Dancing on hot coals
Nehad Selaiha reads a powerful political statement in a new dance theatre piece by Dalia El-Abd
The first round of presidential elections had left me with the anguish of a choice of evils: it was either the fire of Shafiq, a former general and, therefore, an extension of the military regime that had ruled Egypt for close on 60 years up until February 2011, or the frying pan of Mursi, the candidate of the rigid, fanatical Muslim Brothers who, together with the Salafis, already dominated both houses of the National Assembly. Wanting neither and feeling at the same time that an en masse liberal boycott of the second round would surely bring the latter to power and, therefore, constitute a betrayal of everything one believes in and has lived for, 'To vote or not to vote' had become for me the question: a torturing political and moral dilemma. I can hardly describe the wear of spirits, the anxiety, the anguish of mind I felt in those days when all my philosophical resilience suddenly seemed to desert me. Like many Egyptians, I was feeling cheated, let down by my own people and was sunk into deep depression. It was in this mood, with my mind nearly paralyzed, that I bent my steps on 8 June to the British Council in Agouza to watch Dalia El-Abd's latest dance theatre creation Wesh w'Dahr (Back to Front).
I had not seen any theatre for weeks, not that there had been much of it around. There was too much real-life theatre on the streets, too much real-life suspenseful drama and roaring deadly conflict on the political scene to leave room for art. That all the arts, and particularly the performing arts, would suffer heavily should the Islamists come to power I felt as a certainty. Some kind of 'safe' theatre would probably publicly survive, I thought “ê" the timid, conservative, discreet kind that never provokes challenges, questions, or disquiets and that already exists in abundance. The only difference, perhaps, would be that all the actresses would be veiled, thoroughly covered and kept at a safe distance from the males on stage. Nor would this seem a big difference indeed, since few actresses in regional theatre ever appear with uncovered heads or in anything but the most modest apparel and rarely have physical contact with their male partners. What I call real theatre, however, would surely be suppressed, or forced to go underground to be mercilessly hunted and persecuted. And in this grim prognostication, dance theatre will be the most endangered genre and women performers will be the major victims.
It took the Iranian theatre over 2 decades after the Islamic revolution to show signs of rebellion and begin to recover something of its former vitality (see my review of the Iranian Fajr Festival in Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, Issue No.522, 22 February, 2001), and it was not until 2010 that a semblance of a dance theatre performance was attempted by choreographer Atefeh Tehrani. This performance, a straightforward narrative in physical terms of Othello, was hosted in Amsterdam, in December 2011, in the 'Dancing on the Edge' section of the De Balie Festival. I was fortunate to see it, if only to be reminded once more, after my Fajr Festival experience in 2001, how embarrassing, detrimental and, paradoxically, obscene the no-male/female-touching taboo can be. No where was this so obvious than in the Desdemona-throttling-scene Significantly, another Iranian physical theatre piece called Mud, hosted in the same event, was burdened with no such taboos since it was performed by two men, albeit almost naked.
Would the Egyptian performing arts, already extensively conservative (with the female dancers in the national Ballet troupe at the Opera house forced, or choosing, perhaps, to wear opaque, skin-colour leggings. or full-body leotards under their tutus, or close-fitting shorts under their flowing dresses) have to suffer similar ridiculous restraints and inartistic absurdities? I still remember with unabated shame and profound dismay how the managers of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) had censored foreign shows out of fear of the Islamists, insisting on cuts and/or costume changes, particularly where women performers were concerned, and turning down many an excellent one when their absurd notions of modesty and propriety were rejected. Anyone who has listened to the outrageous pronouncements recently made by some of the most prominent leaders of the Islamist faction regarding women cannot fail to discern at once a paradoxical combination of obsessive preoccupation/fascination with and fear/revulsion of the female body. How to shroud it, enslave it, even mutilate it and shut it out of the public sphere seems the issue uppermost in their minds. In such an atmosphere, would the presence of women's bodies in the arts be tolerated?
Such thoughts were in my mind as I walked into the garden of the British Council and I had a grim foreboding that Dalia El-Abd's Back to Front could very well be the last modern dance theatre performance I would see for a very, very long time to come. To this was added my bitterness that a performance that had taken months of hard work to prepare and put together should only have a 2-day run. But distressing as this was, it was by no means surprising. This is a sad, but not uncommon penalty suffered by most independent artists in this country, and Dalia is no exception. Nor would I have, in ordinary circumstances, found the location of any untoward significance. The British Council has been hosting independent performances in its garden for the past 20 years at least. On this occasion, however, in the light of the imminent threat to the arts, particularly the art of dancing, and particularly when performed by women, the fact that Dalia El-Abd had hunted far and wide and high and low for a venue and could only find one on 'foreign grounds' seemed to hint at the future exile of all true artists and made my heart sink.
