Often when I attend shows of popular art forms from different parts of Egypt, something leaves me a little uncomfortable, but I swallow it down to enjoy the show. It’s to do with the fact that identity is being performed. Of course, identity is always a performance, but in these cases it’s a spectacle: “Look, this is who we are.” I feel I’m being presented with a product.
The discomfort is because something in such performances, or in the way they’re often packaged, invokes that bugbear, authenticity.
The dances performed by the tahteeb troupe of the Medhat Fawzi Center for the Stick Arts — based in Mellawy, a village in Minya — don’t induce this nagging feeling, although tahteeb, a type of stick fighting dance mostly practiced in Upper Egypt, is often described as folkloric.
At the Falaki Theater between November 2 and 4, the troupe presented two dances, reminiscent of capoeira, but gentler. The first choreography was by Ibrahim Bardissi, former assistant to Medhat Fawzi, who died in a car crash in 1996 and after whom the center is named. The second was choreographed by Dalia al-Abd, who comes from an entirely different background: contemporary dance.
And yet the difference between the two dances was slight. In the first, there was more work in pairs, while in the second there was a little more movement as the performers created formations together and dispersed. In my mind, a flower turned into a group of men on boats, and then into men working the fields, and finally, as they came back together again, a giant cog in an old machine. There was some leg work in the second dance not present in the first. But hardly a great difference.
Both Abd and Bardissi invoke the “spirit of tahteeb,” though neither are able to quite define it.
The zumara, box, tabla and nay, Bardissi says, always accompany the dance. “You can see these instruments drawn on the walls of temples, all this goes back to pharaonic times,” he explains proudly.
Abd says none of the movements used in her choreography are foreign to tahteeb, but the way they are tied together is a little different. She says she’s no expert in tahteeb. She watched the troupe train and perform a lot, and she says that while she does not know the “vocabulary” she now has a sense of the dance’s essence.
Abd’s choreography is not a patchwork, it’s not a forced gluing together, but more a collage of images. The point is not that something innovative or clever happened.
“It’s more like a natural development, in which my presence, or our meeting, was the catalyst,” she says.
The dances are the result of a collaboration that is now over a year old. The image that both Abd and Bardissi project is one of egalitarian exchange. For Abd the process was smooth because it was something both parties wanted. She recalls its beginning as a sheer coincidence. She heard the music and wanted to dance with it, and mentioned this to Hassan al-Geretly of Al-Warsha Theater Troupe. Geretly has supported the center since its founding, and apparently in the same period they had been saying to him that they were feeling fed up and wanting to renew and develop.
“I wanted to enter new ground, and so did they,” Abd says,
“We call it a meeting — I don’t know what else to call it — between our heritage dance and contemporary dance,” Bardissi adds.
He says that the troupe benefited from Abd and she benefited from them, that neither party put pressure on the other. She says that the result “expands the vocabulary of tahteeb, and I had to expand my own vocabulary as well.”
Abd says that people often ask her if it was hard working with the dancers, alluding especially to the fact that they are men from Upper Egypt and she is a woman. But, she says, working with them was easier than with other students.
Bardissi says the troupe had no hesitation as they were looking for ways to revitalize their work.
But while both the dancers and Abd project an image of a smooth relationship that was easy from the start, Geretly suggests that the current ease is in fact an achievement — that there were obstacles to overcome.
The result is not distortion or digression. It is not less tahteeb for being played with, explored and renewed. All involved are wary of invoking trendy terms and images such as hybrid or fusion. It is tahteeb.
Abd says it is “something that is new and not new.”
What was so refreshing about seeing this work was the sense that something can be both traditional and forward looking without compromising itself, rather than suggesting an authenticity that is frozen in time, static and unchanging. The work proposes that authenticity does not mean staying the same.
Indeed, openness to change for these practitioners does not mean moving away from tahteeb, but in renewing it — in a sense, coming closer to it.
Treated as frozen or unchanging, popular arts become more suited to a museum, but this project is a kind of conversation between ‘folk’ and contemporary. Geretly says the question should not be about preserving or reviving folk arts, but practicing them. This ensures their survival and vibrancy. In meeting with other art forms, interacting with them, these arts develop and grow like any other art form.
Folkloric art is too often simply the presentation of a product, a spectacle of an art form that has ceased to be itself because it has ceased to be alive.
For Geretly one of the most damning signs of the times is what he sees as the isolation of Egypt’s contemporary arts from a source of growth and vitality through privileging their interaction with imported arts above homegrown popular arts. Both popular and contemporary arts stand to gain from dialogue.
“We have learnt that we can engage with different art forms,” Bardissi says, “and maintain who we are.”