Abdel-Moneim Kamel, a ‘spiritual father of ballet’ in Egypt, passed away in February leaving behind generations of dancers filled with a passion for dance
Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online
Born in Cairo on 21 February 1949, Abdel-Moneim Kamel’s first steps as a dancer coincided with Egypt’s dynamic development of the ballet scene. In the 1970s, he experienced the highest international glory and in the 1980s he decided to bring his expertise back to Egypt where he would rebuild the by then weakened ballet troupe. Today it is clear that the Cairo Opera Ballet Company is solely the creation of Abdel-Moneim Kamel, a man whose passion for ballet was devoid of ego and propelled with a sense of duty towards his country.
In the late 1950s, Tharwat Okasha, then Minister of Culture, brought to Egypt the most renowned Soviet masters from the Bolshoi Ballet. They started working on developing the talents and skills of young people interested in the dance. Okasha established the High Ballet School in 1959, part of the Academy of Arts founded the same year. When his mother brought 10-year-old Abdel-Moneim Kamel and his two sisters to the ballet audition, Abdel-Moneim was accepted instantly. According to many who remember those years, there was always something distinctive and charismatic about Kamel: he carried himself the way a ballet dancer should.
The first group of students trained by the Soviet masters consisted of 35 girls and boys, Kamel among them. “From the original 35 students, there gradually emerged five girls and three boys who showed special potential. These eight were the real pioneers of ballet in Egypt,” writes Barbara Farrar Karkabi in an article entitled “Classical Ballet Comes to Egypt”, published in 1977, in which she cites the name of Abdel-Moneim Kamel as one of those pioneers (together with Magda Saleh, Reda Sheta etc).
In 1966, the Cairo Ballet Company was formed as part of Academy of Arts. The troupe premiered with The Fountain of Bakhshisari, directed by Leonid Labrovsky, former director of the Bolshoi. Kamel played The Prince. Kamel graduated from the Higher Institute of Ballet in 1967, where he also received his master’s degree. At the same time, he graduated from the Faculty of Economy and Commerce, Cairo University, obtaining a masters there too. The skills he learned at the latter faculty have helped him to deal with managerial tasks related to his position as Artistic Director and then Chairman of the Cairo Opera House decades later.
Back in the 1970s, while pursuing his career as a dancer, Kamel also tried out acting in films. Among his noteworthy contributions to Egyptian cinema was Al-Hobb Taht Al-Matar (Love in the Rain, 1975), an adaptation of the Naguib Mahfouz novel directed by Hussein Kamal. In it, Kamel had an important role, acting alongside several Egyptian stars such as Mervat Amin, Magda Al-Khatib, Ahmed Ramzi and Mona Gabr. “It was a very good role and could have placed Kamel on the cinematic map of Egypt,” recalls Tarek Sharara, Cairo Opera House board member. “It’s an important movie but it was insufficiently advertised, from the very beginning, due to its politically sensitive content.”
Following one more, smaller role in another movie, Kamel dedicated himself to ballet, dancing all the principal roles performed in the 1970s: Albert in Giselle, Basil in Don Quixote, the Prince in Scheherazade, Sigfried in Swan Lake, Hamlet, among many others. “I still have programme notes from 1971. I was a very young girl playing the piccolo with an orchestra performing to a short ballet in which Kamel performed,” recalls Ines Abdel-Dayem, the current chairperson of the Cairo Opera House. “It was a significant experience for me and Kamel’s presence on stage was remarkable,” she comments, adding that back then, Kamel was already an important figure in the Egyptian ballet. In the same years, Tarek Sharara points to the ballet Le Corsaire which “Kamel loved and excelled in”.
