This was a rich year in the field of theatre and dance productions. It started with the Arab Theatre Festival (organised by the Arab Theatre Institute) in January, in which Egypt won the best production award with The Collar and the Bracelet by the iconic stage director Nasser Abdel-Moneim. The festival brought to Cairo several of the most successful Arab performances produced in 2018, which transformed the city into a theatre hub during an intense week of performances, workshops and conferences. A few months later the scene recurred with the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre which saw a rise in dance productions and a tribute to artists who passed away in 2019, including the playwright, theatre director and scenographer Mohamed Abul-Seoud, who left us on 2 February 2019 at a relatively young age. This was especially significant since Abul-Seoud pioneered a new innovative theatre that carried his unique signature as a philosopher, poet and visual artist.
Presented on different occasions throughout 2019, and produced by Forsan Al-Sharq Company (Cairo Opera House), Karima Bedeir’s Baheya somehow manages to shape “Egyptian bodies” on stage, clearly identifying them as “Egyptian”. Contrary to many contemporary dance performances we see in Egypt, Bedeir declares her “stage bodies” to be Egyptian. Whether through the traditional elements in the costume, music or story, she presents us with a performance that does not look at universality as an aim, especially the kind of universality that erases origin, history and identity. Instead, she sets herself another aim: choreographic authenticity. In this sense, she not only opts for a journey opposite to many of her fellow choreographers, she also reintroduces the concept of Egyptian identity in dance beyond the colonised visions that reproduce the labels and the stereotypes of the coloniser by objectifying Egyptian bodies and transforming them into puppets for the exoticisation of Egyptian heritage.
It is thanks to choreographers like Bedeir that contemporary dance in Egypt can produce an authentic and unique choreographic language that examines the specificity of Egyptian dance heritage and reinvents it in a contemporary, expressive language. Choreographers of this kind cannot depend on imitation or any fusion of styles, like Bedeir in this performance they have to create. This journey of creation is primarily a journey of recognising one’s own heritage and identifying it as autonomous, equal and alive. It is a movement away from what we were taught by our Western teachers and icons of modern dance, away from the current clichés of movement and physical ability, and away from a history of the colonisation of the staged body. It is moving forward into a space of identity affirmation that sheds all prejudice vis-à-vis Egyptian forms, such as the stick dance or raqs Sharqi-baladi (female Oriental dance).
An Egyptian-German production that was initially categorised as a youth performance presented at Hamburg’s Xchanges Festival, Icarus seemed very simple and close to the heart. Icarus the son is always arguing with his father, an architect trying to convince him, sometimes terrorising him and chasing him to beat him up. Father and son reincarnate the universal dialectic between the older and the younger generation. The tactics of negotiation are almost beyond time and space. The ongoing feeling of responsibility of the father is also intertwined with a strong sense of patriarchal power that can be felt by any spectator. This specific paradigm is the essence of the play: power and knowledge across generations. It could be applied to the relation of father and son, but it could also be applied to any relation that involves a hierarchy of power.
Crime in Maadi
Father and son are trapped within a labyrinth. We do hear a long story about how the father himself had constructed this labyrinth, yet what has stayed with me of the story is how the father, who claims absolute knowledge, is also responsible for being trapped and lost. Icarus the son is trapped merely because of his father’s entrapment. It is as if we inherit entrapments and losses. Only this time, the father assumes full responsibility for saving his son and himself. Icarus the child misses his mother, who is separated from his father. He misses normal family life and the balance and warmth it provides. The mother seems to be a possible alternative to the often cr—uel attitude of the macho father. He longs for her as if for another system of knowledge, or emotionality, or vision of the world beyond the labyrinth. One cannot ignore how the story indirectly tells us that the labyrinth was initially constructed out of male macho vengeance. It was fuelled by the drive to punish and eliminate. And now the person who constructed it is trapped inside it. Destiny plays its own pedagogical games in mythology.
