Homage to the Pyramids

Pyramids and the Revolution is a new adaptation of Maurice Bejart’s ballet Pyramide – El Nour. The new production, performed between 4 and 9 July (except 8 July) brings together all the Cairo Opera Ballet Company dancers.

Published on 7 July 2011 in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

The ballet was revived and developed by Erminia Kamel — Artistic Director, and Abdel Moneim Kamel — Artistic Supervisor.

“The original ballet was choreographed by Maurice Bejart in 1990 and dedicated to the Cairo Opera House,” Erminia Kamel, Artistic Director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company explained. It was performed by Bejart Ballet Lausanne, one of the top dance companies in the world, founded by Bejart in 1987 in Switzerland. The last rehearsals of the ballet were conducted at the foot of the Pyramids. Kamel explained that the ballet was to be staged in front of the Pyramids but at the last moment was moved to the Cairo Opera House where it was performed for one evening only.

In Pyramide – El Nour, Bejart outlined the history of Egypt, going through major historical eras: Pharaonic, Greek, Islamic, as well as the era of Bonaparte and modern Egypt. “Bejart didn’t include the Christian period,” Erminia Kamel explains, “concentrating on other historical landmarks, and of course he did not live to see the 25 January Revolution. We tried to follow Bejart’s choreography in all major outlines and movements, yet still it cannot be considered an exact copy of the original production,” Kamel says, stressing how each company adds its own touch to an artistic work. She points out two important scenes added to the ballet by Abdel Moneim Kamel and herself, for which they created choreography together — the most pronounced departure from the original, and a successful one at that.

Even though the last scene depicting the revolutionary spirit of 25 January Revolution was drawn in a very direct way, belying the subtle symbolism of Bejart’s work, the message it carried was important to Egyptians. For its part the scene “Christian Egypt” works as a bridge between Greek and Islamic Egypt.

Though very symbolic, Bejart’s choreography is potent. He operates with strong movement supported it by colours corresponding to each era presented: black figures dominate Pharaonic Egypt, sharp red swathes Greek culture, and green prevails under Islam. Kamel completed the pantone with degrees of brown and beige for the Christian era and white symbolising the purity of the 25 January Revolution. Such clear division of colour allowed Bejart to effect a clear distinction between the scenes. At the same time, however, it truncated the ballet into periods well known to foreign cultures. Capturing seven thousand years of the Egyptian history is a very difficult task and understandably any artist would have to make some omissions. Bejart’s choices are obvious, while historical events seem like a background and a pretext for his real field of expertise — choreography — to surface.

Bejart walks us through a variety of great individual numbers and well performed solos, such as those by Hany Hassan in the role of Dionysus (Greek Egypt), Ahmed Yehia in Spiritual Song, Anja Ahcin as the woman (Islamic Egypt) and Ahmed Saleh in the Egypt of Bonaparte. Group scenes, whether supporting the soloists or presented as complete tableaux, were equally impressive at the level of choreography. Bejart presented his eras of choice in modern-dance format, sometimes providing astonishing tropes, such as the depiction of Om Kolthom in modern Egypt, performed by Sahar Helmy.

Each soloist excelled in his role on 4 July, the first night of the performance. Who better to embody the Greek period than Hany Hassan? Likewise Ahmed Yehia’s sensitivity and Anja Ahcin’s grace… “This time all the company is involved in the ballet,” Erminia Kamel asserted. “We created double and triple casts for many roles, while the core of the ballet is also changing.” Kamel believes that multiple casts not only help to distribute the energy, but also give equal chances to all the dancers to show their unique skills. Many productions of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company are characterized by a mirroring of the movements and a sense of solid axis — symmetry. Bejart breaks the repetitive contrasting poles to give a new and eternal flow to the movements. Even if at times, there is room for improving the definition of lines and the expression of vocabulary, by adopting Bejart’s language the Cairo Opera Ballet managed to create a performance standing out in its repertoire.

In Christian Egypt, choreographed by Erminia and Abdel Moneim Kamel, the company went back to their symmetry, though in this particular case it served the main purpose, with the dancers forming a cross from a bird’s eye view for example.

***

Many aspects of the choreography could be superlatively described. On some occasions, however, it seems better to approach the performance as art in which dance and creative movement happen to prevail. This is enveloped in a simple and impressive set designed by Mohamed Al Gharabawy and Erminia Kamel, and brilliant costumes that are reproductions of the original costumes designed for Pyramide – El Nour by Gianni Versace, who cooperated with Bejart on several occasions.

The ballet contains many scenes in each section; their multiplicity and diversity give every viewer something to relate to — this is definitely a performance for many cultures. With such a strong visual backdrop, history is a good pretext for creating artistically successful paintings; and Bejart pinpoints elements that present the uniqueness of each era; as such, they are attractive to many foreign cultures. A closer look at a few historical accents in the ballet reveals a mélange of facts underscoring common clichés of Egyptian history.

Pharaonic Egypt and pyramid builders open the ballet, indicating the Old Kingdom’s third dynasty, in the 27th century BC. On the other hand, the introduction of Isis and Osiris makes a historical shift to a new religious theme prevailing during the New Kingdom (between the 16th and 11th centuries BC). Yet it was “Egypt of Bonaparte” scene that carried the greatest number of historically colliding elements. For some European cultures, it sadly remains standard procedure to depict Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt as a memorable heroic deeds. Looking at the same facts from a different perspective, Bonaparte’s campaign to Egypt (1798-1801) offered little to the Egyptians themselves.

The choice for this scene of Symphony no. 9 in D minor — Choral (last movement) — is even more confusing. The final, fourth movement, represents “Universal Brotherhood” and is the composer’s take on joy and jubilation, something that cannot be said about Bonaparte in Egypt. Moreover, it is very doubtful whether Beethoven himself would have approved of this forced link between his last symphony and Bonaparte. In 1824, by the time Symphony no. 9 was completed, Beethoven’s rage towards Bonaparte was already well recorded: it is well-known that the original dedication of Eroica (Symphony no. 3) to Bonaparte was intentionally erased by the composer by the time the symphony was performed in 1805. There is no chance that Beethoven would have revised his views again in the “Ode to Joy” of Symphony no 9.

The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 was Bejart’s original selection as it was his choice to reach out, as the programme notes put it, to “the singing of Hamza El Din (a famous Nubian folk singer) and two of Oum Kolthom songs: Ta’ebon garat demoo’y nadaman (Regretting my tears flowed with sorrow) by Riad El Sonbaty and Siret El Hobb (The tale of love) by Baleegh Hamdy”.

Tarek Sharara, composer and music critic, supported the ballet production with his own selection of music. He added some Iranian, Turkish and Greek melodies perfectly serving the purposes of various scenes of the performance. The Christian scene carried “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem, while the 25 January Revolution finale was built on Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 with American film music.

With Bejart’s core ideas and choreography further developed and expanded by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, supported by Sharara’s musical expertise, “Pyramids and the Revolution” is a unique performance by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. It is important for the company to present works referring to the spirit of the people — and so Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus might be justifiably anticipated. The first night of Pyramids and the Revolution didn’t attract enough audience and possibly one of the reasons is in the blunt title of the performance, which does not reflect the subtlety of its its history and artistic journey.

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