Abdel-Moneim Kamel left for Moscow to continue his studies, and there he received his PhD in 1979. His talent took him to the famous stages of the then Soviet Union. He performed as guest dancer in many theatres including the Bolshoi, where he also held the position of a ballet instructor for over a year. His other international commitments included dancing with the Sofia Theatre (Bulgaria), the N.H.K. Theatre in Tokyo, the Belgrade Theatre (Yugoslavia) and collaborations with theatres in Venezuela and Japan, among others. While for Kamel the 1970s were filled with success, in Egypt, the ballet scene started to deteriorate. The Khedivial Opera House burnt down in 1971. The Cairo Ballet Company had difficulties finding a stage, and Soviet instructors started leaving the country, while many ballet dancers went on to establish their careers abroad, mainly in the United States.
For Abdel-Moneim Kamel, the end of the 1970s was when he compeleted his academic education in Moscow and moved onto Germany where to audition. It was in Germany that he was handpicked by the director of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He spent two years in La Scala where he danced as a soloist and received a certificate in Practical Ballet Studies in 1980. In La Scala he also met another soloist, Erminia Gambarelli, whom he married and who became his artistic second half. Erminia and Abdel-Moneim moved back to Egypt in 1982.
“Being aware at the time of the deplorable state of Egyptian ballet, Mike felt he had to go back to Egypt,” Erminia Gambarelli-Kamel comments, referring to her late husband as Mike — a name that was commonly used when addressing Abdel-Moneim in the artistic field. Tarek Sharara adds, “This was the time when all the talents left Egypt. Only Kamel decided to sacrifice his career, come to Egypt, and with the support of Erminia, he started restructuring a ballet troupe. If it wasn’t for Kamel’s hard work, dedication and perseverance, Egyptian ballet would not have been reborn.”
But the beginnings were not easy. Erminia Kamel recalls how they would both sit in the dance hall at the Academy of Arts, where Abdel-Moneim became director of the ballet troupe, waiting for the dancers to come, usually late or unprepared. “I thought it was madness and there was even no corps de ballet. But Mike was not giving up. He literally collecting the dancers, one by one, from the Ballet Institute while bringing back those who graduated and left the Academy years earlier. ‘It will take time, but they will come,’ he would say.”
And it was this determination that eventually won out. The Ballet Company started to form as Kamel introduced elements of discipline to the troupe. While Erminia sees Abdel-Moneim’s charisma as the basis of his success at this time, Sharara feels that one of Kamel’s extraordinary talents was in the ability to convince people of what he wanted. “It was the same persuasive power that he must have used when convincing Erminia to leave her flourishing career at La Scala and come to Egypt,” Sharara adds with a smile. But Erminia stresses the fact that she does not regret the move to Egypt in the least, as she managed to support her husband in various fulfilling artistic endeavours. “Maybe, more importantly, there was always an enormous amount of love between Erminia and Mike. They also shared the same artistic vision,” says Sherif Sonbol, a photographer who trailed Abdel-Moneim and the ballet troupe for over two decades, documenting hundreds of rehearsals and performances.
In parallel to his quest to restructure the Egyptian ballet company, in the mid-1980s Abdel-Moneim established a ballet school at the Gezira Sporting Club. Called the Abdel-Moneim Kamel Ballet School, the institution works on developing the ballet skills of young girls and boys. The school was a natural expansion of private ballet classes that Erminia was giving in their home, which could no longer host the growing number of passionate amateur dancers. Today consisting of 130 students, the school gives occasional ballet performances within the club’s grounds.
It took Abdel-Moneim Kamel a few years to rebuild the basis of the Cairo Ballet Company. Erminia underlines that many of her husband’s decisions found support from Enayat Azmi, then dean of the Academy of Arts. Yet, the major breakthrough happened with the opening at the new Cairo Opera House in 1988. Abdel-Moneim Kamel’s new target was to turn the Cairo Ballet Company (associated with the Academy of Arts) into the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, to be integrated into the National Cultural Centre (Cairo Opera House) and as such to make it one of the official troupes operating within the opera walls.
“Ballet Osiris to music by Gamal Abdel-Rahim [1924-1988] was the first performance inside the new opera, staged by the Cairo Ballet Company. After that, Mike with the whole troupe would go as far as organising sit-ins at the Ministry of Culture’s garden until they were heard and eventually accepted as an official troupe of the Cairo Opera House,” Erminia Kamel recalls.
