Mister President’s SwansOn January 11, 2013 by Mona Abouissa
The legacy of Egypt-USSR comradeship, the Egyptian State ballet survived wars, presidents and fires, and then in 2012, the dancers faced a new foe.
Published in Le Monde Diplomatique, 2013 & Ahram (Egypt), 2013
In German Nasser Tänzer
“In the name of the father, son and holy spirit,” the white swan whispers, then spreads her imaginary wings and enters the floodlights. She is no longer Ekaterina, one of many who left a collapsing USSR, now living in Egypt. Now she is the swan queen who lives by a lake of her mother’s tears. In the shadows is Hany, a prima dancer at the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, the dark wizard Rothbart whose evilness is absolute. Backstage, he takes his giggling swans in circles and they dance to Tchaikovsky scores, just before he bursts onstage for his fatal fight with the prince. In the floodlights, Rothbart owns the stage, but behind the red curtain, the Italian former swan queen Erminia does.
One man watches this 19th century Russian tragedy, this last rehearsal is for him. He was prince Siegfried and many other leads, from here to the Bolshoi in Moscow, to the N.H.K. Theatre in Tokyo, to Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Abdel Moneim Kamel battled the dark period of ballet in the 80s in Egypt after Soviet experts left, and now he battles cancer. Beside him, the artistic director, is his wife, dance partner Erminia Kamel. It will be his last performance, he will die of a heart attack a week from now.
At the ballet academy, a gigantic Russian doll hangs by the entrance. Egyptian instructors mix Russian with French, “assemblé, e pliée, e jeté” and remember their former days in the USSR. Pianists from the former USSR say it is like a little soviet union here. The ghost never left the academy.
“You might think I am mad,” she bursts into laughter and goes to find her en-pointe shoes, as old as the ballet itself in Egypt. “I danced my graduation part on the Bolshoi’s stage wearing these shoes, “ said Aleya Abdel Razek, “I used newspaper to wrap around my toes, it’s still there.” Aleya enjoyed training with male dancers because it was tougher, she spent nights imagining her roles and costumes, and the ballet never left her even in her 60s. Her father was among the first Egyptian military pilots during the monarchy prior to the 1952 military coup, and she was among the first ballerinas to travel behind the iron curtain. During the Egyptian – Soviet friendship, “five butterflies flew to the USSR” the local press crowed. Five teenage ballerinas played in the snow for the first time in their lives, while clandestine arms-deals were sealed with the Soviets. “Something new and special was about to be born, we all felt that,” remembers Aleya. And so Egypt’s ballet was born thanks to military men.
Nasser returned from Moscow with the Order of Lenin medal in 1958. Egypt received economic and military support from the Soviets, while the USSR extended its influence across the Middle East. Many young Egyptians studied at Soviet universities and military schools while Soviet experts traveled to Egypt. The culture minister Tharwat Okasha brought Leonid Lavrovsky, the Bolshoi’s former director, and other experts to Cairo to establish the ballet academy. In 1963, five Egyptian girls and three boys were selected to study ballet in Moscow for two years. Those eight young dancers became the pioneers of Egyptian ballet, Aleya and Kamel among them. Under the iron curtain, the young dancers were strictly isolated from the rest of their classmates and monitored by the KGB, but nevertheless, they lived their dream at the Bolshoi.
In 1966, the first ballet production was staged at the Royal Opera House in Cairo, the Fountain of Bakhshisarai. Aleya performed the lead role Zareema, her favorite role to this day. Tharwat, impressed, called Nasser and asked him to see the performance. The next day the impressed president presented Orders of Merit to the soloists. Aleya’s ballet awards hang on the wall at her house across from her father’s army medals.
The Cairo Ballet Company was formed, the only resident classical ballet group in the Middle East to this day. Classics like Giselle, The Nutcracker, Don Juan, Don Quixote, The Great Waltz, Swan Lake, and others were performed by sunkissed dancers. Tours, press, awards, Bolshoi experts – the world was at their feet. Then, one morning in 1971, the Royal Opera House was engulfed by flames. Some speculated it was a political attack on then-President Anwar Sadat. A multi-story car park rose in place of the opera. The next year Sadat severed Soviet ties prior to the 1973 war with Israel, which ended with a ceasefire. The academy kept losing dancers without Soviet management, they fled to Germany, the USSR and the US. Meanwhile, Ala Shiveleva was studying at the University of Theatre Arts in Moscow. “When Sadat deported Soviets from Egypt, our Egyptian classmates were literally sitting on their luggage in classes ready to be deported at any minute.” They were not deported and continued their studies, and after forty years, Ala and those Egyptian classmates are together again under one roof at the new Cairo Opera training a new generation of dancers.
Kamel returned to Egypt in 1981 from Italy with Erminia to revive ballet. They waited in empty studios, chased dancers who fled, toured around any stage in Egypt that could fit them, from small theaters to circuses. Aleya still remembers some disturbing venues where sewage pipes ran backstage where they had to change into their tutus. “Little by little, we built the troupe,” says former La Scala soloist Erminia. And when a new opera was built in 1988, Kamel and his troupe did sit-ins by the Ministry of Culture until they were accepted as the official opera troupe. And during the events of 2011, when Kamel will be the Opera’s artistic director, there will be sit-ins at the ministry against his administration. Finally, the troupe returned to the opera’s stage, and so did Swan Lake, after almost two decades. Russians also returned escaping ruthless inflation, the rise of criminals, long queues, and empty supermarkets after the Soviet empire collapsed in the 90s.
