Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Losers sometimes win

By David Blake

David Blake Cairo Opera Ballet Company; La Bohème; Maria Teresa Dal Medico, choreographer and director; Ballet in Spite of Everything; Renato Greco, choreographer and director; Abdel-Moneim Kamel, artistic supervision; Main Hall, Cairo Opera House, 24 September

"Bingo! Hi! I thought I'd amuse you; let's talk about the opera."

"The what?"

"The opera, the Cairo Opera House."

"You mean that curious thing here on the tip of Zamalek island? I never have the time to go in the place."

"It doesn't matter. It is a genuine opera house, Bingo, Cairo's own. Everyone should try to love it whether they go in it or not, but it has a peculiar behavioural pattern -- peace, and then regular outbursts of accusative anger, damaging to individuals, but mostly to itself, if it ever expects to be treated seriously."

"Why can't it behave itself a bit better?"

"No one knows, Bingo, it's a difficult child of a glamorous parent, a sort of Sleeping Beauty. If it goes on as a dysfunctional opera house much longer, it will end as a tiresome nightclub with a good parking lot and a dusty reputation. That's the truth, Bingo, but no one seems to know it."

Does anyone really care about it as an opera house? If we judged by results, no. It moves in a vacuum with which no one knows how to deal except by the most banal means, and they always fail. They, whoever they may be, seem to have forgotten that some people out in the hubble bubble of Cairo do care and passionately love it, more in sorrow than in anger.

in Spite of Everything

Ballet in Spite of Everything

Whose eye was on this opening programme with the two ballets, La Bohème (Puccini music, dal Medico generalised choreography) and a holocaustic rigmarole by Renato Greco, Ballet in Spite of Everything (Malgré Tout)? How's that for irony? Both these ballets are in Cairo a second time round, having been here before a few years ago.

Malgré Tout was quite a different affair the first time it was here: sexy, dramatic and not at all bad as dance theatre. This visit it is holocaustic.

The stage is stark, empty, and everyone suffers a lot in plastic body suits. The light is Hell-red for everything. The opening scene is the only scene, with a huge mirror forming a wall giving a view of the sufferings of its cast of human remnants. And they do suffer, reduced to constantly writhing masses of body and limbs twining around each other: a vast ball of string with not the slightest variety in movements that are rather like 1920s eurhythmics -- a stage full of a heaving spaghetti-like mass. There is no choreography, just heave-ho. What a place! A sort of desert which is effective, but the writhing never ceases. No individual thing rises out of the pasta. The holocaust works in film, does not do badly in spoken theatre, but Malgré Tout is post-catastrophe and it is hard on the producers to make any sort of drama at all out of what is not a ballet: no dance, no upright movement, just writhings.

There is, though, a happening towards the end: two daisies grow up out of the tormented earth, just two simple white daisies. A sort of human creature moves towards them, cups them in its hands with infinite care, a mother's gesture of love and protection towards a newborn baby. Could it be? It is just a daisy, a symbol of what will be a new struggle for life and civilisation. It is a dauntingly long journey for us to have to travel after the journey we have taken to get as far as the holocaust. So be brave, tighten up, ready for the coming journey.

The first half of the new Cairo Opera Ballet's latest offering was a rehashed La Bohème. This is even more known than Aida, the one opera everyone does know, which is like a religion: nothing can put it down. This version of La Bohème as ballet was not even sad, just terminal. But unlike the white daisies of Malgré Tout, even this version of Puccini's sad song of blighted love and hopeless struggle had a seed of renewal at the centre.

Last time La Bohème was here we were given a full orchestral version of Puccini but without the voices, and we had the full pathos of Dal Medico's previous choreography. The ritual of love and death was clear and anecdotal. The two leads were performed by actor-dancers of great intensity. Rudy was cruel, obsessive in his love, and unsuccessful in his attempt to rescue a drug-addicted Mimi. She was danced by one of Italy's best ballerinas, a performance innocent, stubborn and pathetic, of a child-woman engaged in self-wreckage. Rudy's helpless rage at her death was heart rending. Mimi, performed by a great dancer, passed incomprehensible and unforgiving out of his life.

What was given this time was a sort of post-script to the first La Bohème. Nothing but a few signatures. There was no orchestral richness and, instead, we had a bald, battered piano rattling out the tunes of the opera. The setting was the same as the previous show: a dance classroom with the early morning ritual at the barre beginning with Mimi staggering on stage almost too weak to walk, let alone dance. She does a sort of pas de deux with a man, presumably Rudolph, and drops dead. There is not much of Bohème left to recognise except a showing of the effort to survive. Under the conditions which this offering of the Cairo Opera Ballet was created, it struck a chord -- the dance must go on.

At the final point Mimi comes rather to a sort of life. She raises her arms above her head in what was a beautiful gesture of protest against imminent departure, quivering like a leaf and crumbles to death. A certain note had been struck.

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