Naturally Abdel-Moneim became director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and, always assisted by Erminia, he would explore a variety of classical and other ballets, continuously developing the skills of the young dancers. As the troupe was becoming stronger by the year and started attracting international interest, it began to tour Canada, Mexico, the Czech Republic, England, Jordan, Syria, the Mauritius Island, Japan etc, Kamel and Erminia went on dancing before they concentrated solely on choreography.
The company’s repertoire was expanding, incorporating ballets such as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Le Corsaire, Carmina Burana, Bolero, Hamlet, Malgré Tout, Danses qu’on Croise and The Rite of Spring. Kamel directed or created choreography for a few dozen ballets and operas, including classical repertoire items as well as gems from the region, such as Steadfastness, the first Egyptian ballet, composed by Mukhtar Ashrafi, or The Nile by Omar Khayrat. His mise-en-scene of opera Aida is considered by many as an iconic work representing this art form in Egypt.
Among the significant works by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company is Zorba the Greek to music by Mikis Theodorakis. Lorca Massine, who created choreography for this ballet in 1987, came to Egypt with his troupe. “Having watched the performance, Mike commented, ‘This ballet has to be done with our company. It will be a great hit!’ Though this statement seemed weird to me at the time, Mike’s unstoppable persistence and understanding of the ballet troupe’s dynamics proved how right he was,” Erminia comments.
Massine came to Egypt and worked with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. And indeed, Egypt’s Zorba became the most successful in the world. The ballet toured Germany, Austria, Greece, Turkey etc, always leaving the critics and audiences in awe. “Massine himself underlines the fact that Zorba by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company is the best version of the ballet.”
Abdel-Moneim was moving up the ladder of success. In the 1990s he became Artistic Director of the Cairo Opera House and finally Chairman of the National Cultural Centre (Cairo Opera House) in 2004, a position he held until 2011, while Erminia became the troupe’s Artistic Director. As Abdel-Moneim’s managerial tasks started accumulating, he had less time to work with the dancers in rehearsals. Nevertheless, his vision was always duly delivered by Erminia. He would come to chosen rehearsals to set the mise-en-scene. “He always knew what he wanted. There was always a clear vision coming from him and with a few words and direction he would create great tableaux or individual numbers, all serving the whole ballet,” Erminia reveals.
Hani Hassan, a soloist of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company who worked with Kamel for 20 years, stresses that in the ballets, “Everything had to be perfect. At the same time, Abdel-Moenim Kamel taught us respect for the craft and discipline. Kamel was a very clever instructor and a director who not only knew what he wanted to do but also knew how to find tools to realise his vision. His toughness resulted from the fear that something might be less than perfect.”
On the same note, Heba Zohni, one the first students who enrolled at the Gezira Sporting Club, recalls that though they were amateurs and not members of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Kamel considered the courses very seriously, always aiming for perfection. And when he stopped training them himself, he would make sure to provide the best teachers to continue the work with the young dancers. “Usually he would come to the final rehearsals… With a few touches, all would start falling into place. There was always this great vision he was bringing to the rehearsal hall, and a director’s sharp eye,” Zohni recalls.
Hassan continues, “He showed us that it’s not enough to be professional dancers, that ballet performance is a combination of many fascinating elements.” Hassan points to Kamel’s precious remarks when directing the young dancer into the world of ballet and culture at large. Hassan himself was encouraged by Kamel to start choreographing his own works.
Zohni remained an amateur dancer, and she calls Kamel a “spiritual father of ballet”, recalling how he would make sure that his students not only developed their technical skills but also uderstood the dynamics of culture. “I remember how he would always encourage us to attend ballets as well as other performances and concerts held at the Opera House. He would even arrange for the students and their parents to attend chosen events. Even if during tough ballet practices, we were a little afraid of him, we knew we were gaining a lot of knowledge that would surpass our ballet skills.”
