Erminia Kamel: Once,in the Scala Theatre,25 years ago
The artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Erminia Kamel, was only just beginning to make her name at the Scala Theatre when she met a similarly young Egyptian dancer who was there on a temporary basis. One thing led to another, and before she realised what was happening she was faced with a terrible dilemma; either it ends then and there, or she goes home with her fiancé, who was determined to bring the classic dance back to life here in Egypt, where, during the belle époque, he knew it had once flourished. She could be part of this potentially very rewarding experience, or she could stay and continue to "be spoilt", making an international name, eventually, with relative ease. It is not clear whether she was just following her heart, but since then, exactly 25 years ago this month, she has not regreted choosing the uphill path -- over in Egypt.
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The many faces of the prima ballerina, indoors and out, on the ground and in the air
Erminia Kamel is the epitome of ballet, that increasingly anachronistic "image of perfection... fashioned amid a milieu of wracked bodies, fevered imaginations, Balkan intrigue and sulfurous hatreds where anything is likely," as the late American Journalist Shana Alexander put it. She fulfils Ninette de Valois's physical specifications for "the classical ballerinas": both size and proportions are simply made for the dance, she seems to hover slightly above ground as she stands, both the lightness and precision of her gestures are remarkable; but her physique notwithstanding, it is Erminia's life, at least the last 25 years of her life -- her time as a surrogate Egyptian (by Cairo Opera as much as marriage), that best illustrates de Valois's notion of growth by learning: "It's either not good and it dies altogether, or it develops." Her wide, childlike eyes are focussed; amid the bureaucratic strictures of the cultural establishment, the pressures of an often limited budget, the intrigues of the dancers -- many of whom are quite literally Balkan, she manages to stay calm and somehow miraculously removed.
"So I start from the very beginning," she says in her stereotypically Italian English -- a deeply endearing idiosyncrasy -- Erminia has not learned enough Arabic for an interview, which doesn't seem to undermine her sense of belonging to the country in any way. "When I came, how I came. Yes?" She is fluent, efficient, eager to get the job done, but never in a curt or over-enthusiastic way. "All my formation, my school, my academy, it was in La Scala Theatre in Milano, and after eight years of school I enter the corps de ballet." The modulations of her voice recall yet another statement by de Valois: "And then you have the classical ballerinas, they're like sopranos." She resumes quickly, a Milanese accent giving rhythm to her statements, "and I was there as a soloist for four years. And then, one Egyptian dancer, a soloist, came from Egypt. And this was Abdel-Moneim Kamel," she refers to her husband, the well-known choreographer and principal force behind the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, whose career since April 1982 has paralleled her own. "There was a moment that we were working together" -- amazing, the way she rolls her "r"s! -- "and I met him again after the work. So we start to know each other, and we decide to marry. But he told me, I will not stay in Italy because I have a duty in my country. He wanted to rebuild the ballet company which was at that time completely destroyed. He told me I will return to Cairo after maximum one year... That was in 1981. So, after one year of working together in the Scala Theatre, I 'ad to decide: or to leave 'im, or to follow 'im. And for me, you know, it was a difficult decision."
Erminia had been sheltered: since age nine her life had revolved entirely around the dance; to qualify for the Scala, she explains, she had to get the grades at school just like everybody else, so she was burdened with a very intense schedule: dance in the morning, study in the evening; she sounds like a little go-getter; by 11 she had graduated from the academy to the hallowed theatre and things just got harder and harder, particularly in the last four years of her education, age 16-20. It wasn't something her parents forced on her, either: "No, it was absolutely my decision and they didn't even think that I could continue, because it's very demanding and they were afraid that it would be just a hobby and then later I would lose my chance to study, to go to university, to make a something of my life. There is a cousin, a very far cousin to my father who happened to be -- but I didn't even know when I started -- a first dancer in Metropolitan Theatre of New York. Her name was Maria Gambarelli, in America they call her Mary Gamby. In the 1940s she was really one of the biggest star in Metropolitan. But I discovered later, when I started there was really no connection. She was living in America and then, when I start dancing, of course she came to me because it was a surprised, she was very pleased, and she was teaching me something, she was involving me in her career etc, but she knew when I was already in my fifth year of studying in La Scala. So this grow inside me, this passion, without any reason. Because my father is the architect and my mother, she was working in the administration in a bank, so they were far from ballet." Music of every kind had always been present, "especially classical music, but after that there was nothing related to ballet," and the girl responded to it in an unexpected way: she had simply found it in her to dance, to become a serious dancer; in the end nothing could stop her.
