Enana: Dancing along the success path

Photo courtesy: Enana Dance Theatre
Photo courtesy: Enana Dance Theatre

Enana Dance Theatre that performed in Manama on 28 December is now working on choreography for Ibn Battuta, a show that will see a collaboration between artists from Arab countries, Hungary and Poland, in February.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

On Friday 28 December 2012, the Enana Dance Theatre performed Julia Dumna in the Manama Cultural Hall, Bahrain. Their performance was part of a series of events organised by the Bahraini Ministry of Culture to celebrate Manama as Capital of Arab Culture in 2012. It is neither the first nor the last visit of Enana to Bahrain. In 2009, the troupe performed during the opening ceremony of the Bahrain Summer Festival. In February 2013, dancers from Enana Dance Theatre will participate in a large-scale production in collaboration with artists from across the world including Egypt.

Enana Dance Theatre borrows its name from Enana, the ancient Syrian goddess of love, culture and art, equivalent to the Roman Aphrodite, the Greek Venus or the Egyptian Isis. Enana is one of the rare troupes in the Arab region aiming to create shows that combine theatre with dance, while presenting the riches of Arab cultures and imbuing traditional dances with a modern and visually rich performance.

Enana was founded in the early 1990s by Jehad Mufleh, a Palestinian from Yarmouk, district of Damascus, home to a large number of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Acquiring experience with the Zenobia Folkloric Arts Troupe and Caracalla Folkloric Arts Troupe, together with an education in choreography from Beirut and the State Academy of Slavic Culture in Russia, Mufleh started gathering together a group of young Syrians who could bring to life a bold new idea for a dance troupe. In the first years he served as the troupe’s manager, choreographer and dancer; he also brought teachers from the High Institute of Dance in Damascus to train young dancers.

At the beginning, the company consisted of 18 people learning to become professional dancers; over the years, through auditions and training, the number has grown to 100 from six different nationalities. With such a strong backbone, Enana Dance Theatre started conquering the Syrian and soon the international arena; its productions were well received in countries across the Arab world as well as in Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, India, China, Canada and the USA, among others.

“Our vision is to represent a variety of Arab cultures in a highly professional and theatrical way, something more than just staging dance shows. The troupe blends traditional, modern and classical styles to dramatically tell stories from Arab history and legend with dance of the highest quality,” Mufleh comments. He adds that Albina Belova, a graduate of the Ballet School of the Opera House in Chelyabinsk and the holder of a master’s degree in choreography from the Academy of Slovenian Culture in Moscow, also joined to train the dancers and dance herself. Mufleh explains how the young people were learning dance and preparing shows at the same time, making Enana Dance Theatre both a dance troupe and a dance school.

Initially the group was in training while performing smaller events until it was ready to launch the first Enana show in 2000:Hawajes Al Cham 880 orDamascus Obsessions 880, the love story of Badria and Ruslan, which transports the viewer to Damascus in the period between 1880 and 1916, at the threshold of the Great Arab Revolt. With the combination of traditional dances from the region and modern accents, rich costumes and appealing scenography, the show highlighted customs and traditions, making continuous comparisons between old and new, stressing the kind of hope that will always illuminate people’s hearts.

“At first we only released one new big show every year, but now we can do one every three months since everyone has improved and the process has been streamlined,” Mufleh explains; over 15 years Enana has accumulated a sizeable repertoire. Today, the company has three highly educated and talented choreographers from France and Russia, with Albina Belova as the head choreographer. After Damascus Obsessions 880, a number of new productions saw the light. In 2001 Enana premiered Sun’s Sons, and in 2003 Julia Dumna, the story of one of the most important women in Middle Eastern history, born to a Syrian family, believed to be of Arab descent, who became empress and wife of Roman Emperor Lucius Septimus Severus.

Julia Dumna became one of Enana Dance Theatre’s frequently requested shows and accordingly this was their choice of performance in Bahrain on 28 December. “Julia Dumna, with its exciting action scenes, its interesting and diverse characters, and creative staging, has proven to be one of our most popular shows and is often chosen,” comments Belova.

The performance touches on many regions in the North Africa and the Middle East, along with North Mediterranean countries, trailing the Emperor’s conquests, during which Julia remained by the side of her husband. Even though it is not easy to maintain historical precision in a one and a half hour theatre-dance show, Enana manages to give an impressive outline of a variety of traditions and customs from the multitude of countries. At the choreography level, group scenes in particular are among the troupe’s trademarks.

Among the grand productions that Enana has under its belt are Zenobia, Queen of the Orient (2004), Sinbad (2005), Saqr Quraish orFalcon of Quraish (2007) — which looks into the times of Abd al-Rahman I,  the eighth-century founder of Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba, Saladin, the12the-century sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid’s dynasty.

