Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 October 2009
Issue No. 967
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Can you call it avantgarde?

With the CIFET practically at the door, Nehad Selaiha ponders the identity of the Egyptian entries in the light of Richard Schechner's words

n his CIFET 'message', which he will personally deliver at the opening on Saturday, 10 October, guest of honour Richard Schechner notes: "What the avantgarde has become during the past 100 years or so is much too complicated to be organized under one heading", then goes on to list " five avantgardes" that "have emerged as separable tendencies" -- namely: " the historical", the "forward-looking", the "tradition-seeking", the "intercultural", and "a current avantgarde (always changing)." This 'current' avantgarde, he goes on to say "includes work that is future-looking, tradition-seeking, and intercultural" and warns "[A] single work can belong to more than one of these categories." I read the speech when it was sent to me to translate, and as I trudged among Cairo's theatres, comparing the host of Egyptian shows competing for the honour of representing Egypt in the official contest, I kept wondering how Schechner would 'categorise' them or whether at the end of the day he would simply throw up his hands in despair and get down to thinking up a completely new category.

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Where would he place, I wonder, the Heliopolis Academy's curious Faust ? -- A rendering of the first part of Goethe's epic, trimmed to fit within two hours, seamlessly staged by Christoph Graf and performed in the tradition of Eurhythmy (the art of movement Rudolf Steiner initiated in 1912) by the Academy members, with the help of one professional, Hamada Shousha, and a few German guest artists? When I saw this performance in 2006, it struck me as innovative with regard to the Egyptian theatrical scene; my judgment on it, published in the Weekly under the title "Mephisto in Elysium" on 16 Mach, 2006 (Issue No. 786), reads as follows: "Using an art form which draws on movement, poetry, music and drama, and with a competent chorus, a haunting score by Dietrich Sprenger, beautifully executed by a team of excellent musicians, led by Hisham Gabr, and eight fascinating Eurhythmists, Graf elicited from his cast some wonderfully rhythmical and moving performances without sacrificing the element of humour." Would the culturally mixed, Egyptian/German cast and crew automatically consign this Faust to Schechner's intercultural avantgarde category? Or would you say that since it draws on an art form developed at the beginning of the last century, and one which has a spiritual core (someone described it once as "an ensouled and spiritualised form of gymnastics") and centers on a belief that the inmost nature of the human being can be revealed through movements of the arms and hands, it would better/also fit into Schechner's tradition- seeking avantgarde?

And what about the Youth theatre's revival of Yusri El-Guindi's 1977 Antara, which draws for material on an Arab folk epic, subjects it to critical scrutiny from a modern, political perspective and, in terms of form, flirts with expressionism, Aristotelian tragedy and Brecht's epic theatre? Of the playwrights of his generation, El-Guindi is the most committed to dramatizing the literary folk heritage on stage and subjecting its inherited values, readily accepted assumptions and legendary, popular heroes to rigorous questioning in the light of his own beliefs. Central to all his work is the theme of individual versus collective salvation.

Here, as in the original epic, Antara, a black slave and poet/warrior of remarkable valour, physical strength and military prowess, finds himself in the paradoxical position of being the chief defender and celebrated hero of a tribe which basically despises him and regards him as humanly inferior. When he finally rebels and refuses to take up arms against the tribe's enemies, he forces his father, one of the tribe's potentates, to acknowledge him and wins his freedom. Nevertheless, like Othello, he is regarded as unfit to mate with one of the tribe's daughters and his desire to marry his beloved Abla is met with outrage and ferocious resistance. However, when he finally manages, almost miraculously and at great peril to himself, to obtain the exorbitant dowry her father asks for, which involves the invasion of a strong neighboring kingdom, he is united with her and, presumably, they live happily ever after.

El-Guindi, however, argues that they don't. His play parts company with the epic after the wedding ceremony. Antara's individual salvation is soon revealed as a mere illusion: in seeking to free himself alone, he not only betrays his fellow slaves, but also unwittingly gets himself embroiled in a bigger political game that robs him of his freedom of action and leaves him, despite the outward shows of pomp and glory, more of a slave than he had ever been before. Moreover, his criminal betrayal and base desertion of his fellow slaves and expedient alliances, or new forms of enslavement, corrupt his love for Abla, polluting it at the source. At the end of the play, having realized that unless universal enfranchisement is achieved no one can be truly free, this legendary hero stands alone and defeated, courting death at the hands of his approaching enemies as just retribution for his tragic error.