The spectators are seated as if they are part of the labyrinth, in incomplete circles. This makes them either the insider witnesses of the labyrinth or its very substance. Both actors speak in Egyptian Arabic, while the two German actors — seated on the edge of the labyrinth — translate what they say into German. The German language is the original language of this production as it was previously directed by Trötschel, and the reversal of linguistic power this effects acts in favour of the live performance, the Arabic. It feels quite special to sit at a prominent German theatre like Kampnagel of Theaterwerkstatt, and witness the Arabic language sharing power with the local language, white language of the host country. Something very unique happens at that moment even if we do not immediately grasp it. The colonised language comes to the fore, decolonises itself and liberates the stage from national supremacy. If there is one pressing question at this moment it is the question of identity. A question that will inevitably come up in the minds of the spectators while they redefine their spectatorship against the Arabic speaking performance. If there is one major achievement of the Change of Scene programme it is definitely this. As the stage becomes a field of exchange, reversal of power hierarchies and liberation from national hegemony, we witness some special kind of transgression of borders within the performance, we participate in a performative act that cannot be disconnected from the political questions of today about homeland, racism, power and patriarchy. We are at the heart of a transnational/transcultural performance, the heart of the labyrinth.
A solo performance written and directed by Adel Abdel-Wahab and performed by actor-dancer Mohamed Fouad, Music for Unstageable Theatre is rightly so called, for what Abdel-Wahab has written is “unstageable”. As the performance’s director, he remained loyal to the unstageability of his own text. In the publicity material, the performance is presented as dealing with the topic of auto-censorship, besides other sub-topics like confusion, fear, isolation and vulnerability. Nevertheless, one should have absolutely no expectation when stepping into a performance directed by Abdel-Wahab. He is an artist of his own kind, with whom you can find no solace, no release. He does not make theatre, he makes performance. In his work, you will never find a coherent and sustainable narrative. He is against narratives. He deconstructs and dares to breach the abyss of non-meaning. When compared to all other theatre makers belonging to Egyptian state theatre, he looks as though he belongs to a totally different time and culture of performance. His previous performances carry the same imprint of deconstructing performance narratives and delving into the chaotic world of violence, aggression and absurdity. Having recently become the writer of his own productions — he is also a theatre critic sometimes — Abdel-Wahab challenges authority in all its forms, whether as a narrative discourse of alleged truths, or as a tradition of aesthetics. He even challenges himself while insisting on preserving the dignity of confusion and fragmentation within his artistic creations. It is worth mentioning that he has also created an independent theatre festival in Alexandria, his hometown, to present works that reflect the relationship between performance and political-social criticism. To date it remains the only surviving independent international theatre festival, affirming the fact that wholly independent theatre is a must.
The piece may be categorised as a music and dance installation, and it deeply respects the style of performance art. Dancer-choreographer Mohamed Fouad has a special talent for performing conflict and pain. A unique artist who has recently invaded the international performance arts scene while residing in France, Fouad preserves the impact of his life-long practice of karate within his choreographies and his physical language. The set and props are intelligently employed as tools for a choreographic language that insinuates veiling, hiding, masking and eventually self-censorship. Besides this opening scene you will find no sign of the main topic announced to the public. But, again, we shouldn’t be searching. We should only experience.
One of the most important moments in the performance is when Fouad prepares to deliver a speech in the mic. He holds a lot of white papers as if it is the script of some official address. Yet no words come out of his mouth, and instead the sheets of paper keep flying in the air, dispersing all over the ground, while he frantically attempts to gather them and lend some coherence to the absurd situation. Such a scene can be seen as iconic of Abdel-Wahab’s work. On the one hand, it captures the issue of expectation as we expect a speech that will never be delivered. And, on the other hand, it grasps the image of public speech: what does public speech mean now in Egypt? Who is saying what? Is everybody equally provided with the right of free speech and free expression? And what is the current content of those speeches? For Abdel-Wahab, the content seems to be void, pure and utter void. For him the expectation can also kill whatever content may potentially come. Expectation recycles modes of power and of collective discourses and projections that end up muting the lone speaker. Or maybe he is already self-muted by his own expectation of the expectations and framings of the others. As Fouad brilliantly tries to collect the blank sheets of paper, he creates a physical metaphor that expresses and re-expresses the collecting of those fragments of emptiness as if they were fragments of an endless history of absurd speeches, speeches of void that speak to a collective expectation of power recycling.
