On 4 December 1966, Magda Saleh joined Abdel-Moneim Kamel and Diana Hakik to perform a first-ever fully Egyptian cast ballet at the Cairo Opera House. The performance was immediately well received. The following day then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his spouse Tahiya Abdel-Nasser arrived to watch the performance.
“It was so glorious. I mean, the first day when we were all Egyptian dancers on the stage. That was really beautiful. Then the president and his spouse came to attend the performance, which was really encouraging,” Saleh recalled almost 53 years later to the day.
Saleh was performing Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, a two-act ballet inspired by a poem by 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The ballet tells the story of the agony of a warrior who falls in love with a princess he has enslaved and who later dies at the hands of a jealous palace mistress.
By 1966, Saleh had already attended the Ballet Institute, part of the Art Academy that the state had launched in the late 1950s as part of its commitment to promote art and culture. She had also come back with four other prominent dancers, including Kamel and Hakik, from extensive training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.
“It was a great moment for the arts and culture in Egypt. The state was really committed to throwing its weight behind the launch of young artists on all fronts, and of course given the close relations that Egypt then had with the former Soviet Union, which was very prominent in this art, there was very close cooperation in ballet. We as dancers were very enthusiastic and were prepared to represent Egypt all over the world,” Saleh said.
But before taking off to perform to the rest of the world, as she did later to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet and other leading companies, Saleh joined a pioneering group of dancers that went to Aswan in January 1967 to perform the same work at a new cultural centre set up by the state.
“When I learned that we were going to Aswan to perform, I was not sure what kind of reaction we would get. I thought we had been successful, in fact very successful, in Cairo, given that the capital was attuned to this kind of classical art,” Saleh recalled.
On the opening evening in Aswan, Saleh was anxious about the reception of the work. “We were there dancing, and there was no reaction whatsoever from the audience. It felt almost as if we were performing to an empty hall. We were all aware of this, and it was not at all comforting,” Saleh recalled.
Towards the end of the first act as Vaslav, the fiancé of Maria, was trying to protect her from being captured by the army of Khan Geiri, one member of the audience shouted out in praise of the bravery of the devoted lover. When Vaslav lost his life trying to defend Maria, and Khan Geiri tore the scarf that Maria was hiding her face behind having been mesmerised by love, the audience in the hall started to signal its “incredible acclaim”, however.
“It was really very moving, for me and for everyone else,” she recalled.
What was special was that the applause for these young dancers also did not come from an audience familiar with classical dance, but from one that appreciated “the beauty of the art even though it might not have been familiar with ballet at all,” she said.
Culture and the Arts
Saleh is certainly aware that the appreciation of art and dance has been an integral part of Egyptian culture since the time of the Pharaohs.
“We are a nation that throughout history has created and celebrated art and culture. My concern at that time, however, was the very specific nature of classical ballet. But my fears were proven wrong because clearly the beauty of this art was what ultimately resonated with the audience,” she said.
A couple of evenings later, Saleh got what she called “the most magnificent words of appreciation ever.”
“We had just finished our performance, and I was standing backstage with my Russian instructor to review a few things. I then turned to see a typical Upper Egypt peasant with rough and firm features. I was not sure what had brought him to the stage or what he really wanted. In fact, I was not sure how he had come to the show. But when I asked him what he wanted, he said ‘that was so very beautiful madam, really so very beautiful,’ and then he just walked away,” Saleh recalled.
Fifty-two years later this incident is still able to bring tears to her eyes. And also 52 years later, Saleh was again in Upper Egypt to attend a celebration given in her honour at a ballet studio launched a couple of years ago that carries her name.
In Minya on the last weekend of November, Salah was there with some 40 girls aged between five and 13 and their parents for what she said was “the most beautiful demonstration of appreciation of ballet in the very heart of Egypt”.
She said she was “almost mystified with the beauty” of the city and the people and of the little ballerinas who gave her “a truly beautiful reception”.
“As I arrived, I was greeted by one of the ballerinas who offered me a single rose after doing her pas de bourrée, and then she walked me through an entrance flanked with beautiful young ballerinas each offering me a single rose and finally taking me to be seated with a whole full bouquet in my hands,” Saleh said.
At the Alwanat Centre for Arts and Culture, a newly established art centre for children, Saleh spoke to an audience of parents “who came not just from Minya, but also from other nearby governorates to bring their daughters to attend the ballet training offered by trainers who travel from Cairo to do so.”
Saleh offered the Alwanat Centre a gift from her own collection in the shape of a doll of Kitri, the leading female character in the ballet Don Quxiote, that was made for her in 1971, her last year at the old Opera House in Cairo that was later burnt down. It was made by her customary tailors, who also gave her three photographs of her performing Giselle, her favourite ballet, and Bakhchisarai’s Maria.
In Minya, Saleh spoke to the “audience that was so warm” about the history of ballet and encouraged them to keep on giving their daughters the chance to learn and perform. Then a girl “who must have been six years old or younger came to hold my hand as I was speaking. She bowed very beautifully and took my hand and gave it a little kiss. I bowed to kiss her and to wish her good luck. Maybe one day she will be a beautiful and acclaimed ballerina,” she said.
Saleh is aware that the chances of this little girl, or for that matter any of the young girls who attend the increasingly fashionable ballet classes in Cairo and Alexandria, might be slim of ever going beyond the level of amateur dance.
“I think these classes are doing a great job by offering young girls a chance to get some elementary introduction to the world of ballet. But to move on to the professional level there needs to be a whole different type of training, one that is a lot more intense and a lot more academic,” Saleh argued.
Having served in the 1970s as the head of the Ballet Academy in Cairo, Saleh is well aware of the limitations of the academy. The limitations of the budget and of the outreach campaigns mean that it has a limited ability to attract potentially talented dancers, both girls and boys.
“Obviously the country has gone through a sad phase of excessive conservatism whereby the appreciation of ballet might have receded a bit, so there needs to be more outreach to regain the interest of possible dancers,” Saleh said.
She argued that the media should play a role in this, adding that Egyptian TV had once broadcast ballet performances when it had an elaborate programme for this type of art and for the other arts.
Saleh, who was the first director of the new Cairo Opera House that was inaugurated in the late 1980s, said there needed to be more opportunities for young people to have affordable access to opera performances, including ballet and other forms of art.
“Getting people to be more familiar with the arts is essential,” she argued.
However, ultimately, there also have to be subsidised schools for potentially prominent dancers. “This is part of the success story of the Bolshoi in Moscow, for example. They allow the young boys and girls to be fully immersed in the culture of the ballet and to do the required extensive training,” she said.
The promotion of the arts and culture, Saleh argued, was one of the big success stories of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. She referred to all types of art and mentioned stars or divas whose names are still living on.
“This generation could end up being just a faded memory of the beauty of the past, however. What matters most is not the past but the present and the future,” Saleh said.
In the memoirs she is hoping to write in the US with her Egyptologist husband Jack Josepherson Saleh is planning to tell the story “not just of an incredibly supportive mother and father, but also of a state that championed the arts and artists wholeheartedly.
“I will never forget the first day we performed Bakhchisarai in December 1966, and the then minister of culture, Tharwat Okasha, was so moved that he was in tears. Nor can I forget Nasser’s happiness when he saw a performance by all Egyptian dancers. Those were glorious moments, not just of personal accomplishment but also of national accomplishment,” Saleh said.
This interview was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly, in December 2019