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Nights of Thebes

The Nights of Thebes: Folkloric Festival of Luxor

by Shareen El Safy

Passing through a large canvas tent strewn with colorful Egyptian carpets, I paused in the draped archway. My breath momentarily stopped as I caught sight of the dancing feluccas skimming whimsically across the water in harmonious, synchronized movement. There were fifty or more of the proud native Egyptian boats motoring, following bow to stern in quick sweeping strokes, sails fully extended in brave but lyrical choreography along the River Nile by Karnak.

Sufis and Beethoven

Arriving from Cairo with a small group of journalists, guests of the Ministry of Culture, we rushed from the Luxor airport in time to catch the second act of “The Nights of Thebes,” a Festival for the traditional folkloric music and dance of Egypt, which was to be repeated over the next two days. This first glorious glimpse was one of many of the evening’s offerings — a rich weaving of the fabric of Egyptian culture, both past and present.

The theme of connecting ancient and modern times through the traditions of folkloric music and dance was the device that Artistic Director Walid Aouni used to present ten of Egypt’s foremost folkloric groups. Mr. Aouni was chosen by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny to stage the Festival, following last year’s stunning success as Executive Director to Vittorio Rossi’s opera, “Aida,” in Luxor. He is currently Director of the Cairo Opera Dance Theatre. Mr. Aouni’s works “Coma,” “Excavations of Agatha,” and most recently, “The Elephants Hide to Die,” are characterized by visually stimulating tableaux and singular flights of imagination. Working solely from intuitive vision, his creations challenge the critic to analyze and order. While his other productions have a more circuitous storyline, the Festival was a straightforward but vibrant and colorful presentation of form and rhythm. Touches of Aouni’s genius were apparent, however, deftly shaping the production.

The sheer size and scale of the production required resources and technical support which were supplied through the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the General Organization of Cultural Palaces. Undersecretary Mohamed Khalil was the General Supervisor for the project, which cost close to 1,200,000 EL to produce. Mr. Khalil is no stranger to large scale productions: he previously held the position of General Director of the National Folkloric Troupe of Egypt, and has also directed the huge annual International Folkloric Festival of Ismailia, held every August, as well as choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies for the Pan African games. He has been a long-time advisor to the budding folkloric groups of twenty-seven Egyptian regions, enabling the selection of this event’s participating troupes. Mr. Khalil has kept his fingers on the pulse of the development of each of the folkloric troupes, working to improve their high level amateur presentation in terms of costuming, choreography and training.

Laser Lights and UFO’s.

Over three hundred and fifty dancers and musicians convened for the Festival, each performing the dances specific to their regional character, including the Marsa-Matrouh Troupe from the Western Desert, the Arish Troupe for Folklore in Northern Sinai, Ismailia Troupe for Folklore from the Suez Canal, El Anfoushy Troupe from the South Mediterranean Sea, and the Al Buhaira Troupe from the Delta. Also participating were the Al Tannoura Troupe for Heritage Arts located in the heart of Old Cairo, the Al-Nil Troupe for Pop Musical Instruments, and the Aswan Troupe for Folklore from Upper Egypt and Nubia. These groups have previously been distinguished by award-winning international performances.

Production and staging of the event were co-ordinated with the Supreme Council of Luxor City and its chairman, Ahmed Fouad El-Sayed. Although there is an annual folklore festival in Luxor, it has never before been executed on this scale. The first night had a sold-out audience of fifteen hundred, but the entrance was stormed by several thousand more enthusiastic, not-to-be-turned-away locals, who filled the aisles and crowded into the stage and reflecting pool area, sometimes blocking the elaborate lighting display that had been prepared.

The stage itself consisted of three very large platforms, the center one lower than the outer two platforms which were connected by broad stairs upon which the cast of musicians and dancers would sometimes sit. Originally built by the Swiss company, Nussli Group International, for the “Aida” opera held in Luxor last fall, the stage, reflecting pool and spectator seating are portable, and can be reassembled in sections, as needed.

Mr. Aouni’s careful selection of the site and positioning of the stage echoed the expansive horizontal lines of the Nile and West Bank beyond, not only visually, but also in terms of meaning and metaphor. It was his intention, he relayed to me during a recent conversation, to connect or link the ancient past with the modern civilization of Egypt. “The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt are the only ones who say they will return. They can come for eternity, and return for another life.” With this concept in mind, Mr. Aouni designed a moving spectacle of the Pharaoh Tut Ankh Amoun arriving and later departing on a gliding gilded-oared barque, a careful imitation of an authentic royal boat, complete with attendants. The first night’s performance included Walid Aouni as the Pharaoh, sitting on a black lacquered replica of King Tut’s inlaid chair, watching the proceedings as if “he wanted to come and look to see what is happening in my country now with the artists, the music, dance and everything…” Mr. Aouni mimed the part, sitting open-mouthed in awe, puzzled and thoughtful about all he saw. The later performances included the part of the boy king, who would be moved to positions on the stage, as each folkloric group was presented.

Fellucas and folklore. Photo: Shareen el Safy

A wonderfully dramatic end to the first act featured a magnificient Arabian stallion charging onto the stage from the desert sands, which the pharoah then mounted, galloping furiously off into the night. The crowd roared their approval of both the beast and the beat. As Mr. Khalil pointed out several days later, “This area always has horses dancing in the streets. Most of the authentic dance in our villages comes from the horse — the movement of the legs, in the Sa’id especially.”