In Iron Tears, the pioneer of modern dance in Egypt, Walid Aouni, invites us to re-visit dance choreography as a descendant of geometry and anatomy, an invitation to appreciate dance all over again as a science not only of the body, but of the world that has been constructed around the body, and with it, across history. Humanity has been building its architecture around the human body, and now the human body is dancing the architecture that resides within it and is produced by it. Dance and space construction are two facets of the same coin. A choreographer is an architect’s peer, the dancer is the builder, the manpower, inhabitant and destroyer. With a very small number of clever props, Aouni creates houses, prisons, bridges and roads. Frames, flexible sticks, fabric and rays of sharp light construct a world where brilliance survives and thrives, and where cohabitation is a matter of embracing humanity rather than occupying space.
At the end of the piece, one is left with a profound sense of sadness. Is it the intrinsic sadness of the young Hadid who fled her homeland to become a migrant? Is it the sadness of a world that keeps destroying whatever brilliant constructs it has been building over the years? Or is it the sadness resulting from the fact that the divisions created by world politics have become the mental architecture of today?
In contrast to the dance performances on which I have focused, Crime in Maadi by Ashraf Abdel-Baki is comic thriller that has brought entrepreneurial commercial theatre back into focus. The performance relies heavily on exposing itself as a performance. Like all kinds of meta theatre, Crime in Maadi offers both the story of investigating Hashim’s killing, and the parallel dynamics of the theatre team performing the story. Most of the comic triggers emerge from those parallel dynamics, whether the set collapsing and the cast trying to manage the situation or the indirect narrative lines that provide glimpses of the life of the actors behind the scenes as they operate the set. The peak of those narratives is when one of those supposedly hidden actors suddenly appears to save the situation and play the role of Souad. While the actress playing the role of Souad has been hit on her head by mistake, her replacement has no choice but to continue her role so that the show can go on. The extremely talented actress reads the role of Souad out of the script, and indirectly portrays the double dynamics of being the new Souad and of being the old stage helper who has no acting experience. Sometimes the spectators do actually fall into the trap and forget that even this second layer of theatre about theatre is also part of Crime in Maadi’s design. It is invigorating to see such comic and commercial theatre step into new territories, transforming the spectators’ expectations and providing them with an opportunity to experience theatre in a new and fresh way.
But it is not until everything physically disintegrates on stage that the spectators fully appreciate the extent of adventure and risk that Abdel-Baki has taken to create a pioneering comedy production. The physical and material objects disappear leaving the stage empty, and affirming the value of creativity and of team work, something that Egyptian theatre has been missing for a very long time, especially when it comes to comedy. Crime in Maadi is a new model of comic theatre production and creation in Egypt, a model that inaugurates a new era for Emadeddine Street, of entertainment bound up with excellence, and of commercial theatre as one facet of artistic entrepreneurship and innovation. Indeed 2019 ought to start with a special celebration of the rebirth of commercial theatre — thanks to Ashraf Abdel-Baki.
My hope for 2020 is to see more productions by contemporary Egyptian playwrights, such as Rasha Abdel-Moneim and her socio-political critique in Broken Window directed by Shady Al-Daly. I also hope Egyptian Independent Theatre can resume its efforts to forge an alternative path to state-owned theatre and to commercial and televised theatre. That would be a great gift to the soul of Mohamed Abul-Seoud.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.