Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Walid Auni
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Walid Aouni:

Apples from the deep green sea

Profile by David Blake

So begins one of the grandiose scenes in Walid Aouni's Shahrazad. And the black bird descends to earth -- is stripped of his velvet midnight plumes, raped and flies off in a rose pink storm.

Is this immense creature an avatar of future joys, or an avenging angel bringing death and destruction? As in so much of Aouni's work in the theatre, the question remains open. There are no answers, only questions. And he is not of "now," he is "then". It's his very uncertainty and his understanding of it and himself that provides much of his fascination as an artist. Everything is wide open. Time has fled the scene, gender and identity also. He invents strange, weird and terrifying games of children to be played at dusk as the light fades behind huge beech trees. In spite of his 50 years, he still revels in being a child -- sheep, sheep, come home, we can't, we're afraid, what of? The wolf. The wolf won't be home until 12 o'clock tonight, so sheep, sheep, come home.

So quick, run for it. Try to make the safety point before the light fades, but shadows, hands and breathing bodies prevent you -- and an Aouni theatre scene has commenced.

Do you, the spectator, really ever know where you are? It's best not to try to find out. Keep what you've got and hurry on because the end may be frightful. Aouni is never afraid to carry his dreams to logical conclusions, even if they explode.

He was born in Beirut, where the deep green sea washes the city clean each day. There is a rhythm to Beirut even if it is the rhythm of disaster, because green seas wash away disaster. It is the Beirut rhythm, and so it is the rhythm of Aouni. It is the sea -- he is forever on the move, the rhythm of constant change colours all he does. There is no one like him, he repeats himself but, like the sea and its waves, everyone is different from the one before, hence a long line of theatre pieces that do their best to antagonise the concept of dance theatre. Aouni himself, his dance theatre and a lot more besides because dance theatre is really a tale about nothing. It has so many parents and persuaders, all working to little effect. The battles are all won and lost -- only to begin again -- which leaves the tough little section of the theatre open to classical ballet, spoken theatre and opera. Exactly where they were at the beginning.

A better word for Aouni and his long line of creations could be theatre extravaganzas because they are deeds and events that go far beyond this special branch of the theatre. They draw on almost every thread that makes the theatre work. He is really a creator of operas without singing. Sometimes this original opera type forms a group, as in Shahrazad. The spider boys and girls decked out in their Mameluke finery look like a Cairo street crowd on the move.

At other times, there are people who belong to no one -- lone body-spinners like night moths who dance with their own shadows -- all from the streets. Like Yves St Laurent did years ago, taking the outlandish gear of the young Paris street types of the 1950s and their gestures and putting them in the exalted halls of Paris couture, so Aouni has taken the weird colourful types from the Cairo streets and put them on the stage of their own Opera House.

There they become exalted legendary types, owing nothing to anything but the city that gave them birth. This accounts for their appeal to some and the almost repellent effect they have on others who are not used to the streets moving into the halls of art.

In this city today, better don't talk, dance.

"When I was a baby," says Aouni, "which was a long time ago, I always learned about lies time tells, how it plays cynically with the only things that bother about it -- human beings. Tools, dolls." So he began early as a young choreographer to play his own games with time. He more or less eradicates it like Marcel Proust, but he never stops talking about it.

For example, movies are put through an eradication machine of his own. Gosta Berling -- Flesh and the Devil, Greed -- old tattered stars are sliced up. Garbo is dismembered but comes out a better siren than when she went in the film mill. In the shade of Agatha Christie, Alice in Wonderland's white cat, street soiled by his midnight lusts, emerges unforgettably as a male mix of Gary Cooper, in the film Under Two Flags, and Robert De Niro in The Godfather. Aouni has destroyed the lot of them, turned them into a theatre spectacle, subtler than dance. He has made his own medium. All his nightmares are too awful to dream to the end, so wake up and scream, another Aouni day has become.

All this endless, almost cinematic moving and shunting one age on top of the other then collapsing them into a sort of kaleidoscope and thrusting them on the ever-accommodating theatre stage produces a tempo of its own. He's fast, almost too fast for concentration in the theatre. Then the machine breaks, there's a screech and a crunch and we go slow, slow, slow. Never a dull moment, it has little to do with anything, except the Aouni imagination that has created the lot. All this activity is wrapped in music, the detailed records of which would make an interesting read of their own.

From his earliest years, the small boy must have crammed musical feelings one upon the other, as he has done with the visual pictures and with 20th-century music; he has made a collage of his own which lies dormant in his head until needed and then erupts into scenes where it is immediately useful. Who but he would have used Furtwangler's recording of the third act Prelude of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde for the white cat episode of his piece The Last Interview? It should never fit. It is outrageously against the white cat episode of the book Alice in Wonderland, but it works. It is sad, grand, tragic and absurd.

