Staged at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall on 27 and 28 January, A Sculptor’s Dream, directed and choreographed by Walid Aouni, is a production of the Egyptian Modern Dance Theatre Company, the troupe he founded in 1993. Conceived by Aouni, the performance is one of his theatrical and dance explorations of Egypt’s iconic art figures, Mahmoud Mokhtar (1883-1934), whose first version premiered in 2003, before going through a few modifications. In mid-2000, Sculptor’s Dream received the best scenography award at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre and through the years it was performed again in Egypt — and fragments of it in Aswan — as well as in Italy.
The main theme of this highly creative work is clear. Speaking in very broad terms, we can say that the director walks us through the life and times of an iconic sculptor and one of the crucial pioneers of Egypt’s modern art movement. As simple as this statement might seem, discussing Aouni’s work is not an easy task, because of the many conceptual elements he pours into A Sculptor’s Dream and its many interlocking axes, each of which is translated into a thought-provoking dance-theatrical performance.
Aouni’s work can be interpreted in many ways. One would be a simple deciphering of the historical components to form a catalogue of Mokhtar’s creative odyssey, embedded in the country’s history, from Pharaonic times to Egypt’s artistic renaissance. Speaking it terms of space, it is also a heartwarming journey from Western artistic influences to Egyptian-Arab folklore, from the southern sun to the Nile valley, the encounters of farmers and fishermen, all Mokhtar’s influences. On a social note, among the topics introduced we find the struggle for political independence, the women right’s movement, the oppressors and the oppressed, hopes and disappointments, sufferings, and victories; all is there.
As easy as it may sound, this rather clear thematic focus is not presented with the simplicity of the words on paper. The tangibility of the ink cements the creative notions, and chains them within the limitations of words. However, let me propose one of the many possible readings into Aouni’s work.
A Sculptor’s Dream is an over hour long performance which tells the story through evocative movement and costumes, using the modern dance techniques braiding in the steps reminiscent of Egyptian folk culture. Only the two protagonists, a sculptor (Mahmoud Mokhtar) and an ancient figure seem to have a clear dramaturgical function, which I will discuss further on. All the other characters — a group of men and women dancers — help the dream-like reality to go through its transformations. Women often turn into statues only to return to their human state, an ideological back and forth, at times being Mokhtar’s stimuli and at others representing a byproduct of his creative mind. The lycra fabric that wraps their bodies responds to Mokhtar’s carving or modelling and, together with movement, the figures turn into the Secret Keeper, Isis, the Nile’s Bride, the Khamaseen, the Jar Bearer and many other striking sculptures. Aouni also touches on the artist’s famed iconic work when presenting Mokhtar’s Egypt’s Renaissance.
This is not a performance that wants to impress us with complicated bodily movements. It is a work of embroidery where the tiniest movement carries a clear meaning and forms a palpable image. The final tableaux keep you at the edge of your seat. The group scenes, the human-sculpture transformations are the combination of time, bodily rhythm and lighting while their visual purity emphasises the sculptor’s thoughts, his sense of aesthetics and creative sensitivity, reiterated by the director.
But A Sculptor’s Dream is neither a catalogue of Mokhtar’s work nor a history lesson. What Aouni creates is a marriage of reality with imagination, where the character of the sculptor allows the director to embark on many artistic wanderings, generating images, memories, thoughts, feelings, visions, illusions and symbolic associations. Wouldn’t the over two-millennia’s worth of philosophers and empirical researchers, psychiatrists and neurobiologist — from Aristotle to Freud, to Darwin and beyond — be happy to seize the opportunity and call it simply an act of dreaming, blessing Aouni’s intentions? Yet this is not where the imaginative thread ends. In certain scenes we begin questioning whose dream it is, Mokhtar’s or Aouni’s? Or maybe it is a fascinating conjunction of all the creative forces, a dialogue between the director, his protagonist and history? Whilst Mokhtar walks through his own life, he alternates between sleep and wakefulness, two states that allow him to retain his creative thoughts. But is Aouni reaching out to dreams as representations of his desires, the artist’s harmless fantasy of Egypt’s renaissance?
And as is the case with the dreams, while Aouni implies many ideas, none of them is presented in a straightforward way. The viewer is left to form their own interpretation of the many segments in this performance. The children’s voices opening A Sculptor’s Dream could symbolise a genesis, the birth of a sculptor or a tabula rasa, a notion which will yet be touched by the external world, knowledge, skills, experiences and emotions. For Mokhtar, however, at the beginning there was a stone, and a skill passed to him by the second protagonist of the performance, the ancient Egyptian sculptor.
It is this Pharaonic-like character that represents civilisation and thousands of years of the sculptor’s craft. He is insusceptible to the many emotional charges on the stage, he hardly notices the cane dance or the women’s creative embraces, as he insists on his penetrating and cold disposition. An agent of civilisation, the ancient figure also embodies time by proxy, a reminder of the eternal continuum of art and history, and a silent observer of human destiny. Without leading Mokhtar to any specific work, the ancient figure assists him in many scenes, joins him in the process of sculpting and remains loyal when the muse temporarily abandons the sculptor. In one remarkable scene, both protagonists work together, each moulds a figure out of what seems to be the Nile Valley’s mud. It is in this sensual moment of creation that we notice a strong — and very intimate — link the sculptor develops with the object of his work, bringing to the surface the genuine truth of an artist in the process of realising his vision.
In A Sculptor’s Dream, Aouni uses all theatrical, dance and music elements as tools supporting his creative conception. Throughout the performance, the peculiar locality is underscored by unaltered scenography, with chains of rocky mountains setting the backdrop upstage. As Aouni invites us to his and his protagonist’s dream, at the beginning a large frame is lifted upwards from the proscenium, only to go back down at the end, after Mokhtar dies, while the ancient figure — or time — continues on his journey. It might be that the frame represents the closure of a container, a sarcophagus sealing the time that we witnessed during the hour of the performance.
In its turn, the choice of music is yet another tool that underscores the dreamy element. If we agree that dreams stand at the borderline of reality and imagination, and that they are nurtured by our cumulative experiences, then the large assortment of compositions makes perfect sense. Throughout the performance, we catch the voice of Om Kalthoum, we hear songs of Egypt’s south and melodies born in the Delta. The short excerpts from Western classical music speak of Mokhtar’s influences and education, with the returning cello adding a sense of gravity to select scenes. Again, as if descending into a dream, at times the music takes us on an extensive journey, at other times it is cut short. When the compositions parallel one another, creating the intended dissonance, the sense of illusion intensifies.
However we choose to look at Aouni’s narrative, the strength of A Sculptor’s Dream lies in its material, which invites all possible interpretations.
Naturally, the Egyptian audiences acquainted with the cultural history and works of Mahmoud Mokhtar will look at the performance through this prism, trying to fix the bits and pieces of their knowledge onto each scene. But A Sculptor’s Dream can be also looked at from a much wider perspective, and despite the connection it creates with specific historical moments, it welcomes all kinds of interpretations. When sleep and wakefulness meet, our intellectual capacity allows us to dissociate from the expectations of reality; it is then that we respond to the many stimuli that A Sculptor’s Dream brings along. This is probably the most captivating realisation of the performance.