This Dance of Freedom

[caption id="attachment_55246885" align="alignnone" width="614"]Salah El Brogy performing Hurriyeh to calligraphy by Soraya Syed (both artists/ Nour Festival) Salah El Brogy performing Hurriyeh to calligraphy by Soraya Syed (both artists/ Nour Festival)[/caption]

You would not expect a dancer of Salah El-Brogy’s caliber to be so conflicted about what he does. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what you were meant to feel when Brogy was recently asked to respond in dance to the word hurriyah (“freedom”)—especially considering that his home country, Egypt, is currently wrangling over this very word.

Meeting the Egyptian dancer, you are immediately struck by his intensity. He seems to interpret his surroundings through movement, from his expressive facial gestures to his hand movements and the way he sits. He will even approach you just because he wants to give you a hug.

How does it feel to interpret the world in that way? “It’s like creating your own language,” he says, “creating your own vocabulary that you have no need for your tongue to speak it.”

(Video produced by Tam Hussein and Saad Bashir)

The Majalla met Brogy during his most recent performance at calligrapher Soraya Syed’s animation installation, Hurriyah, at London’s Leighton House. Brogy was tasked with interpreting Syed’s animated calligraphy, the music of celebrated Indian DJ Nitin Sawhney, and the exotic space that is Leighton House itself. He rose to the challenge.

The man is an award-winning dancer and on the way to setting up his own company. He is a graduate of the Cairo Opera House Contemporary Dance Theatre School. He is accomplished in street dance, hip hop and capoeira (a Brazilian martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music), as well as singing and acting. It is this versatility that allowed him to join the Akram Khan Company, an award-winning dance company in Britain. He is currently working with another celebrated choreographer, Luca Silvestrini, and his UK-based Protein dance company.

Brogy started dancing at a very young age. As he explains, “I started my life with kung fu at the age of eight, and then I moved on to hip hop and breakdance. Then I joined my city Ismailia’s folklore dance group, but I was really thirsty to learn more.”

He later left his provincial hometown for the bright lights and big city of Cairo, joining the world-renowned Reda Troupe, the largest folklore dance troupe in the Middle East. But it is not just folk dancing that has influenced him: Sufism and ancient Egyptian history have also had an immense impact on the artist.

Even though he knows that dancing is an intrinsic part of Egyptian culture—he has seen Sufis dancing by the tomb of Imam Al-Busiri in Alexandria on Fridays and is aware that an Egyptian wedding is not an Egyptian wedding without dancing—Brogy says he still finds the concept of dance troublesome. He is at pains to emphasize that faith is important to him. He loves Sufism and says that he feels “at home when you join the bigger circle, when you are in contact with your source, the Creator, through prayer.”

So what exactly is the problem with dance? For someone who interprets the world through movement, it is a strange opinion to hold. After all, why should dance be a problem? Brogy waves his hands as if he has been misunderstood. He apologizes saying, “My English is not very good, I am sorry.”

His English is fine. It just seems like there is too much he wants to express in too short a time. He knows that he has a photo shoot coming up, yet he is eager to get this idea across. He is disturbed by the sexualization of dance, which in his opinion has become a feature of the art form in modern society. When he dances, it is as if he is seeking something angelic—as if his limbs are taking off, reaching for that which mystics of old have yearned for. He did not sign up for a sort of dance that transforms the soul into its most animalistic form. For Brogy, it seems this exhibition is so liberating because of the absence of things he considers profane.

Brogy is an intensely religious person, but aside from a rosary he wears around his neck none of the vestiges of religion are visible on the outside. At the same time, while reflecting on the exhibition, he is torn by the events afflicting his country. Through his dance, he wants to challenge the stereotypes that the global war on terrorism has created. On the other hand he is against groups that use religion for a political purpose. Ultimately, when sitting with Brogy it is clear that you are sitting with a man who desperately wants to be good—a man who wishes to liberate his soul.