Abdel-Moneim had been perfectly clear, but Erminia's knowledge of Egypt was limited to the Pharaohs. The ballet scene proved even less adequate than she had expected on finally deciding to come along (she would also convert to Islam, because Abdel-Moneim and his family wanted her to, but in neither case did she receive any censure from her family): Few, isolated people were working slowly in the Academy of Arts with the benefit of neither opera house nor repertoire. Still, the prospect of (re)building a scene, of having something where there had been nothing, was instantly engaging. "The theatre of the academy, the Sayed Darwish -- I don't know, it was not well equipped, and it was small. Anyway, we started, he had to recollect the dancers that was leading the ballet company in Egypt, and he recollect 20 people, men and women, and with him, we start to put a small repertoire." Smaller works like Carmina Borana and Gamal Abdel-Rehim's Osiris were choreographed and performed, the dancers were receiving exposure, "little by little", forming the basis of a sustainable ballet scene in terms of both performers and performances; an audience would have to wait till the opening of the Opera House in 1989. "Because you know, to have a ballet company, you need a repertoire. When I came to Egypt, it was January 1982. So, with a preparation of around four months, we could stage already the second act of Gisele, and I was dancing not the first role but the second, the name is Mirta, the queen of the village, and I remember that my premiera was at the end of April 1982, that's why I say that it's 25 years. I don't remember, it was 28, 29, but I remember it was the end of April 1982. And I was dancing in Sayed Darwish, and then in Gumhuriya Theatre, before it has been renewed: it was a very old theatre, the chairs were broken. It was -- not like now; now it's a jewel..." So many years later, "La Scala and all the possibilities" pale by comparison to what has been achieved, she insists: "It was like a mission."
Nor was it easy, at that. Performances were "with the effort, with the difficulty": the company was ill- prepared, organisation was scant and ineffective, there was insufficient manpower, especially in the dance department. At the personal level, Erminia was the only non-Egyptian in the entire Academy of Arts, she says, a 1,000-strong institution with tough bureaucratic scaffolding and a forbiddingly homogeneous culture. She knew no Arabic whatsoever. She was used to unlimited budgets and infinitely superior conditions. She worked with her husband, never a good idea. And people were resentful of this lone foreigner who had presumed to come and teach them. Only gradually did they understand that, "it was not my purpose to take anything," that she just happened to come with her husband, that ballet was her life, and eventually, gradually, accept her. It was worth it, nonetheless, the occasional bout of regret notwithstanding: "I felt the enthusiasm of my husband and even the ardour of the dancers." The company had started out with 10 people, and four months on there were 80 on board, "because they understood that there was now a chance to really return back to ballet". By the same token, they came to realise that she was trying to help without asking too much in return, that she was, all things considered, on her own mission to further the cause they championed. "Little by little," she says again, people accepted the fact that they needed her.