Perfection and sense of strong artistic vision is equally underlined by many artists who cooperated with Kamel at the Cairo Opera House. “Mike was not experimenting,” comments Nayer Nagui, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Cairo Opera Orchestra, which performed in dozens of ballets directed by Kamel. “He knew very well what he wanted and he always came well prepared. Then he would stick to his ideas no matter what. This made work much easier and in time I started understanding his mindset with regard to many technicalities. This definitely added to my experience in working with ballet.”
Nagui continues by pointing to yet another creative obsession of Kamel’s, which was filling all overtures and intermezzos with small dance scenes. “He didn’t like to interrupt the ballet flow, there always had to be something happening on stage even if it was behind the closed curtain. He was always setting his expectations really high. And even if he was often extremely strict, it was evident that the dancers trusted him fully.” While dancer Hani Hassan explains Kamel’s strictness through his need for perfection, Tarek Sharara sees in it a natural method used by the old Russian ballet schools tha created the greatest ballet masters.
But above all, Kamel was filled with remarkable artistic values, reaching beyond impeccable technique, choreography and directing skills. Nader Abbassi, former Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Cairo Opera Orchestra, points to Kamel’s excellent ear for music. “Dynamics of the orchestra were always very important to Kamel,” Abbassi comments. “He would pick the slightest mistake that would come from even one of the musicians and ask, ‘Wasn’t there a problem in the orchestra?’ As much as he was choreographing, he could hear every detail coming from the orchestra.” Abbassi continues by underlining his great cooperation with Kamel on many ballets in which, regardless of minor artistic differences, they agreed on the dynamics and the interpretation. He considers Zorba one of the most memorable experiences marked by “the special atmosphere and chemistry” between Abbassi and Kamel.
People who crossed paths with Abdel-Moneim Kamel have a variety of remarks to make. However, there is one common observation regarding the sense of profound humanity that characterised him. “There was something magical in his dedication and genuine love for ballet, paralleled by love for Erminia,” photographer Sherif Sonbol says. “Equally he was handing over a lot of knowledge to the others and opening many doors. Throughout the 25 years of my relationship with Mike and Erminia, I’ve learned a lot about how to capture ballet with my camera.”
Tarek Ali Hassan, medical doctor, musician, philosopher, writer, poet, painter and former chairman of The National Cultural Centre (Cairo Opera House, 1989 – 1991) calls Abdel-Moneim Kamel one of Egypt’s rare ballet pioneers. He recalls the “remarkably creative choreography” Kamel created for his, Hassan’s, Second Movement of Sinfonietta for Strings, which formed the basis of a ballet in the 1990s. He goes on to say that “Kamel was an important symbol of a person who could stand against all retrograde influences and movements even as they swept our country. Together with Erminia, they could resist the storms of aggression, which was reaching them from many sides. He always had power and guts.”
Abdel-Moneim Kamel passed away, due to heart attack, on 25 February 2013 in Alexandria, shortly after attending the general rehearsal of Swan Lake. With his passing away, Egypt has lost a great artist, and a guardian of one of the most refined human forms of expression.
Ines Abdel-Dayem, who succeeded Kamel in 2011 as chairperson of the National Cultural Centre (Cairo Opera House) is particularly bereaved, saying, “We have lost an artist and a wonderful human.” She underlines how his expertise and remarks had always guided her in the field of management. “There is a large history between us, starting on the day I saw him on stage performing when I was playing the piccolo. Many years later, while still director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, we cooperated frequently. I always found him a great support. When assigned the position of a chairperson of the Opera, the first thing I did was that I spoke to Kamel and listened to his views.”
But what Abdel-Dayem will miss the most, like many other people who worked with Kamel, is his high sense of humanity, equally underlined by Dina Negm, who supported Kamel administratively for many years (and now works with Abdel-Dayem). “He would never compromise human or artistic values,” Abdel-Dayem, underlines. “He was a great creator, a man of strong vision and dedication, and he had this contagious belief in ballet as the greatest art form. His unlimited ambition aimed for perfection and looked after the troupe’s success, which he used every means at his disposal to realise. At the same time, however, he remained an extremely warm human being and a true passionate artist. There will be no other Abdel-Moneim Kamel.”