Between 26 April and 3 May, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company performs two works to the music of Egyptian composers: ‘Oriental Steps’ by Attiya Sharara and ‘The Nile’ ballet by Omar Khairat.
Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online
Both works currently being performed at the Cairo Opera House – ‘Oriental Steps‘ by Attiya Sharara and ‘The Nile’ ballet by Omar Khairat (choreographed by late Abdel-Moneim Kamel with joint efforts of Erminia Kamel) represent important value for Egypt’s cultural scene.
The Cairo Opera Ballet Company uses the vocabulary of classical ballet to infuse the contemporary Egyptian composers’ music with visual creative realisations.
Moreover, Oriental Steps and The Nile are among several works by the Egyptian composers taken on the stage by Abdel-Moneim Kamel, testifying to his continuous artistic explorations reaching beyond a Western classical ballet repertoire.
Ballet – or rather performance – Oriental Steps is based on Attiya Sharara’s second violin concerto, which is, as the programme notes state, one of the most important works by the composer, written in 1977.
Born in 1922, Sharara represents the second generation of Egyptian composers, along with Farid El-Atrash (1910-1974), Gamal Abdel-Rahim (1924–1988), Halim El-Dabh (born 1921), Tarek Ali Hassan (born 1937) among others.
In 1983, Sharara won the State Encouragement Prize for composition. His son, Hassan Sharara, a former dean of the Cairo Conservatoire, is among the most talented Egyptian violinists of his generation, with a number of important national and international recognitions. It is Hassan Sharara who performs as violin soloist during the first half of the evening, in Oriental Steps.
The lovely and almost celebratory opening of the composition – allegro – incorporates two popular themes. The Cairo Opera Ballet Company performs at the backdrop of the palace’s hall. With skillful choreography, the dancers transfer many colours emerging from the music, where group numbers are much stronger than a short duet – suffering from poor execution – inserted into the first movement.
The audience, however, is immediately comforted by the second movement – andante – an epitome of emotional build-up which takes the listener through the many pathways that characterise an always attractive marriage between Western and oriental musical values.
Derived from a folk theme, the movement was elegantly delivered by Hassan Sharara while the prolonged pas de deux provides rewarding visual finesse. It was also in the second movement that the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Sherif Mohie El-Din, excelled in creating the important accompaniment for the violinist, a fact which resulted in a laudable artistic output.
Charged with such sensations, the listener is then transported to vivid final movement – allegro. Here arises a vibrant conversation between the soloist and the orchestra, during which the listener is taken on a recapitulative and engaging journey across the themes from the first movement. Equally, the corps de ballet borrows from the previous tableaus.
The remarkable performance of Sharara is complemented by choreography which carries a lot of appealing visual aspects, without stealing attention from the music. Though the concerto lasts approximately 20 minutes, this small artistic dose is powerful enough to keep the viewer inspired while waiting for the second part of the evening.
The second part invites the audience to the ballet The Nile, set to music by Omar Khairat. Known across Egypt and the region, Khairat gained his popularity as a film music composer.
The Nile ballet is based on highlights from the film score of Leilet Al-Qabd Ala Fatma (‘The Night of Arresting Fatma’), released in 1984. The thematic simplification in ballet makes the work very distant from the original story of the movie; however, Kamel’s choreography manages to stand on its own, bringing to surface major lines that underline the importance of work as a foundation for a successful life and marriage balance.
At times dynamic, at others soothing, Khairat’s music walks the listener through nine consecutive scenes. And even if, occasionally, the music seems quite repetitive, it is the choreography that creates vivid pictures, topping them up with interesting visual solutions.
One innovative decision is the usage of long, silky material on stage, which changes according to the development of the scene. It is the creativity of the choreographer that gives new life to the material each time it is stretched across the stage or wrapped in the hands of the dancers. The silk takes the characters from free movements towards several concealing concepts.
The artistic fusion presented in this ballet has multi-layered values. Musically, similarly to Sharara, Khairat draws on Western and oriental elements, with the difference that the latter composer creates a monochrome-like mood throughout the many scenes.
Thematically, the work is an amalgam of barefaced reality embodied in life, work, family values and a dreamlike symbolism represented by the wild bird that poisons the family with emotional misbalance.
The scenography, in its turn, supports the variety of axes present at the stage, by taking the viewer from the projected scenes of modern Cairo to nonfigurative shades and colours. Standing at the crossroads of time, the imaginary meets the real, while Kamel creates a captivating painting which over two decades after its premiere, still holds power to leave the viewer with a multitude of reflections.
Once again, the Cairo Opera Orchestra added its share in making the whole evening memorable, and should be applauded for the multitude of strong passages. However, as the performance days are passing, we look forward to the improvement of the brass section in particular, which kept challenging the audience’s ears in The Nile. Let’s take this unfortunate defect as the result of a warm-up on 26 April, the first day of the performance. The same section improved on the third day, 29 April, and hopefully it will still shine during the remaining three evenings.