Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Satan’s session

Marveling at the energy and aptitude of Monadel Antar

The Session
The Session

It is beyond doubt that Monadel Antar is the most prolific Egyptian theatre director and choreographer in terms of yearly productions. Besides being the artistic director of the Cairo Opera House Modern Dance company (following the legacy of its founder Walid Awny) where he choreographs-directs at least three productions every year, he is also an active member of the state theatre sector. Monadel is full of new ideas and promising combinations, he is a model of the ambitious artist who does not belong to one place but dwells in the immediacy of each new creation.

Monadel’s most recent production is produced and presented at the Taliaa (or “Avant-Garde”) state theatre in Attaba Square. The Session premiered in the same week as Monadel’s Cairo Opera House production of Ibrahim Issa’s Mawlana, demonstrating how creatively abundant and how successful and in demand he is.

It is extremely interesting to me how he manages to break the barriers between dramatic theatre and dance theatre, and how easily he can step back and forth between choreography and dramatic-text based direction. Astonishingly enough The Session is also written by Monadel who seems to have a strong figurative style in classical Arabic which is actually quite rare in his generation. The choreography is not created by him, but by Amr Motreb, which is further evidence of his dedication to his position as a drama director-writer who wants to set himself apart as a choreographer by bringing another choreographer into his own production.  

The Session is an interdisciplinary performance fusing dance and verbal drama. It follows a long tradition of fascination with the figure of Satan and the eternal conflict between good and evil. The performance presents itself from the very first moment as experimental. Offered in the small black box of Salah Abdel-Sabour, the proximity of the spectators to the scene is extreme, creating a very special intimacy that decides accordingly all the geography of the performance as well as the physical placements and communication-relation with the spectators.

I cannot deny how impressed I was with the precision and space awareness of the actors-dancers. They performed very complex pieces within a space of four m x three m. Their team spirit was impeccable, with excellent coordination and collaboration, and an unmistakable craft in ensemble work that takes very intensive training and mutual understanding to be achieved. Yet I must also admit that the geographic size and height of the space did not provide the best conditions to view the piece, especially the dance parts which constitute 70 percent of the performance. We needed more distance to “see” the physical compositions, contemplate their meaning and realise their poetic-metaphorical dimensions. With a full house, and an audience seated on different levels, the performance seemed squeezed in the little space that is already occupied by a two-level set. I quickly realised that, seated in the first row, I could not appreciate the wholeness of a scene, nor could I dissect the complex relations within the group movement. I was only able to focus on the physicality of the actions and the emotionality of the dancers without seeing the whole picture, and without framing the aesthetics of the composition – something that requires distance to be perceived.

Monadel tells the story of the Satan that inhabits each and every human soul, Satan as the evil within all of us. He creates the performance as a ritual of exorcism while criticising exorcism itself. He reproduces what he rejects, probably for the sake of the potential artistic quality offered within the re-enactment of an exorcist practice. And he is right. The scenes of exorcism are outstanding in their quality of choreography, drama and overall performance. They give the performers a unique opportunity to show off their talent to the extreme, and for this reason alone one ought to enjoy what one should intellectually criticise.

A young woman (Eman Ghoneim) described as “from the race of Maria Magdalena” is facing her own demons. Sheikh Soliman (Fahd Ibrahim) and priest Isaak (Mido Abdelkader) are called upon to perform their magic in order to heal her and clear her soul from the Satanic infiltration. And so we dive into a universe of music, curtains painted with calligraphy, fervent dance, screams, black and red leather costumes and Satanic make up.

Step by step we let go of the need to follow a specific narrative and embrace scene after scene, exploring what each new wave in the drama brings in terms of dance and complexity. The waves never stop escalating. They escalate gradually and intelligently moving the whole craft of performance forward and challenging the performers to some suicidal moments. I must especially salute Eman Ghoneim for her versatility, a performer of rare calibre who combined dance and acting in a very organic performance defying all traditional stereotypes regarding the barriers between the two crafts. Eman put a piece of her soul in her performance to the extent of adopting the exorcist practice as part of her authenticity and sincerity. Just like her character she lost her breath, her face blushed by the extreme flow of blood, her heart raced and her eyes were full of tears while she searched for more oxygen to inhale amidst the darkest moment of the performance.

In such a small space it is very easy to tell true from false, the authentic from the pretentious. And The Session was true and made in all sincerity. The performers did not aim to fool or trick us but for the hard choice: to re-enact the truthful life of their characters.

One of the most outstanding duets in the performance is that between two of Satan’s servants played by Ahmed Adel and Karim Farrag. Their delivery of the lines in combination with the continuous movement demonstrated incredible talent and stamina. This level of performance will be added to Monadel’s accomplishments without doubt. The other stunning duet is between the girl (Eman Ghoneim) and Satan (Taha Khalifa). A scene of seduction by Satan that is composed in a unique way integrating the dialogue with choreography in one organic unity. The performance of Taha was at its best in this scene, specifically because his talent as an actor was very visible beyond the extremely loud tone that he adopted throughout the performance. The loudness was especially disturbing due to the small space which made it sound more like unnecessary screaming.

One of leading artists of The Session is Islam Abbas, the makeup artist who created a huge leap in the aesthetics of makeup and transformed the performers’ faces into an eloquent aspect of the scenography. Nonetheless the lighting design (by Amr Al-Ashraf) was incapable of competing with the makeup and costume design due to the restrictions of space, but his set ideas were quite clever especially in the creation of the necessary environment of exorcism.

The duet of the Sheikh and the priest was very successful in terms of the level of acting and the mechanism of cooperation and mutuality, but the presence of Christianity and Islam together on stage was not justified. In my opinion, one religious figure would have been enough as a reference to the religious heritage in relation to Satan and to exorcist practices. Having said that, one should add that the imagined love scene between the priest and the girl had a special flavour compared to the rest of the duets. It added a touch of romanticism that balanced all the previous harsh love scenes, and did not inspire any sense of sin (maybe in Satan’s best interest). Mido Abdelkader (the priest) had the thorough sensitivity as an actor to convey the peacefulness and docility of the character without any screaming while presenting the necessary lightness and flexibility as a dancer and avoiding any melodramatic performance that might have seduced him in such a role.

The Session recalls the tradition of films and performances inspired by the figure of Satan. It is a production that stimulates this artistic memory and revives it while trying to go beyond it. Monadel did of course succeed in leaving his own mark but he did not succeed in criticising the tradition, nor in transcending it. Taha Khalifa sounded very much like the giant actor Khaled Saleh as Satan in Khaled Youssef’s Rayes Omar Harb, in terms of intonation and voice quality, maybe he was unaware of this but for those who were it felt distracting if not disturbing. The overacting and continuous staring recalled Saleh’s performance.

The Session ends with the impossibility of negotiation between man and Satan which leads to the dramatic trick of the girl committing suicide to end the performance. During the final scene Satan’s argument seemed quite convincing and rational, worthy of respect: that the curse of evil is necessary for the balance of life, that it is God’s creation and part of the universal composition. For me the performance ended on the positive note that man has the blessing of being able to choose between good and evil, while Satan is eternally imprisoned in his curse. At the very end of the performance, Satan shouts claiming that his curse is a blessing for humankind, and that we should all be thankful for it.

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