Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1407, (30 August - 5 September 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1407, (30 August - 5 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The curse of power

Nora Amin takes a close look at the only dance theatre production in the 11th National Theatre Festival


The Castle of Death
The Castle of Death

The Cairo Opera House Modern Dance Company participated in the 11th National Festival of Egyptian Theatre with Monadel Antar’s The Castle of Death, winning three prizes: best choreography (Antar and Sally Ahmed), best lighting and best set design (Amr Abdallah). And there is no doubt that Monadel Antar is one of those theatre artists who have become their own brandname. Few have contributed to as many events or won as many prizes locally, regionally and now, with a production like The Blue Elephant, which was recently performed in Serbia, internationally. But even more impressive is Antar’s phenomenal pace, with at least three productions a year.

Many might envy him but such prolificacy comes at a price: the inevitable fluctuations in quality and greater organisational requirements put the creative force at risk. Artists like Antar tend to find themselves forced to keep going even when they have nothing new to show for themselves; visibility becomes paramount. But it could be that taking a year off, suicidal as that might sound to him and his fellow artists, is what Antar must do to save his soul.

The Gomhouriya Theatre show of Castle attracted a remarkably young full house, dedicated fans of Antar and his lead dancer Amr Al-Batreek. Despite a last-minute change in the performance time, scores of them managed to appear a good half hour early, having apparently found out from members of the crew in their circles. I could only find a seat at the very top near the theatre’s iconic chandelier, which made the audience part of the show for me.

The Castle of Death shows the dynamics of power at a very ordinary level, presenting us with the usual ego clashes and fights to the death. With nothing new or exciting in the narrative or representation, I decided to focus on the choreography. And I was surprised to see Modern Dance Company performers failing to stay in synch for the first time, with some dancers not keeping time and others appearing to be unfit for the movements required of them. I could see hesitation and imbalance, which may be part of our natural physicality but are detrimental to a performance like Antar’s in which acrobatic movement — the athletic body — are defining aspects. Dance as athletic practise is of course its own problematic notion, but in framing this work within the restrictive norms of athletic physicality it also means that if one dancer founders, the whole performance is undermined, with no narrative or discourse able to rescue it.

In The Session, Antar emerged as a playwright and theatre director, with his choreographic position handed over to Al-Batreek, which could be why he appeared as a more focused theatre maker. Here, despite having Ahmed as co-choreographer, he fails to maintain that sense of balance. I don’t mean to compare the two productions but rather to understand why Castle did not live up to my expectations.

The performance is rich in set and costume, though I felt the lighting was somewhat random, at least it failed to illuminate the dancers adequately. Even the strategy of focusing on the few spots where most of the movement would take place failed, with moments in which arms, faces or half bodies were unintentionally in the dark. The privilege of access to Opera House resources is thus not matched by artistic responsibility and excellence.

There were two special moments when a dance was performed against the backdrop of religious chanting, a rare opportunity for Antar’s expertise in using religious chanting, traditional and Sufi music for modern dance, to shine. On one hand, it brings the dance closer to the Egyptian spectators and reduces the supposed foreignness of the choreography. On the other, it fuses spirituality with physicality, which otherwise always seem to be in contradiction to each other in our tradition. In this sense, Antar has a winning card, although winning cards can lose their magic if they are quickly burnt out.

Another special moment involved the sexual and physical manipulation of a woman by the character of the leader who later turns out to be a religious character. The scene breaks with the movement vocabulary of sexual scenes which have become standard in the dance scene in Egypt. The inventive and powerful choreography focuses on sexuality as a display of power and conflict, and the relation between the male and the female bodies is presented in a very political way. It looks harsh and true. For this one scene I salute Sally and Antar. Antar’s directorial touch, having the male character take out his religious symbol so that it becomes visible to the spectators after the exit of the female character so that he can return to his religious persona, is especially appreciated.

The Castle of Death shows us the evil necessity of killing one’s own friend in order to attain power. Betrayal is a condition, not an option. At every new level there will be a new leader to manipulate the rest and disperse them — this is the role Antar himself plays in the performance — as the rules of the game keep recycling themselves, as if death is a fate nobody can escape, especially if nobody can resist the temptation of power. Power and death are two sides of a coin. Maybe if we win power we can extend our lives. The irony is this is the same dilemma that Antar needs to reflect on: can the artist also beat the temptation to success and power in order to extend and renew one’s own creative life?

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