Belova reveals that the company usually focuses on an important person from Arab history and researches their lives, times and legacy. “We look into the dramatic moments and events that can be developed into exciting theatre. In looking through Arab history one cannot help but noticethere are a number of women who figure strongly in the development and progress of the region; therefore, we have had female protagonists in a number of our productions.” Many of Enana’s works originate inthe history of Greater Syria and the great rulers who lived in, emerged from or conquered its territories, begetting dynasties and super-powers. Egypt, however, is an equally recurrent theme in Enana’s productions.

“As Arabs, it is impossible to address Arab history and not involve Egypt in a very big way since so many of the stories take place, at least in part, in Egypt. We put a great deal of research into our shows to try our best to truly represent the culture and history of each country and especially of such an important Arab country as Egypt,” Belova comments.Nor is Enana Dance Theatre unknown to the Egyptian audience. The first time that the company visited Egypt was in 2001 at the invitation of the Syrian Embassy, for an event they were hosting at the Cairo Opera House. The company returned to Egypt in 2006 and 2007 to perform in Cairo and Alexandria. “Our first performance in Egypt wasDamascus Obsessions and subsequently we performed Julia Dumna andZenobia,” Mufleh clarifies.

Today the original company has expanded beyond the dance troupe to become a multi-purpose events and production service known as Enana Production of which Mufleh is now General Manager. Based in Doha, Qatar, Enana Production is sub-divided into three sections with Enana Dance Theatre being one of them. Belova became the chief choreographer and director of Enana Dance Theatre. The other two sections of Enana Production are Enana Events, specialising in the organisation of artistic events, festivals, exhibitions etc; and Enana Media, partnering in the production and distribution of works of art, theatre, radio and television programmes.

“The idea and the preliminary action of setting up Enana Production in Qatar dates back four or more years, but the concrete formation of the company took place in January of 2012. The overall management for Enana Production is based in Qatar, as is the management for Enana Events. The dancers are currently situated in different places, some in Qatar and some in Syria and Lebanon. Our hope is that in the future all the dancers can be relocated to work out of Doha,” Mufleh explains.

Two decades of hard work, discipline and perseverance have transported Enana from the grounds of the old international fairgrounds in Damascus to renowned international halls. Jehad Mufleh asserts that he uses each day as if it were four days: “I burn the candle at both ends. It is hard work to stay on the cutting edge, but it has paid off.” Belova adds proudly that “one of the reasons behind Enana’s success lies in the collaboration of some the best artists of the Arab world, bringing them together towards the goal of making great performances that will inspire awe.”

The company makes sure to provide original music for its shows. Mohammed Habbache from Algeria has been the main composer for Enana’s works but the company also cooperates with Thaher Mamilli from Syria and Ra’ed Khalaf from Iraq as well as many composers from the Gulf. The costume designers – such as Victoria Tanji from Russia and Sahab Al Raheb from Syria – specialise in creating impressive theatrical costumes that are also suitable for dancing. “All the artists, dancers, technicians, directors, instructors and behind-the-scene administrators are happy with what they do and proud to give their best to be a part of something that they feel matters,” adds Joel Adams, Public Relations Manager for Enana Production.

At present, life in Syria is no bed of roses for the arts scene. Having new headquarters in Doha, where the company has a better opportunity to reach out to the international arts community, it is Enana’s hope to relocate as many dancers to Qatar as possible. Mufleh concludes, “The role of artists in such times is reflected in what someone said to us at our last show: ‘Of all times, now is the time for artists from Syria to perform and be seen.’ Just our being there gives a message that, no matter how bad or hard things are, the human spirit can overcome and will survive. It is the role and duty of artists in difficult times to carry on a shining light to give hope to those who despair. This we must do even if we ourselves are tempted to despair.”

Enana Dance Theatre’s upcoming commitments include their participation in February 2013 in an exciting project that will see the collaboration of artists from many countries, including Egypt. The collaboration will result in a musical show, Ibn Battuta, to be performed at the National Theatre of Bahrain and produced by the Bahraini Ministry of Culture, celebrating the choice of Manama as a capital of Arab Tourism in 2013. The artistic producer of Ibn Battuta is Ahmed Abouzahra, General Manager of Arabesque International and East West Art Promotion. Music for the performance is composed by Hisham Gabr who will also conduct the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra from Poland during the performance; script and mise-en-scene is by Nader Salaheldin and costume design by Dina Nadeem. The Hungarian team Eva Szendrenyi and Kael Csaba, General Manager of Budapest’s Palace of Arts, will be responsible for scenography along with light design and technical direction respectively. Ibn Battuta will also incorporate solo singers from different Arab countries, while the team from Enana Dance Theatre will adorn the performance with their choreography.

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