Erminia Kamel on 'Zorba', the Cairo ballet season, recent troubles and future hopes

Ati Metwaly, Wednesday 18 Sep 2013

Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, discusses the ravages of recent political events on the troupe and expands on the upcoming season's challenges to overcome

Erminia Kamel during the rehearsals for Swan Lake, March 2011 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Inaugurating the Cairo Opera Ballet Company's new season, Mikis Theodorakis' ballet Zorba graces the Cairo Opera House for three consecutive nights, from 24-26 September.

Ahram Online talks to Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, about the upcoming season's plans, and challenges.

Ahram Online (AO): Why did you choose to inaugurate the 2013-2014 season with Zorba?

Erminia Kamel (EK): Performing Zorba ballet as the first work of the 2013-2014 season was a special request from Mohamed Saber Arab, the minister of culture, and Ines Abdel Dayem, the chairperson of the Cairo Opera House. It was a very logical decision. We were supposed to perform Zorba in July, as the last element of the previous season, but it was cancelled due to the political situation despite many weeks rehearsals.

Though the performance at the Opera was cancelled, we all remember dances from Zorba being performed by Hany Hassan and a few other dancers from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company on the street in front of the Ministry of Culture in June.

AO: 'Zorba in front of the ministry' was among the series of music and dance performances that took place on daily basis when artists and intellectuals stormed the ministry and held a sit-in for over three weeks in opposition to the then minister of culture, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, demanding his removal.

EK: Yes, dancers from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company wanted to add their share to the street performances, to the opposition against the minister and against the then ruling Muslim Brotherhood. They also wanted to show that despite a statement pronounced by a Salafist MP calling ballet the "art of nudity", this art form has a great history and carries a lot of artistic value. In the afternoons, they would rehearse at the Opera [for the July performance], and in the evenings a few dancers would go to dance in front of the ministry.

AO: Will Zorba end early enough for the audience to return home before the 11pm curfew?

EK: Yes, we begin at 7pm. Usually Zorba takes two and a half hours. I trimmed it a little bit. The whole evening, including entr’acte, will end around 9.10pm.

AO: What are the plans for the 2013-2014 ballet season?

EK: In October, the company will perform the opera Aida. We will also participate in 10 October celebrations of the Cairo Opera House anniversary gala. In November, a two-day ballet gala will include excerpts from classical and contemporary works. December will host its traditional The Nutcracker and, in February 2014, the company will perform Spartacus. April will see Don Quixote and in May we will stage Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

In fact, Spartacus comes instead of the previously planned Swan Lake. Spartacus is a ballet mainly based on a male cast, while Swan Lake demands a large number of girls on stage, which we do not have.

AO: Why did you lose many girls from the company?

EK: It was a very tough year for the whole cultural scene. Prior to 3 July [when Morsi was removed from power], the dancers were concerned with the company's future. A lot of issues were very uncertain, and this sensation was only amplified when Alaa Abdel-Aziz became the minister of culture. Though I tried to keep the morale of the dancers high and we continued working, it was obvious that I could not give any long-term promises. By the summer, many girls returned to their countries.

The turbulences that followed Morsi's removal from power, then those linked with the dispersal of the pro-Morsi protest camps, discouraged many from returning for the new season. Many of them watch foreign media, which neither show the whole situation nor describe events correctly. As follows, the girls decided to return "when things get better." Maybe we need to wait a little bit and soon, hopefully, I'll be able to bring some girls back or invite new ones to join the company. Hopefully, by the time we perform Don Quixote – a ballet that many dancers looked forward to – they will have returned.

Additionally, we also lost an Egyptian dancer, Shady Osman, who was doing a double with Hany Hassan in Zorba. Osman resigned and left to the USA.

AO: Did you modify the programme after the Muslim Brotherhood lost power?

EK: The programme for the new season was already set in May 2013 [when Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were still in power]. I already planned to avoid contemporary works, since last year I ended up deciding against two ballets from the repertoire: Malgré Tout and The Rite of Spring. The costumes and the meanings, specifically in The Rite, can be troublesome to the more traditional viewers. And although nobody had directly addressed me, I could sense that it was not the best time for such works and that they could jeopardise the existence of the whole company. As such, I did not consider including them in the 2013-2014 season.

However, now that the situation is different, I will include fragments from contemporary ballets in the November ballet gala. The audience will then be able to revisit a few scenes from The Rite of Spring, for one.

AO: So we will have to wait for ballets from the contemporary repertoire... Do you think that the Cairo Opera Ballet Company will soon manage to fully restore its glory years?

EK: I can only hope so. Over the years prior to the January 2011 Revolution, we had a bigger cast and we were able to perform a wider range of ballets. Another difficulty we currently experience is a limited budget. My hopes for the nearest future include, for example, a refreshed performance of ballet Cleopatra. This, however, would require a considerable investment in the costumes and scenography, which I am not sure the Opera is quite ready for at the moment.

I also hope to start again inviting foreign choreographers. They were always infusing fresh spirit to the company, while adding new valuable works to the repertoire.

AO: What about young Egyptian emerging choreographers?

EK: We will hold a series of short performances prepared by the young Egyptian choreographers at Al-Gomhouriya Theatre in November. Supported by the Cairo Opera House, the best works will then be performed to the Opera's main hall audiences, in March 2014.

AO: What is the general mood of the company now?

EK: Following the months of general depression and uncertainty, a renewed energy is finally setting in. The passing away of Abdel Moneim Kamel in February [former chairperson of the Cairo Opera House and artistic director of the company for many years] was not easy for the dancers. Furthermore, the mood permeating the country and the difficulties faced by the cultural scene were very discouraging. On the other hand, however, the latter challenge eventually generated a new kind of strength. The dancers want to prove that ballet matters and that they will keep performing no matter what. They are great fighters...

I always try to encourage the company, and we always work, trying to carve our way despite all difficulties. I hope that normalcy will now gradually return... Call me a dreamer if you wish, but I am optimistic.

Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Cairo Opera Orchestra, A Cappella Choir
Artistic Director: Erminia Kamel, Choir Master: Maya Gvineria, Conductor: Hisham Gabr
24-26 September at 7pm (ballet ends at 9.10pm)
Cairo Opera House main hall, Zamalek, Cairo

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