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Theatre of mixed means
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 07 - 2009

Nehad Selaiha notes a tendency to incorporate words and images in this year's modern dance festival
Modern dance has always used music, and sometimes singing, of one kind or another, as structural components of the performance and has also often drawn on poetry, myth and literary texts for inspiration. Recently, however, choreographers, the world over, seem to be reaching out for a form of total theatre where words and images (slides or video projections) become vital elements in constructing and communicating the theatrical experience. This tendency was quite pronounced in some of the foreign as well as the Egyptian works in the current modern dance festival.
On the Egyptian side, Naglaa Younis's Voyage, her debut work as choreographer/director, begins with a series of drawings, executed on the spot by Sarah Enany and projected (by means of an overhead projector) on a large screen at the back, featuring cafés, blocks of flats and people on the street, while two young people, a man (Mohamed Fouad) and a woman (Naglaa Younis) occupy different areas on the stage, with the man sleeping down-centre, next to a computer and a commode, with several posters and items of clothing scattered round him, and the woman sitting down-left at a table in a popular café, smoking and writing something. This is the scene that meets the audience as they file in. Once the audience has settled down, Younis begins to read aloud what she has written: it is a lyrical letter to a former female teacher in which she expresses her discomfort at being always stared at, as if she were an oddity, and speaks of her anger, frustration and sense of alienation, but also of her determination to go on photographing her city in the hope of discovering its hidden beauty and spiritual core.
In the second sequence, the lights pick up the sleeping man as he wakes, plays some music on his computer, makes a telephone call and receives another and starts to dress and prepare to go out. While the back screen projects drawings of an alarm clock, full and empty glasses and a caricature of a sparsely clad voluptuous female, the telephone calls tell us that he works for an advertising agency, is an inveterate womanizer who also drinks but, nevertheless, regularly performs his daily prayers -- the epitome of a shallow young man, completely at peace with himself and the world, not a single worrying idea in his head and a thoroughly mechanical routine. Except when the man dances to the pop tunes he plays on his computer, the movement here is faintly rhythmic and generally ordinary and mundane.
The third sequence takes us out onto the streets where the advertising man and woman-photographer collide into each other and he tries to force his attentions upon her. While the screen flashes drawings of a camera and some abstract images expressing confusion, including a disturbing, murky cylinder, an obviously disgruntled owner of a modest roadside café (Kamal Rabii') reads a letter, rants against his son's ambition to become an engineer, a career that brings in no money nowadays, he moans, looks at the man and woman in disgust and throws water from a bucket in front of the café, making sure it splashes the man.
The following sequence which mixes a variety of dance forms, including oriental dancing, engages the three dancers in a power struggle in which the young photographer steps at one point to the edge of the stage to deliver a monologue about the temptation of the abyss from Sa'adallah Wannus's famous play Rituals of Signs and Transformations, at another point the young man throws a black sheet over her, covering her from head to foot, while all the time the conservative café-owner chases both with a bucket and a rope and manages at the end to ensnare the man in a noose, manipulating him from a distance, like a puppet master, and reducing him to a marionette. The final scene, however, holds a glimpse of hope and a promise of deliverance. After a frantic, whirling tanoura dance, Naglaa Younis stands against the lighted screen, reciting lines from Ibn Arabi's Sufi poetry -- lines that come from his book Turguman Al-Ashwaq (Interpreter of Longings) and declare that love is the speaker's only faith and religion -- while Sarah Enany draws a leafy tree around her, with birds perching on the branches.
The same mix of dance, movement, poetry, music and video projections was effectively used in Mohamed Fawzi's The Faraway, which took its inspiration and included excerpts from a collection of poems by the great Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos, selected and translated by Rif'at Sallam and published nearly 20 years ago. On a darkened, empty stage, divided by white tape into two triangles, the light picks up a man in a wheel chair (Isam Tawfiq), facing a glass table and drawing images on it, using wire dolls, while a large screen at the back reflects him at work by means of a camera fixed under the table so that he seems to dominate the whole space and tower above it like a god. As the man begins to recite from Ritsos, the space is defined metaphorically as "a place as harsh as silence", where "All are thirsty/ All chew a piece of sky to quell their bitterness/All keep a vigil with bloodshot eyes/ The pain in the far depths of their eyes shining like a star in a salt pit. "However, the inhabitants of this godforsaken place have not lost hope and "every dawn a thousand pigeons fly from their hands towards the four gates that lie faraway, at the edge of existence". As the man speaks, three figures in white (Hisham Ali, Mohamed Shabrawi and Mohamed Salam) advance from the back waving spotlights in an attempt to find their way in the surrounding darkness. Then another extract from Yiannis follows, and in it the disabled man who had appeared to us earlier like a god confesses his emptiness, impotence and total alienation and refers to some unseen powers that have reduced him to this state.
Soon enough, however, as he begins to manipulate the three lost men through his wire puppets, like a voodoo magician, reducing them to fighting dogs, this victim of oppression is revealed as a metaphor for all impotent and oppressive political leaders. In the following sequences, dramaturge Rasha Abdel-Mon'im expands the metaphor of oppression, making Time the grand oppressor. Director and choreographer Mohamed Fawzi used the dervishes whirling dance with the colourful skirt, known as tanoura, in an original way to render this meaning visually. The skirt which the dancer spread around him as he whirled carried the image of a clock so that the Sufi dance, which is supposed to liberate humans from the grip of time and cause them to rise above it, was suddenly transformed into an ironical image of people eternally and hopelessly caught in its merciless grip. Indeed, the performance itself takes the form of a vicious circle and ends, as it begins, with the impotent leader in his wheel chair and the three men in white waving their spotlights in the hope of finding a way out of the surrounding darkness.
