Last month, during a session of the Egyptian parliament's upper house, an Islamist MP described ballet as "the art of nudity" and demanded it be banned. Though his claims did not lead to any direct action, the fact that such damning pronouncements are being voiced is already worrying artists in the industry. Throughout its fifty-year history, Egypt's ballet has lived through numerous highs and lows, but it has never before been faced with the threat of religious censorship.
The MP's attack is but one assault among dozens that those working in ballet are currently facing, and they are fighting back through a series of strikes, protests, sit-ins and marches. On June 5, artists from various backgrounds broke into the Ministry of Culture, where they began an open-ended sit-in, demanding the removal of the newly appointed minister of culture, Alaa Abdel-Aziz. The cultural community is accusing the minister of attempting to Islamize the arts and believe he has an insufficient professional profile for the job. During his first month in office, Abdel-Aziz fired several high-profile artists from the country's key cultural positions. Many others have resigned in protest.
The Cairo Opera Ballet Company is playing an important role in the current confrontations playing out between artists and the government. The Company is jostling to find a position for itself in a changing cultural scene—a scene marked by very different social and political realities from when the ballet was first introduced to Egypt.
Rise and fall and rise
Until the late 1950s, classical ballet did not form a part of Egypt’s cultural repertoire. In 1959, Tharwat Okasha, the then Egyptian minister of culture, launched the Academy of Arts, a large complex of educational art facilities, including the Higher Institute of Ballet. Among the many experts brought over from the Soviet Union was the former director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Leonid Labrovsky, who was assigned to head the newly opened ballet institute. In 1966, the institute gave birth to the Cairo Ballet Company, the first resident ballet company in the Middle East.
Several internationally renowned Egyptian classical dancers began their careers at this time, including Abdel Moneim Kamel, who was to play a crucial role in Egypt's ballet history.
The 1970s brought with them the first challenges to Egypt’s ballet. In 1971, the iconic Royal Opera House was burnt to the ground, marking a black day for the entire arts world in Egypt. President Sadat's departure from the Nasserite friendship with the Soviet Union led to the swift exit of Soviet ballet instructors.
As ballet waned at home, Abdel Moneim Kamel left Egypt and went to study abroad. He gained international renown in Moscow, Germany and at Italy's famed Teatro alla Scala. In 1982, Kamel decided to return to his country, bringing with him his Italian wife, Erminia Gambarelli-Kamel, the former soloist at La Scala.
“Kamel's return to Egypt was motivated by an alarming condition of the ballet education and practically nonexistent ballet company. There was no season and no work routine,” Erminia Kamel explains, recalling her late husband’s decision to return home. Abdel Moneim, supported by Erminia, began injecting new life into the Egyptian ballet.
The opening of the new Cairo Opera House (National Cultural Centre) in 1988 marked a significant turning point in the fortunes of the Cairo Ballet Company. Abdel Moneim integrated the troupe he had formed with the Opera House—until then, it had been associated with the Higher Institute of Ballet—to form the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. As the company's director, Kamel launched a regular ballet season, performing works from the classical repertoire as well as creating choreography and directing ballets based on the music of Egyptian composers.
Golden years and new challenges
Many works began emerging from the new company: Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Le Corsaire, Carmina Burana, Bolero, Hamlet, Malgré Tout, Danses qu’on Croise. According to Erminia Kamel, the company's artistic peak occurred between 2004, when Abdel Moneim became the chairperson of the Cairo Opera House (making Erminia as the troupe's artistic director), and the 2011 revolution. She mentions that, aside from the Egyptian talent, the company attracted many foreign dancers, even including some artists from Russia.
Erminia fondly recalls those days: "In those golden years, the budget and tools given to the opera allowed Abdel Moneim to initiate many artistic exchanges, and invite the renowned choreographers and companies. The audiences had an opportunity to watch the international masterful dancers, while the ballet company also worked with renowned choreographers such as Lorca Massine, Joseph Russillo, Thierry Malandin, Sergei Krupko, Renato Greco and Sebastiano Coppa, among others."
The January 2011 revolution, however, has created a totally new reality. Not only have the budget cuts that were imposed on the Cairo Opera House directly affected the ballet, but in February last year, on his expiration of his contract, Abdel Moneim Kamel had to step down from the chairman's post. (Erminia Kamel remains the troupe's artistic director.)
In February 2013, news of Abdel Moneim's sudden death shook the ballet company. “[The] last months in specific were very difficult. Abdel Moneim was an important artistic and moral support for the dancers; he created the whole troupe, gave it a strong vision and international recognition,” Erminia remarked, observing the coincidence of his passing and the new realities of the post-revolution era.
The growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood is proving troublesome for many artists, in particular those involve in ballet. The recent attacks on ballet have brought to the surface a video filmed eight years ago, in which the then MP Mohamed Mursi criticises ballet as “violating Shari'a law.”
Though Erminia Kamel denies any official requests from the authorities to select ballets with less risqué scenes and choreography, she does mention the complaints she received from the audience after the company performed Tango Dream to Piazzolla's music with Russillo's choreography in May 2012: “I am aware that we have to be selective with our repertoire. Due to their passionate character and costumes, ballets such as The Rite of Spring or Malgré Tout will definitely vex a more conservative audience. Right now, we need to postpone modern ballet performances.”
While respecting the dancer’s tenacity to prove that ballet matters, Kamel says that it is not the best time to gamble. “I have over eighty dancers who deserve to go through this difficult time without risking their careers, not to mention that any wrong move could result in the ballet being completely erased from Egypt's cultural scene.”
Kamel observes that decades of the troupe's work gave the company a sufficient repertoire to keep going for at least three consecutive seasons, while presenting work without repetition and satisfying all tastes. “I hope next year we will stage Giselle, Cinderella, Don Quixote, Spartacus, and Cleopatra, among other ballets that the company worked on with Abdel Moneim in past seasons," she concludes, adding that among the plans are also performances prepared by emerging Egyptian choreographers.
Characterized by remarkable solidarity and filled with hope, it seems that the Cairo Opera Ballet Company is pushing ahead in the face of adversity. This season comes to an end with Zorba, to be performed in the first week of July. Egyptian artists and art-lovers alike are looking forward to the new season, hopefully bringing better news than the last.