Other moments in the presentation were also very memorable for me. One was the use of a bright blue laser light to create a glowing triangle surrounding the oiled brown and powerful body of a male dancer from the Cairo Opera Dance Theatre. The laser was used simply but effectively, forging a visual link between the stage and the West Bank, as well as a direct connecting line with the sun (and solar eclipse) and moon, which were positioned low over the horizon of the Nile and created by lighting a hot air balloon from inside. Other lights illumined ships anchored in the distance, defining space and giving the audience a sense of perspective in the expansive outdoor arena. Several people commented to me that they had seen a saucer-shaped flying object that hovered briefly over the scene, pulsing colored lights, moving very quickly and at oblique angles, and then disappearing. Was it part of the show? some wondered. The lighting and sound technicians also saw it, much to their amazement, and insisted it was not something they had engineered.

Movement and flow were hallmarks of the presentation, with each vignette smoothly tran-sitioning to the next. Colorful costumes of pink and orange, purple and turquoise, yellow, green and red stripes, florals and polka dots juxtaposed the vibrant rhythms that would calm and relax the audience one moment and invigorate and animate them the next. The large crowd would sometimes take up the beat, clapping in time to the drums, or clasp their hands overhead, swaying communally to the sound. (The second night a collective audible gasp was followed by a loud murmur as the feluccas appeared, marshalling at the outer perimeters.)

Festival dress rehearsal, Ismailia Troupe for Folklore

Throughout the evening’s variegated entertainments, I found several dances especially noteworthy. The spoon dance from the Ismailia group, who for a few moments were accompanied only by their own syncopated clacking, was fresh and energetic. This troupe’s material seemed more modern and transitional, balancing newer elements with the old, as in their earlier orchestral use of the melodious harp-like sinsamiya. Another striking dance was the haunting Zar, a theatricalized version of the ages-old possession ritual. With hair flying and body flailing in response to the driving rhythms, the dancer would stagger and writhe in trance, in an effort to be finally freed of her inner demon. (Even in the present-day conservative atmosphere, such traditional gatherings still occur, and if driven underground will most probably continue as a popular healing ceremony.)

In contrast, the piece performed by the Marsa-Matrouh group was soft and feminine with delicate, elongated arm positions reaching above gathered skirts of cloud blue chiffon edged in gold coins. El Hagalla was first brought to the Western Desert several thousand years ago by Libyan settlers. In reference to this dance, Mr. Khalil discussed the fluid, changing nature of culture: “What we do in folkloric dance now comes from the ancient culture, but it’s something like a marriage with the culture now…Egyptian culture comes from deep within but (has been influenced) from many intermarriages between other cultures, and now our music and movements, clothes and buildings come from that. Between this and that”, he gestured broadly, “is our history.”

Mohammed el Nadi of Qena and folkloric musicians

A unique piece in the program involved one hundred dancers turning in synchronized movement in the ritual dance of the Sufi and Mallawaya traditions. Oddly, their hypnotic dance was performed to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As Mr. Aouni later explained, Beethoven had written the symphony near the end, as a triumphal salute to the fullness of life. Mr. Aouni combined the turning “Dervishes” with Western classical music in order to elaborate upon the theme of connecting the ancient with the modern within the wholeness of the universe. For me, however, this was a bit of a stretch, no matter how inspired a union. Even while acknowledging the theme of change and wholeness weaving through history, I found the choice of music disturbingly incongruous.

The dancers, male members from the various troupes, entered the stage covered in black, their backs to the audience. As the music swelled, they dropped their skirts, which were white when reversed, and turned in unison until they fell on cue, and began playing an Arabic rhythm on large sagat, or finger cymbals. It was challenging to train the dancers to move naturally to the unfamiliar Western rhythm, and it took two weeks of rehearsals to produce the surprising effect.

Another slightly jarring section was the parade of bicycles onto the stage during the finale. Although the meshing of converging lines was masterful, creating a dynamic visual pattern, the sight greatly contrasted with the previous elegant, lilting and naturally lush gestures and postures of the folkloric dances. The bicycles, held aloft at the end, were meant to represent modern life in Luxor, and be a source of amazement for King Tut, who had been escorted back to his boat, departing amid affectionate displays from those on shore. The ensemble then turned to us, the audience, and waved their goodbyes.

Each evening was a magical feast of delightful flavors from Egypt’s bountiful table. It was a pleasure to experience such a professionally staged production, which was well-rehearsed and superbly supported technically. Unfortunately, the show was offered only from the 18th through the 20th of November. For such a grand undertaking, it would have been appropriate to offer more weekends for the benefit of local theater-goers and tourists alike.

Artistic director Walid Aouni as Pharoah

I understand that demonstrations and competitions were held in Luxor in the previous weeks, as the visiting groups celebrated together in El Hagagy Square. The activities included, among others, a Tahtib or “stick” competition; tabl beledi, mizmar and dancing horses from Qena; and a special performance from Moham-med El Nadi singing about legends he learned from his father. (Obviously missing from the extended festivities were the Benat Mazin, or Ghawazi, a local Luxor family of traditional dancers who can trace their craft back one thousand years!) Opportunities to experience such rich legacys are rare indeed, and it’s unfortunate that publicity efforts for these displays were minimal.

It is hoped that next year the Ministry of Tourism will promote these events, making this an annual occasion to celebrate the diversity of Egypt’s traditional arts. As Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny says in the opening statement of the program notes, “…The real measure of civilization is how much people feel toward it and how great it is.” Respectful cultivation and continuance of her traditional folk arts will insure that Egypt’s treasures remain timeless.

Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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