A tiled part of the garden shaded by trees and facing several rows of benches and chairs for the audience served as Dalia's stage. On the right side of the space, from the audience's point of view, sat composer Hassan Zaky at his lute, with 2 musicians “ê" Amr El Zanaty and Mostafa Bakar “ê" providing oriental vocal/musical accompaniment to the dance, while two metal tables faced us upstage. Then Dalia El-Abd and Hala Imam walked in, barefoot, presenting a startling contrast. While the former wore a revealing fuchsia dress, the skirt of which consisted of long straps that constantly revealed her bare legs up to the thighs (a rare sight in Egyptian dance theatre performances nowadays), the latter was completely swathed in black from top to toe, with nothing of her showing but the face, hands and, in fitful glimpses, the bare feet. Immediately, each produced a cardboard box marked on one side with an obvious sign of prohibition “ê" a black circle with a line drawn across it “ê" and proceeded to delve into it, bringing out different accessories to complete her outfit. By the time they finished, the initial contrast had acquired an extra dimension. Whereas Dalia, with her glossy blonde wig, colourful beads and bangles and vulgarly red-smeared lips, looked like a grotesque parody of Julia Roberts' hooker in Garry Marshall's 1990 Pretty Woman, Hala, with a black veil thrown over her face, rendering it barely visible, and black gloves, seemed to melt into a mere shadow.
When the two retired to the tables at the back, sitting separately but going through the same motions of opening invisible bottles, pouring out invisible drinks into invisible glasses and decorously sipping them, occasionally, always simultaneously, adjusting their clothes, fidgeting in their seats, nervously rising and sitting and occasionally staring at one another as if at their own reflections in a mirror, it was obvious that they were one and the same person, two sides of the very same coin. While the one concretely projected the image of the commodified, commercialized and exploited female body in capitalist, consumerist societies, the other eloquently embodied the subjugation, marginalization and effacement of that same body in other conservative, religiously fanatical and tradition-bound ones. That both images are products of patriarchy and capitalism and are equally false and destructive was strongly implied. The drama of the dance consisted in a double pull of attraction/repulsion between these two figures, physically translated into their attempts to take over and obliterate the other. The painful conflict in the female mind between these two irreconcilable, externally imposed images of self, the consequent loss of a sense of real identity and the feelings of anxiety, vulnerability and belligerence attendant on that loss were dramatically and succinctly encoded in the choreography and informed the body language of the two competent dancers.
The spiraling conflict does not end in the triumph of one side over the other; rather, it yields a gradual, subtly paced recognition of the falsity of the ideologically loaded, costume-imposed definitions of identity that ends in a decision to cast off all the masks to discover the real person underneath. This is visually translated into a daring act of stripping on stage that, ideally, should have left both actresses nude. But there are limits to even what Dalia El-Abd can dare in the interest of artistic integrity. When both actresses/dancers take off their outer garments, they appear in an identical costume consisting of a simple skirt and sleeveless shirt and look breathtakingly beautiful. The emotional impact of the moment of stripping was further enhanced by a lyric, sung in a style that suggested the Andalusian Muwashahat, of which the refrain said: "The glass has thinned out and the wine has become transparent“--ê" a metaphor that fluently summed up the message of the work. When the glass (outer appearance) does not hide the wine inside it (the body), the wine (body), in turn, becomes transparent, revealing the true inner self and achieving an integrity of presence in the world.
Though it continues to mine the same themes (particularly the examination of the dynamics and mechanisms that form the contemporary Egyptian cultural identity from a physical perspective, the relations of dress to body and identity and the celebration of the dignity and integrity of the liberated body), displays the same existential concerns and pursues the same artistic styles that have informed her former work, Dalia El-Abd's latest creation could be fairly described, among other things, as a true product of the 25 January Egyptian Revolution “ê" an honest reflection on the deep ideological fissures in the fabric of Egyptian society this revolution has revealed, with a particular reference to women's identities in relation to their bodies and to politics. Moreover, what has happened since 7-8 June when Back to Front was first performed, particularly the election of the Muslim Brothers' candidate as president of Egypt, invests the show's condemnation of any ideology that seeks to marginalize women, reducing them to objects of pleasure, or to their biological and domestic functions, with topical urgency and political relevance.