When Antara premiered at Al-Tali'a (Avantgarde) theatre in 1977, in a production by Samir El-Asfouri, it created quite a stir, and not only on account of its taut dramaturgy, stirring poetry, or original approach to the epic and pricking of many time-hallowed heroic bubbles. It was the time when Sadat's peace initiative with Israel, under the auspices of the USA, was tearing the Arab world apart and imposing on Egypt a terrible isolation and no one could fail to draw parallels between Antara's solo quest for freedom and Sadat's solo quest for peace. The tragic fall of Antara seemed like a warning and a prophecy of doom and gloom for Egypt. But 1977 seems quite distant now and Egypt is back into the Arab fold and seems to be doing quite well. Granted that the text, perhaps the best El-Guindi has produced so far and one of the classics of modern Egyptian drama, has much more to it than mere political comment and that Antara's poignant dilemma and tragic destiny could have universal appeal and timeless human relevance, the question remains: Why revive it now? Any one familiar with the Egyptian theatrical scene would tell you that most directors only approach the classics to make a political point or when they seem to raise a public issue that has topical relevance to the present. What did director Hassan Saad read in/want to say through Antara in the current production?

The set (thought up by the director and executed by Ahmed Shawqi) immediately gives you the answer. Initially, a grotesque reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, sporting a skull in place of the familiar head and raising its arm with a whip rather than of a torch, dominates the empty stage, which the lighting suggest is a desert scene. And as if that was not enough to send the message loud and clear, gradually, as the play progresses, huge feet, encased in laced, military boots, and topped by mailed trousers, suggesting the lower halves of armoured warriors from the middle ages, begin to descend from the flies until they form a gigantic wall that surrounds the stage on all sides, dwarfing all the characters. In the scene in which Antara strikes a deal with the ruler of the foreign, neighbouring state, a further pair of legs, this time female and bare, with laced up red shoes, are added, and just before the end, a torn and distorted map of the Arab world is spread across the stage amid loud wailing and is made to billow like waves while the heads of the slaves keep popping up and down from rents in it, like drowning people. In the shadow of all those boots and the towering statue, not to mention other visual gimmicks and the constant intrusion of songs and dances, El-Guindi's text was reduced to a naïve, wholesale denunciation of USA foreign policy, regardless of the different administrations, and a warning to any Arab regime that at any time takes it for an ally.

What ultimately saves this production and keeps it afloat is Hilmar Fonda's stunningly passionate and technically impeccable performance as Antara. Not only does it completely engross you and sweep you off your feet so that you do not notice the faults of the production, it also counteracts the simplistic directorial conception, restoring to the characters, and the play as a whole, its original richness and complexity. Such performances, where the actor saves the day, are not uncommon in the history of theatre, though fitfully chronicled. And while they may not make a difference to theorists, they make all the difference to the spectator. They are a healthy reminder that, like magic, theatre, be it 'traditional' or 'avantgarde', of whatever category or denomination, ultimately resides in the energy of the performer, in her/his power to balance on the cutting edge between the real and the imaginary and their capacity to freely traverse between them, sweeping us along in their migrations between the two worlds, and teaching us the real meaning of freedom.


The renowned theatre professor Richard Schechner, guest of honour at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre this year, will give the following address on the opening night

We live in a time of great crisis, violence, and unmet human needs. South of Cairo is Darfur; northeast is Gaza and the Occupied Territories; still further northeast, Iraq and Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We humans are ruining the air, oceans, soils, and forests. Billions of people are hungry, poor, sick, under- or unemployed, ruled by despots, exploited, and justifiably angry. Some are hopeless.

In the face of all this, what is the role of experimental theatre? Does it matter, can it somehow address the needs of today's world?

What the avantgarde has become during the past 100 years or so is much too complicated to be organized under one heading. There is the historical avantgarde, a forward-looking avantgarde, a tradition- seeking avantgarde, an intercultural avantgarde, and a current avantgarde (always changing). A single work can belong to more than one of these categories.

