company began regaining its strength.

“Today the situation is much better,” Kamel explained. “All Egyptian dancers have regained their confidence. We also managed to add five new foreign soloists to the troupe: two from Italy and three from Japan. Since September 2015, they have already performed Coppelia, the Nutcracker and Swan Lake, whether as soloists or supporting the corps de ballet. Today, I am very satisfied with the whole company. Soon I will also hold auditions for new dancers in Italy.”

Kamel adds that, as the Cairo Opera Ballet Company started attracting international dancers again, she is returning to cooperations with other choreographers. She concludes by stressing the great cooperation with all the trainers “who act like one unit and without whom I wouldn’t able to achieve all this. Little by little we are going back to the days of the company’s glory.” 

This interview was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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