By Tine Lavent, Egyptian streets
Four artists step on stage. Once the light of the spotlights has found its way to their skin, they start turning. Their movements mark the official beginning of the fourth edition of Egypt’s Contemporary Dance Night (CDN), kicking off in Cairo on 21 November. The 2014 series are of astonishingly higher quality, show more commitment than ever, and move within a much larger framework in comparison to last year’s. Egyptian Streets met up with Ezzat Ismail Ezzat and Barbora ‘Bashka’ Jombikova, two of the driving spirits behind and in the event.
In 2008, Studio Emad Eddin Foundation organised the Cairo Contemporary Dance Workshop Program. It was developed for four years and trained a new generation of dancers specialised in contemporary dance. From the platform it created, contemporary dancers with various backgrounds spread and made the Egyptian scene grow bigger together.
Ezzat Ismail Ezzat was one of those people. In 2010, he consciously decided to dedicate his life to contemporary dance, in Egypt. He didn’t regret this career switch for a second: “I’m very happy that I chose dance. I was working as an architect in a very big company. I just said: no, I quit, and I want to do this.”
Yet the two disciplines are closer to each other than one would think.
“I am actually using what I studied in architecture more now than I did at the company. Architecture is very much related to dance. It’s the same concept of design, only with different materials,” explains Ezzat.
“We use concrete, glass, walls, and there is the body to sculpt the space, to make the spectator go through an experience. Dance made me appreciate architecture more and architecture made me appreciate dance more. When I dance, it’s even clear that architecture has an influence on the way I move.”
Ezzat went for the golden rule of transmission and built a proper dance space with a spring floor. He called it Ezzat Ezzat Contemporary Dance Studio. “We want to perform, we want to go to theatres. We don’t want to stay in the studio, dancing with ourselves,” is what he and other dancers thought. So the logical step was to collectively initiate Contemporary Dance Night (CDN), for the first time in 2011.
According to Ezzat, CDN is the only annual event that is committed to contemporary dance specifically in Cairo. Ezzat sees it as a step, pushing the developing process of the contemporary dance scene in Egypt forward.
“It was first created by Egyptians, for Egyptians. For three years, it has been this way,” he describes. What’s new this year is the international artists joining the ranks of the Egyptian dancers.
The result is a mix in the literal sense: “We have Egyptian dancers dancing for international choreographers. We have international dancers dancing for Egyptian choreographers. And we have Egyptian and international dancers dancing together, for a mixed audience. We merge together and become one.”
One of those international dancers is Barbora Jombikova, known as Bashka. Originally from Slovakia, she came to Cairo over a year ago. By participating in workshops and trainings, this fast learning dancer steadily found her way into Cairo’s contemporary dance scene. After she started taking a preparatory dance workshop at Ezzat’s dance studio, she was hired as CDN’s events coordinator.
“CDN is based on artists in residence. These choreographers applied around March this year, after which a selection committee chose six of them. This time around, six productions were produced after a production period of six weeks,” Bashka explains the start of the CDN working process, “They each have different approaches towards the creation process.”
When asked about this particular contemporary dance scene, Bashka replies that there is a lack of formal education in contemporary dance.
“My impression is that a lot of people here who are now contemporary dancers and choreographers, are not formally educated in contemporary dance,” explains Bashka.
“In the West, there are schools and institutions, and you can study contemporary dance, choreography, and pedagogy of contemporary dance at university. These opportunities don’t exist here.”
“Even if they did not have training in the formal sense of the word, people here are very passionate about contemporary dance and performing,” she continues. Their lack of formal dance education might influence the technical skills of these dancers, but Bashka says their passion makes up for it: “There are some who decided to become dancers at the age of 25. They just do it, and try to take as many workshops as possible.”
“They are very creative but have to struggle much more than dancers who are part of big networks back in the US or Europe, had a proper training, and had much more opportunities than them,” she adds. Reality shows that professional life might be tougher on Egyptian contemporary dancers than it is on their counterparts in, for instance, Western Europe. “It is also much more difficult to travel for them, for example. And a lot of dancers don’t live on their dance, they have side jobs,” Bashka sighs.
She recognises their story from her own life: “CDN is an incredible opportunity for me. I’m the same kind of dancer. What I mentioned about the contemporary dance scene in Egypt applies to me as well. I studied something completely different but I always wanted to dance. Here, I got the chance to develop and to work in dance professionally. CDN gives dancers that chance.”
Behind the scenes
In 2013, Ezzat sat down with other contemporary dancers from Egypt and laid down what is called ‘Basic Rights for Egyptian Dance Artists’ (BREDA). BREDA contains guidelines in the shape of a publicly presented manifesto, with appendixes such as a contract template. Based on an initial workshop allowing Egyptian dancers to discuss problems they were facing, its goal is to secure decent working conditions for these artists. Needless to say, CDN 2014 was organised according to these guidelines.
Bashka is convinced working with the BREDA manifesto is a blessing: “It aims to support the dancers. They know very well what their obligations are and what their rights are. The choreographers get a production budget, and the contracts state clearly that every dancer has to be paid a minimum amount of money. The contracts between the choreographers and the dancers are very detailed, including conditions like warm-ups and cool-downs during in the trainings, venues, working hours…”
CDN’s decision to apply the manifesto’s guidelines means taking contemporary dancers seriously, and professionalising contemporary dance in Egypt.
“It creates a wonderful chance for dancers, choreographers, and other people such as costume designers, musicians, and lighting technicians to develop their art and skills. And they are all paid for it,” Bashka continues.
Bringing the guidelines into practice pays off, as it creates a base of trust to build the ever ongoing creative process on. Ezzat feels the same way and adds: “I think it’s a window for all the artists involved, to have self-confidence and to keep hanging to it. We created this beacon of hope.”
What to expect
“First of all CDN is not a competition,” Bashka stresses, “The aim of CDN is to spread this type of dance to an Egyptian audience, which is still not used to this form of art. It is still kind of controversial.”
Bashka also takes part in CDN 2014 as a dancer in an abstract, non-narrative performance alongside Zosia Jo Dowmunt, choreographed by Mounir Saeed.
“It is called ‘Over the Horizon’. It’s about how people create, as Mounir would say it, mind cages,” explains Bashka. “They limit their vision not only locally and physically by buildings and streets, but also by boundaries of society, family… He wants to show people how they should try to see the beauty and simple things of the world and not limit their vision, and be open-minded.”
“On the one hand Mounir has a very exact idea about what he wants: how the lights will move, the exact structure of the piece,” Bashka describes the working process. “But the movement had to come from us. He didn’t create a sequence but gave us a frame to work with. Since almost nothing is fixed, the performance is different every time.”
Ezzat himself is part of a dance duo dubbed ‘Continue’, together with and choreographed by Anna Maria Suijkerbuijk. It’s a beautiful sequence that is technically immensely strong, and is based on impressions the choreographer is dealing with in her personal life.
As an aspiring choreographer, he also directed ‘Bel Baladi’, a dance video based on the movements one sees in microbuses: “I’m really interested in how dance can be translated in front of the camera, I’m in love with dancing to the camera. On theatre, you have an energy that cannot be translated to the camera, but the camera shows more details. It’s a different medium that you can translate other things to.”
All in all, CDN 2014 represents six contemporary dance approaches spectators can sense, feel, see, and understand without words. Targeting the development of audiences in Egypt, it is an invitation for both those to whom contemporary dance is new and those with an experienced eye for the art form.