The five avantgardes have emerged as separable tendencies because "avantgarde" meaning "what's in advance of"--a harbinger, an experimental prototype, the cutting edge--no longer describes the multiple activities undertaken by performance artists, auteurs, directors, designers, actors, and scholars working in many different cultures under a wide variety of circumstances.

The historical avantgarde began in Europe during the last third of the 19th century. It soon spread to many places around the world. This first avantgarde was realism, which almost immediately evoked its opposites in an explosion of heterodoxies: symbolism, futurism, cubism, expressionism, dada, surrealism, constructivism ... and many more with names, manifestos, and actions that came and went with such speed as to suggest their true aim: the propagation of artistic difference and the destruction of whatever appeared to lay claim to permanence.

In Europe and North America, since the 1950s there has been both forward-looking and tradition-seeking artists. Those looking forward thrive on multimedia, the internet, holograms, robots, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and so on.

Some forward-looking artists -- such as Stelarc and Orlan, following scientists experimenting with genetic modifications and implant surgery believe they are creating a new kind of human being.

Others, such as the American Builder's Association, replicate the global web of communications mixing live performance with media and internet hookups. Forward-lookers enact two very different kinds of future: the utopian, and the oppressive.

Radically opposite to the forward-looking are the tradition-seeking such as the acolytes of Jerzy Grotowski throughout the world, or the practitioners of Japanese butoh.

The underlying idea of the tradition-seeking experimental theatre is that "ancient" or "archetypal" actions can be uncovered/ rediscovered by means of highly disciplined "performance research." This research is both personal and cultural -- and, generally, it is accomplished without using the digital technology that characterizes the forward-looking avantgarde.

The intercultural avantgarde is closely related to the tradition- seeking. The difference is that while tradition-seekers strive to make unified artworks, some practitioners of the intercultural explore contradictions and ruptures resulting from cultural contacts and mixing.

For example, Guillermo Gomez-Pena writes: "I physically live between two cultures and two epochs. [...] When I am on the U.S. side, I have access to high technology and specialized information. When I cross back to Mexico, I get immersed in a rich political culture. [...]I walk the fibers of this transition in my everyday life, and I make art about it."

Gomez-Pena's uneasy art enacts the situation that within almost every nation are people who feel they do not "belong," who live multiple cultural lives. The nation as a category is dissolving. On the other hand, some intercultural theatre makers celebrate this diversity.

Ong Keng Sen's Flying Circus Project brought together artists, genres, and styles from different Asian cultures. Ong writes: "The Project is an ambitious large-scale laboratory that brings together diverse Asian artists -- documentary filmmakers, drag queens, visual artists, rock and computer musicians, disk jockeys, modern dancers, and actors, as well as ritualists, and other traditional performers."

The fifth and last of the categories is the current avantgarde, by definition what's happening now. Of course, "now" is always changing, both in regard to time and place.

I don't know what I will see here in Cairo, but I know it will be unique to the given circumstances of this Festival, its organizers intentions, and the experimental theatre world as viewed from an Egyptian perspective.

The current avantgarde includes work that is future-looking, tradition-seeking, and intercultural. What we see here during the next 10 days will give us a basis for measuring how far the current avantgarde is from the historical. Is the work we are going to see innovative? Does it offer new ideas regarding at least some of the global problems I outlined at the outset of my talk?

I believe that artists -- experimental artists especially -- have unique responsibilities. Etymologically the word "experimental" means to go outside or beyond the boundaries. Boundaries are both actual and conceptual. Boundaries separate nations, peoples, and ideas. Often boundaries are necessary. But there are also times and places to cross boundaries, to think the unthinkable, and perform within the realms of the imaginary both what is happening now and what is to come.

Experimental science proceeds on the basis of hypothesis, testing, and revision. Artistic experiment is something else. Experimental art proceeds on the basis of embodying, metaphorizing, and playing with the whole range of human imagination.

To what purpose? To push the boundaries further, to expand the horizon, to challenge accepted orthodoxies, to create temporary but strong communities of artists and audiences, to show how people can cross over from the imagined to the actual and back again into the imaginary and then to the actual and so on in an ongoing process.

It is by living this process of crossings, of going outside the boundaries and returning, and then going out again, and again, that experimental artists contribute to the well-being of humanity.

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