Erminia is speaking of her first two years in Egypt, which were transformative: to this day she feels that, had it not been for such difficulties, had she not accompanied her husband back here, she would have grown up to be one of those dreamy prima ballerinas "that still exist" with her head in the sky and no genuine sense of compassion. In the Scala, she recalls, she only needed to ask for something for that thing to happen; she had no worries. Here in Egypt, "it was a completely other vision of the ballet." She finds those prima ballerinas "very childish", thinking only about their shoes and make-up, existing for other people only on stage; she is grateful to Egypt because "this, for me, cannot be". Dancers are busy people, with a huge physical and psychological burden, but if they can't be human beings, whatever they offer the stage feels hollow and pointless to her. Today much of Erminia's work involves not only training but also appeasing and counselling the dancers. She is as much agony aunt as mentor, something she is clearly proud of, even though she will not deal directly with the budget, which lies outside her mandate anyway. Egypt was a shock: "So I opened my eyes, I said, life is another thing." Financial straits, peer rivalry, the strain of integration: it all forced her to rethink her position. Since then she has never danced except as part of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, and she doesn't feel she has lost much as a result. Certainly in terms of travelling opportunities, the company has been all over the world; it has established itself as "a semi-professional company", which was the point of Erminia coming here in the first place. Since the opening of the Opera it has, rather more importantly for Erminia at this point, spawned a loyal ballet audience at the local level; and this is perhaps the greatest achievement of all.
The move to the Opera House -- following an official request to the ministry -- heralded more space. Abdel-Moneim could import dancers (still, 80 per cent are Egyptian) and the repertoire, which had already grown considerably, could be extended further. Regarding the quality of the company's fare, Erminia is profoundly honest: "you know I cannot compare with La Scala or Bolshoi but I can say, 'this is a good ballet company'." What she complains of, rather, is lack of publicity. In the second rank of ballet companies, some of which are very well-known and widely respected, the Opera Ballet Company can quite comfortably compete , but "just in the world of dance, between Africa and America there is a wall". Erminia has often had to field the astonished response of Europeans and Americans who are completely unaware of the existence in Cairo of a ballet company capable of performing big ballets, "I don't know, like Zorba, like One Thousand and One Nights," and making such a competent job of it. It makes her angry, she says, in a rare moment of genuine upset. Why must they be so astonished, every time? Why is it so hard to believe that such a company exists in Cairo? In 25 years she has registered the growth of "a real ballet public -- that they come and they know how to judge the ballet, with good, with bad. Before, everything, it was good. When I was dancing in Gumhuriya, they were applauding, very bad thing or very good thing in the same way. Now, the good ballet has success, the good ballet has not success, even with the foreigners' company" -- but she has also had to deal with the rise of conservatism and religiosity, with Erminia losing dancers to hijab, for example. "My background is different, so it is difficult for me to judge. Maybe if I was born here, I would never be a dancer. So for me I am completely neutral, I cannot judge. Just when I see a good dancer that leaves the ballet because she feels guilty, I feel sorry because I am losing a good dancer. Then, I can not judge anything else." To waste nine years of academy training and maybe six of performance because you have suddenly realised that this is a sin, however, makes Erminia "uncomfortable". Still, "I cannot judge and I do not judge anyone or any tradition, because I have a different background."
Erminia has had to maintain a delicate balance as she continued to work with her husband. She keeps categorically out of his battles, she says. She feels he has had to be unfair to her to avoid possible charges of nepotism. But by now it is something she is used to. If not for Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, she says -- and she emphasises the fact that she is saying this for the first time -- she probably would not be here now. They are not personal friends, but he has always trusted her, perhaps understanding her sense of a mission -- though she does not say so. She has happily ceded the role of dancer to that of coach, and gets "a tremendous satisfaction" from seeing someone develop on stage. She graduated from dancer to choreographer before she became artistic director, and although she still loves to choreograph, she doesn't have time for it: "In my mind I there is a big project, for many years that I have it: I want to make an Egyptian ballet, with an Egyptian scene, with Egyptian composer and full-evening. A big ballet. Of course I cannot do it alone, it is not something that one person can make. But I want to make like a theme. Because -- maybe I am exaggerating -- but I feel that Egypt is my second country, so I want us to leave something to express even my feeling. Maybe I will never do it but it is a dream, sometimes I think and read books and find fantastic stories. Then I think for example to a composer: there are so many composers here in Egypt, it is very difficult to choose. And to choose a contemporary or a symphonic, there is such a variety..." Erminia and Abdel-Moneim have a son, a commerce student who "doesn't want to know anything about ballet". Child bearing does not undermine a dancer's career she says, but "the sense, the point, the centre of all my life is my son of course". Not ballet? "No, no. No."