In the Greek Apolost, by the Aerites Dance Company, choreographed by Patricia Apergi, loss -- of beloved places and dear ones, of beauty, youth, trust, or faith -- was the matrix, generating a series of poignant and deeply arresting images in which Apergi's intensely emotional and highly imaginative choreography was complemented by Yiannis Mavrogenis's and Dimitris Kordelas's video projections of the dancers, wandering as solitary figures through deserted places, a home or a school, strewn with torn books and odds and ends of the kind people usually leave behind when they move out of a place, or walking alongside a deserted road and repeatedly advancing and receding in the distance. There was poetry too, recited or sung live (in English) to the accompaniment of an accordion by Dirk Polak, or played as a recorded voiceover. This gripping, deeply moving show can be described as a sublime celebration of grief, and the climax of it was the unforgettable last scene in which the five performers sat round a simple, plain box and gradually transformed it through the movement which covered the whole gamut of all the expressions of grief into the coffin of someone deeply loved.
The Turkish Monday in the Sun, a physical theatre piece that brought together for the first time two distinguished Turkish choreographers -- Bedirhan Dehmen, from the Bogazici Performing Arts Ensemble, and Safak Uysal, from the Laboratuar -- in a collaborative venture, also used a verbal text recited live on stage by a person sitting on one side, as well as video projections. While the spoken text remained tantalizing, since no translation was provided, Dogus Bitecik's video projections and sound effects eloquently and effectively created the setting of the action as a boat-ride across the Bosphorus strait, from one shore to the other.
Of the four performances discussed here, this piece, was the most cheerful, invigorating and refreshingly daring. Focusing on the theme of friendship between men, a sensitive, often taboo subject, questioning what defines male friendship in the light of its creators' personal experiences along with historical and cultural examples, and "going beyond the limits that categorical distinctions bring upon possibilities of expression" as Dehmen and Uysal state in the performance literature, Monday in the Sun came across as a vigorous, honest and sensitively detailed study of the various stages of a developing relationship between two men from curiosity, antagonism and rivalry, to love, cooperation and solidarity. By virtue of its theme alone, Monday in the Sun qualifies as the star piece in this festival, and its presence, uncensored, gives the festival credibility and respect.
4th Egyptian National Theatre Schedule: 1-10 July, 2009
Wednesday & Thursday, 1 & 2 July:
Viva Mama, Al-Mesaharati troupe, Al-Hanager, 6 pm
The Island, Hilwan University troupe, Metropol theatre, 6 pm
The Faraway, Studio 95, Al-Rihani theatre, 6 pm
The Room at the Top, by Lenin El-Ramli, Small Floating theatre in Giza, 8 pm
A Land Where Flowers Don't Grow, Al-Tali'a Company, Al-Arayes theatre, 10 pm
King Lear, The Cultural Palaces Organization, Miami theatre, 10 pm
Julius Cesar, Youth Company, Al-Salaam theatre,
10 pm
Friday& Saturday, 3 & 4 July:
I am Hamlet, Creativity Centre troupe, Creativity Centre, 6 pm
Les Miserables, Al-Munufiyya University, Metropol theatre, 6 pm
The Stranger, Angels Team, Small Floating theatre, 8 pm
The Same Place, Champions of Acting troupe,
Yusef Idris Hall, Al-Salaam Theatre,
8 pm A Loving Look, Youth Company, Al-Ghad Hall, 8 pm
Fragile, Egyptian Society for Theatre Amateurs (ESTA), Miami theatre, 10 pm
Julius Cesar, Youth Company, Al-Salaam theatre,
10 pm
Joseph's Dream, the Sugar Company troupe, Al-Arayes theatre, 10 pm
The Legend of Love, Cultural Palaces, Floating Theatre Main hall, 10 pm
Sunday & Monday, 5 & 6 July:
Under Threat, Al-Hanager Centre, Al-Hanager, 8 pm
Titus Andronicus, Alexandria University, Metropol theatre, 6 pm
The Visit, Free Theatre Cultural Society, Small Floating theatre, 8 pm
Christmas Eve, Youth Company,
Yusef Idris Hall, 8 pm
The Lesson, Tawasul Independent troupe, Al-Ghad,
8 pm
Joseph's Dream, the Sugar Company troupe, Al-Arayes theatre, 10 pm
The Basement, ESTA, Miami, 10 pm
The Fire-raisers, Cultural Palaces,
Al-Salaam theatre, 10 pm
Tuesday & Wednesday, 7 & 8 July:
Under the Great WallI, Cairo University, Metropol theatre, 6 pm
Satan, Theatre Institute, Al-Rihani theatre, 6 pm
A Roman Bath, Al-Tali'a Company, Al-Tali'a theatre, 8 pm
A-Nafareet, Petrotrade Company, Al-Arayes, 10 pm
Two in a Basket, Cultural Palaces,
Floating Theatre Main hall, 10 pm
Thursday & Friday, 9 & 10 July:
Locusts, Al-Hanger Centre, 6 pm
King Lear, Ain Shams University, Metropol theatre, 6 pm
Hamlet, Champions of Acting, Al-Rihani theatre,
6 pm
Love on the Pyramids Plateau, Theatre Institute, Small Floating theatre, 8 pm
A Mad Fantasy, Youth Company, Yusef Idris Hall,
8 pm
The Ogress, Al-Ghad Company, Al-Ghad theatre,
8 pm
The Visit, The Suez Canal University, Al-Arayes,
10 pm
The Sultan's Dilemma, Modern Theatre Company, Miami theatre, 10 pm
The Hairy Ape, Cultural Palaces, Al-Salaam theatre, 10 pm


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