Grassroots Romeo – story of Bahiya according to The Knights of the Orient for Heritage

Photo by Sherif Sonbol
Photo by Sherif Sonbol

Between 7 and 10 October, Al-Gomhuriya Theatre hosted Bahiya, a ballet where the axes of traditional Egyptian and contemporary Western dance intersect. The performance will be staged again in Alexandria at the end of this month.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

Between 7 and 10 October at Al-Gomhuriya Theatre, the Knights of the Orient for Heritage (Foursan Al Sharq Lil Turath), a dance theatre company, performed Bahiya (presented in the programme notes as Bahia). Based on the play Yasin and Bahiya (Yasin wa Bahiya) by Naguib Surur (1932-1978), the remarkable Egyptian poet-playwright, actor and critic, along with Tell Us Bahiya (Ya Bahiya wa khabbarini ), it is in turn based on the folk ballad telling.

Knights of the Orient for Heritage was established in 2009 on the initiative of Farouk Hosni, then Minister of Culture. With Esmat Yehia as its first artistic director, the troupe was under the umbrella of AlBait Al Fanni for Folkloric and Performing Arts, one of three Artistic Houses operating under the Ministry of Culture. Later the troupe went into the hands of choreographer Walid Aouni and was adopted by the Cultural Development Fund. Today, the Knights of the Orient for Heritageis jointly under the Cultural Development Fund and the Cairo Opera House. In early 2012, Karima Bedeir – who had been working with the dancers together with Aouni – became director and choreographer of the troupe; and, in April, she staged the premiere of her first independent work, Bahiya.

Choreographed and directed by Karima Bedeir, with sets and costumes by Anis Ismail, Bahiya revives the perennial question of the ballad, “Who killed Yassin?” Surur points to a feudal pasha willing to punish Yassin for leading the peasants’ revolt. According to the story, Yassin wanted revenge for pasha’s rape of Bahiya, his fiancée. But the revolt of the peasants is more than just an act of anger in solidarity with Yassin and his fiancée’s pain; it is a collective cry against all forms of injustice and humiliation exercised within the feudal system. It is hard not to draw comparisons with the last two years of Egyptian history: among many elements, the January 2011 revolution aimed at ending corruption and social injustice. Bedeir feels that, however much this parallel is justified, the choice of dramatic material was not directly or uniquely motivated by revolutionary visions per se. “As artists, we are always influenced by our social and political surroundings. All people are,” Bedeir comments. “Yet in addition to all that, I often tend to look into the situation of women. Bahiya isone of those texts that inspire me on many levels.”

A show that is less than an hour long manages to present a number of scenes that serve as images representing an oppressive and exploitive feudal community, and on the other hand point to the cultural riches of Egypt’s villages and its peasants – often oppressed and humiliated by feudalism. In the scene where both groups meet, the axis of hatred and injustice explodes with remarkable dynamism – in the dancers’ movements. No doubt, Knights of the Orient for Heritage consists of a handful of skilful dancers, many of them graduates of the Ballet School in Cairo. Their power emerges in many group scenes where a cumulative energy turns the dances into visually compelling tableaux.

While a few dancers occasionally struggle with their bodies’ limitations, this fact does not take away from the apparent effort that the group exerts throughout the show. Scenes that include a smaller number of dancers add particular flavour to the show and give the choreographer a chance to work on individual accents emerging from each dancer. As such, the scene between Haidy Hani (Bahiya), a remarkably talented dancer, and her drama-fiancée Yassin – much like the one between her and her intimidator – add an important aesthetic flavour to the dramatic skeleton. Stronger passages between consecutive tableaux would have made for a smoother flow.

Reaching deep into the folkloric material, Bahiya is soaked in the melting pot where the axes of traditional Egyptian and contemporary Western dance intersect. This is very apparent in the choreographic language that combines contemporary ballet with traditional Egyptian dances. Equally, Sherif Reda uses adapted music, combining traditional oriental melodies with Western harmonies and rhythmic dance music. Understandably, musical adaptation is a solution to the current budget limitations imposed on the troupe. However original music composed especially for the performance would give it stronger character and unity, protecting the group from copyright infringement should they perform outside Egypt. Bahiya is a performance that addresses all social strata. Due to its multilayered constitution, it can be easily absorbed by many kinds of audience. Elements of Egyptian folklore are interweaved with contemporary dance expressions, helping such a show to communicate universal aesthetic values and find a positive response across cultures.

It is obvious that with Bahiya, Karima Bedeir remains faithful to the Knights’ main mission. “The point behind the creation of the troupe was to bring Egyptian heritage to a wide audience through dance performances, marrying folkloric material to contemporary art forms,” explains Bedeir, adding that the troupe hopes to become Egypt’s answer to such internationally renowned troupes such as Anadolu Atesi (Fire of Anatolia) from Turkey or Caracalla Dance Theatre from Lebanon. As much as Bahiyahas the potential to be just that, and Bedeir proves to be a choreographer who lacks neither vision nor capability, there are still many limitations challenging the Knights of the Orient for Heritage on their way to the summit of the world’s arts scene.

Apart from universally acknowledged artistic values, for example, one essential component of Caracalla and Anadolu is their strong financial and organisational backbone. Though both began with limited resources, it was the cultural belief in those troupes – displayed by both individuals and institutions – as well as absolutely impeccable art that helped them to move fast to the top of the ladder of international success. Needless to say, today, it is particularly important to identify such jewels as the Knights of the Orient for Heritageand help them develop for the sake of the cultural progress of Egypt’s arts scene, locally and internationally.

Bahiya might still struggle with a few flaws, we might argue on some of it components, or question the artistic proficiency of some dancers. But it does have strong pillars, clear choreography and dramatic vision, along with the group’s dynamism. Taking this into consideration, one cannot overlook great potential that deserves to be appropriately addressed by sponsors and artistic institutions. Bahiya will be performed again on 31 October, 1 and 3 November at the Alexandria Opera House (Sayed Darwish Theatre) and, according to Bedeir, the troupe will stage a new show at the main hall of the Cairo Opera House in April 2013. As much as the Opera opens its doors to the troupe, it can still support it by more effective advertisement. At the same time a stronger budget – whether from sponsors or institutions – along with discipline and well defined artistic expectations within the troupe, will definitely help the Knights to grow.

 

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