When one of Egypt’s foremost colloquial poets, Salah Jahin, introduced his puppet operetta depicting a night at the moulid, it became an instant hit and quickly earned a place in the country’s folkloric heritage.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s adaptation of “El-Leila El-Kebira (The Big Night). While it’s interesting to watch the marionettes come to life on stage, the performance is dull technically.
The moulid is a quintessential Egyptian tradition, celebrating the birthdays of Sufi saints and Prophet Mohamed with a street carnival featuring folk music, dance, a circus as well as street peddlers and stalls offering a variety of treats and games.
In the original work, Jahin’s lyrics and Sayed Mekkawy’s musical compositions encapsulate the festivities and the ambiance as people from around the country descend on the site of the moulid and giddy children take part in the dynamic celebrations.
Originally, it was broadcast on Egyptian radio in 1957 as a musical tableau. Three years later, it was adapted for the puppet theater and shown on television. In 2001, Abdel Moneim Kamel – the director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company – presented it as a one-act performance, transforming the puppets into live dancers.
This version, currently being performed at the opera house, opens with a dialogue between the aragoz (puppet clown) and the creators of the work, Jahin and Mekkawy. The aragoz begs to be liberated from his strings to be able to dance freely on stage and the two instantly grant his wish.
The curtains rise, revealing a colorful set with little girls in frilly skirts and pigtails and boys in mismatching shirts and slacks prancing happily around the stage. Fourteen sketches were chosen from the original work, including the aragoz, the photographer, the hummus street peddler, the café owner and the belly dancer.
When I heard the ballet company was performing “El-Leila El-Kebira, I was expecting the operetta to be translated into a graceful ballet, which is probably why I was disappointed. In actuality, the performance is more akin to an unimaginative musical. It sticks closely to the original work, with no modifications for the big stage save the puppets turned live dancers.
The most skilled performer is the belly dancer, who was able to translate the marionette’s jerky hip shaking into playful ballet movements. The rest of the dancers had an easier time, simply launching randomly into grand jetés, skipping around the stage and clapping their hands to the happy tunes. Understandably, the nature of this particular operetta doesn’t exactly lend itself to a ballet adaptation, but I was excited to see how the ballet company would deal with the particular challenge. Apparently, they chose not to, instead putting on a short, simply crafted musical.
There were a lot of kids in the audience who seemed to enjoy the show, so it’s definitely something you should take your children to see. But while the kids might appreciate watching “El-Leila El-Kebira come to life, I still prefer the inanimate puppet version.
The more exciting part of the night was the company’s opening performance of “Lorkiana, a one-act ballet originally choreographed by Mark Minatskanian. The music is based on the famous Malaguena by Ernesto Lecuona, a Cuban composer of Basque descent. This genre is inspired by the flamenco style of song and dance, which characterized the melancholic ballet.
The ballet portrays the beautiful Soledad’s grief over her young lover and her struggle to move on with her life. She finds new love in Torero, a spirited matador who wants to whisk her away from her mourning; little does he know his competition is Soledad’s lovers’ ghost, who won’t let her forget.
Torn between Torero and the memory of her beloved, she ultimately decides to take her own life.
Watching the ballet company perform the heartfelt “Lorkiana and then move on to “El-Leila El-Kebira was a bit disconcerting. It set a somber mood prior to the spirited show of clowns and street peddlers. I don’t see any logic behind coupling the two performances in one night other than the fact that they are both quite short. Overall, it was a night of mediocre performances that, thankfully, ended early.
Catch “El-Leila El-Kebira and “Lorkiana ballet tonight at the Cairo Opera House’s Main Hall, 9 pm. Tel: (02) 2737 0603