From the beginning of his work, when he was granted his degree from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, he has gravitated to the dance. He worked in 1979 to found the Tanit Dance Theatre, which appeared in Brussels. Then the major influence of his theatre training was with Maurice Béjart, with whom he worked from 1983 to 1990. He says Béjart awakened him to all the possibilities he has since applied to his work in the theatre. Who named all the activities of the theatre of his time dance theatre? It is not quite clear because Béjart was known everywhere as the Béjart Ballet for his experimental and exciting activities. Pina Bausch, a friend of Aouni's, has no title at all. She was dance itself with no further appellations necessary.

Aouni's childhood in Beirut may have helped him to keep wide open his manifold interests which led to the type of dance works he has created. His mother was a successful writer of romance fiction, and his father a steadfast supporter of his endlessly interesting beginnings. He does not suggest either any particular pleasure or strife about his parental influence. He seems to have loved everyone. It is a habit he still possesses with a passion that is disconcerting. Not for him is gossip or scathing scandals, he just doesn't seem to have time for it.

He prefers dreams of future works, what he calls "tapestries flying through the air like the magic carpets of Aladdin and the work of polishing the genie's work." He enjoys toil, he never tires and nor does his good humour tarnish, even under steamy rehearsal conditions when the electrodes can explode at any moment. Aouni never screams. He often shrinks a bit and becomes a dear lost soul afloat in a sea or warfare, but no frowns. He smiles as if from a Happyland of his own.

However, his defences of this piece of private real estate are formidable. No trespassing. Absolutely forbidden. Don't come further. So apparently things that appear totally chaotic in rehearsal work themselves out and Aouni's pattern moves seamlessly into place.

His company has regular and known dancers who seldom leave him. The easy relation of his working tempo never changes; he can solve horrible unforeseen problems, last-minute decisions before setting out on a tour with no flap visible. At home he can often appear to be passing over into the Promised Land. But it is private and never shows in public. His self-control for someone so relaxed is almost out of proportion to the efforts he achieves.

From the start, with a work called Icarus, his first, faulty but full of promise, to The Excavations of Agatha, dark, brilliant, cynical and cruelly funny, the dance of the Anubises was one of his high throws into that established mummy-love-and-coffin-worship of mainline Egyptology. This ballet began a quality he has never lost. For one so gentle and smiling, some of the movements demanded from the male dancers in his company always take to the limit the physically possible. It looks easy but never is and can be bone-breaking. His male dancers could be described as the world's best. They seem to arch themselves, with their muscles flashing, take off into mid-air and one fears how they will land on earth without injury. These men make up the basis of the company and bring to the performances a strong athletic thrusting forward feeling totally lacking in any other dance company.

The Egyptian male dancers of Aouni's group receive rowdy appreciation when they travel abroad. He generously pushes the troupe to effort and more effort and it all bears results. The entire company are individuals who peacefully melt into the general personality of the show. The stars are all rewarded. Their dancing and movements receive the full appreciation of the company. After Agatha, the works seem to come thick and fast.

The dance company was only formed in 1993, yet by 1999 had done Elephants Hide to Die, grand mixing creatures with contemporary life, a legendary and disturbing work that won an important prize in Munich.

The last interview, long and Proustian, full of horrible holes and disturbing corridors into the dark recesses of the mind, a hold-up that seems to end in the universal cage. Then the Desert of Shadi Abdel-Salam, a tribute to the late unique cinematographer, taking Aouni's output to a high plateau of achievement, which included a scarecrow (a creep-around infantilism) and left viewers in the devastated landscape. Song of the Whales, sad, very painful, often beautifully exact in dealing with these noblest of creatures, but cruel and shocking.

Then came Shahrazad. It seemed to be the piece awaiting Aouni's special gifts from the beginning of his far-away days. Everything about Shahrazad was called for and achieved.

Walid Aouni was the hostage of fate for his own good. He was too young to have heard the originals of his music, but his appreciation is a mixture of Wynton Marsalis, Chuck Berry and Harry Carney as witness. Rhythm, choice of mood and sheer insolence of concept cannot be bettered. These composers were the background of one of the great choreographic movements that helped make Aouni. Busby Berkeley particularly, who went from Broadway to Hollywood, designed there many of the musicals which influence until now the dance of all times, including Broadway Melody and Flying Down to Rio. Berkeley's influence was terrific. He released dancing from classic formulaism and merely good-humoured ballroom to wild go-as-far-as-you-can types, which ended with rock. He turned Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a pair of flying falcons who enchanted the world.

Here lay the beginnings of Aouni, because Busby Berkeley in one big romantic embrace released dance to people who never thought of themselves as dancers: the rude or laid-back masses from the streets. The Berkeley idea has never changed and Aouni can demonstrate every sort of dance craze of that time, right up to his own children, from the streets of Cairo. That this dance can travel and impress is shown by the Aouni troupe, which demonstrated recently when he took it to the Recklinghausen Festival of European Dance in May/June and the entire audience -- 6,000 a night -- stood shouting "Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!" Things like this can happen anywhere. Some can sing and some can't. Aouni sings joyfully sometimes and at others tells of those who can't sing at all. He chants his own music from the bottom of the deep green sea, and like the magic apple trees of Thalassa, his protective goddess of the Wave, their trees bear fruit.

photos: Randa Shaath

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