“Every day is the same thing at the barre 150 times, you need patience, willpower, and above all, you need to be in love with ballet,” Ekaterina Ivanovna swings her leg 180 degrees upwards in the corridor. Her little daughter runs around or falls asleep in the studio while her mother practices. Hany Hassan’s older daughter also grew up in the Opera. At the Opera’s studio, Ala Shiveleva battles with young dancers’ pirouettes. It frustrates her that the academy did not take care of the basics in the first place. Just like Ekaterina, Ala came to Egypt from Ukraine in the mid-90s. “The Egyptian troupe was very strong in the 90s because of the influx from the former USSR,” remembered Shiveleva, ” I decided to stay in Egypt because there were a lot of my students from Odesa, all of the principal dancers of the Egyptian ballet were my former students from Odesa.” Most of them, though, returned home after the ballet in Russia improved.
The black swan grabs the first pole she finds backstage, coughing and gasping for air. Sweat runs down her bare back. She only has a few seconds before she nonchalantly returns to the stage for her final triumphant move which took generations of swans to perfect, the famous 32 pirouettes. She is the masterpiece of Rothbart’s plan. Tomorrow is the performance, but I am not meant to see it. Military men started the ballet, but never left. Nasser’s legacy and subsequent military regimes’ dominated the government sector. From former officer Tharwat Okasha, who supervised rehearsals when Aleya was a young student, to another former officer and current PR director at the Opera, Muhamed Hosni, who has a military grip over coverage. “They are artists, they create art for the public and so the press should run after them.” Muhamed issues cloned press releases and invites old favourites. He lists different kinds of permissions; one for rehearsals, one for performance, one for backstage, one for video coverage, one for photos, and so forth. And as the hedonism of the first act unfolds on stage, in the shadows backstage journalists and photographers hide from him, otherwise they will be escorted from the opera by security, or worse, blacklisted. Muhamed imagines motivations from scandal-hungry journalists to Zionist conspiracies. Backstage is his front-line. After three acts of Swan Lake Ekaterina performs her fouettees, I look for the soft side of the military man, without any luck.
Rothbart is a dramatic part that changes the story of everyone else, he owns the stage, Hany says, but not backstage. “They tell you we need a paper, give them a paper, they need to talk, talk, they need to see your character, show them.” Rothbart deals patiently with the machinations when he does not transform women into swans or travel the world performing. Backstage, a former white swan is in control – artistic director Erminia – and maybe the antagonism between the two characters continues backstage. Hany says that her control made it difficult to stage his first choreographed performance, Rasputin. Erminia did not give him permission to use the company’s dancers, he says. At the end they came to an agreement, Hany will get the credit for Rasputin, but will not profit from its staging. Rasputin’s story of an infamous royal “monk” in the twilight of Royal Russia, played by Hani himself, is also the dancer’s response to the Muslim Brother’s politics. With backstage politics and red tape, “one must have charisma and strength not to break”.
Erminia Kamel ascended the ladder and became artistic director of the company in 2004, it was not easy. Despite foreign influxes and the artistic nature of many at administrative desks at the Opera, one still senses patriotic favoritism, probably a leftover from colonial times and re-ignited by events after the 2011 revolution. Erminia, with the support of her husband and high-ranking politicians like former culture minister Farouk Hosni, succeeded. Strictly and calmly, she brought discipline. During the Muslim Brothers’ brief reign from 2012 to 2013, Erminia had to face backstage pressure. She had to rethink the company repertoire – costumes for contemporary works were too revealing, and the love scene in Romeo and Juliet was at risk. “Then how will the audience make sense of it?” she asked. She longed for freedom similar to the time of the Mubarak regime. While outside, the Opera’s artists, including the ballet dancers, feared for their craft and protested against the Muslim Brothers’ government outside the culture ministry, and ballet was performed on the streets.
Another former ballerina folds her wrists into fists and shakes them, “the fighting in modern ballet is no joke, it is aggressive, unlike in classical ballet where it is stylised,” says Inas Yunes, the ballet academy’s dean and a former student of Aleya. “I love modern ballet, the subjects are modern, expressed with all possible movements, unlike in the classics’ fairytales.” She says if Siegfried fought Rothbart in a modern adaptation of Swan Lake, there would be proper violence. Inas is a woman with a spark, she enjoyed strong characters like Martha Graham’s Medea from Greek mythology, who killed her own children. She performed from 1969 to 1996, then as she explains age won over her joints. The Egyptian ballet is one community, everybody started from this Soviet-Egyptian establishment. Occasionally, Medea stood up to upbraid students in her corridors. The students run to their sessions, in one Rothbart – Hany – is pulling young boys’ hair, splitting their legs and arching their backs – making ballet performers. Little Hany, another officer’s son, also had his hair pulled in the same studios back in the 80s. Aleya occupies an office above Inas, she stopped teaching because she could no longer find ballerina qualities in applicants. From the time of Inas and Hany, hundreds applied and few were chosen. Currently, ten students applied. The total number of students running around here is 135. Few will make it to the Opera ballet company after the nine-year program. At the Opera, it’s a man’s dance. The troupe suffers from a shortage of local ballerinas. Either because potential ballerinas disappear behind veils, dream of starting a family, or expanding waistlines, these days it is rare to see Egyptian ballerinas climb the ladder from corps de ballet to swan queen.
In the past two years in Egypt, too many died in revolts and death was no longer private. The country bid farewell to its “heroes” loudly and publicly, and so was Abdel Moneim Kamel’s farewell. Kamel’s death grabbed more press attention than his latest Swan Lake did. An Egyptian flag was wrapped around the coffin, many reached to carry it, including Hany. Kamel was the one who discovered him. Carrying his mentor’s coffin was the least Hany could do for him. From politicians and celebrities to guards and tea-makers, one woman stood out with her golden hair – Erminia. She stood with him through the darkest times and now she wants to preserve her husband’s legacy, and above all, his name. As Ekaterina tells me wrapping her red toes, ballet is not about beautiful tutus.