Ballet can now be counted amongst the artistic disciplines touched by Egypt’s recent revolution. The January 25 Revolution has prompted a wave of cultural production, much of it inspired by scenes and experiences from the lead up to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster on February 11.
“The Pyramids and the Revolution,” a ballet adapted from famed French choreographer Maurice Bejart’s “Pyramide,” is running this week at the Cairo Opera House. The Cairo Opera Ballet Company performance was adapted by Abdel Moneim and Erminia Kamel, with music arrangement by Tarek Sharara.
The decision to adapt Bejart’s “Pyramide” into an epic ode to the January 25 Revolution is apt given the production’s history: the original disastrous attempt to stage the production at the base of the Pyramids back in 1990 was an event that epitomized Egypt’s rampant corruption and inability to capitalize on its potential.
The production, which was set to be a groundbreaking cultural event and attract thousands of tourists into Egypt, was brought down by the shameless demands of Egyptian officials for hundreds of thousands of dollars in “royalties,” “taxes” and other euphemisms for blatant graft. After struggling to bring the event to light through official channels, the event promoter, Michel Reculez, was eventually forced to return home to Belgium and declare bankruptcy, and “Pyramide” was eventually staged at the Cairo Opera House instead of the Pyramids plateau.
Needless to say, the show was a shadow of what Bejart had originally envisioned. Luckily, Bejart is not alive today to see a different, but no less potent type of corruption—artistic—soil his masterpiece. Where “Pyramide” was an inspired and subtle ode to Egypt’s glorious and complex history and the resilience of its people, “The Pyramids and the Revolution” is an unsophisticated work of nationalistic pageantry.
“The Pyramids” adds a section on the Coptic era and a revolution finale to Bejart’s original performance, which covers the Pharaonic, Greek, Islamic and Modern eras in Egypt’s history. While the delicately forceful beauty of Bejart’s choreography was skillfully delivered by the Company, and the choreography (if not the artistic direction) in the additional sections is respectable, the actual ballet aspect of the show is drowned out by the crude pompousness of the overall artistic direction.
The addition of a section on the Coptic era is commendable given the unique nature of Coptic traditions and faith and its strong impact on contemporary Egypt. The decision to portray Coptic Egypt via a tableau consisting of dancers, dressed as monks and nuns, acting out the crucifixion, however, is perplexing, and belies a sophomoric understanding of Egypt’s Coptic past and present.
The portrayal of the January 25 Revolution that serves as the show’s finale is a predictably facile conglomeration of the dominant revolutionary themes and symbols recurrent in so much post-revolution cultural production. Protester-dancers spar with regime-dancers, some are martyred and everyone ends up wrapped in a large Egyptian flag as long and fluid as the Nile. The revolution is shown as the climax of Egypt’s glorious history, leaving little room for alternative narratives, or, indeed, for the possibility that the revolution has failed to deliver its objectives.
Watching “The Pyramids,” it’s hard not to feel that Egypt peaked during the heyday of Um Kolthoum, Bejart’s symbol of moderate Islam, when religion, nationalism and liberalism coexisted in a progressive and hopeful society. Indeed, Bejart’s reflections on Islam, to which he became a convert shortly before writing the ballet, continue to come through clearly in the strong Islamic era portion of the ballet as well as the section on Modern Egypt, which constitute the only redeeming aspects of “The Pyramids.”
Although Bejart’s original production was not carried out according to plan, it was described as “transformative” by critics for its ability to prompt considerations of Egypt’s complex history and identity. By contrast, “The Pyramids and the Revolution” force-feeds the audience its unstudied interpretation of recent events, leaving little room for personal reflection or the possibility that the ills that ruined Bejart’s original vision remain a reality.
“The Pyramids and the Revolution” runs until July 9 at 8 pm at Cairo Opera House’s Main Hall.