Contemporary Dance Center up in the air

The Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, the first professional training program of its kind in Egypt, opened in January 2012. It was housed and funded by the Culture Ministry and headed by the acclaimed dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour.

A year and a half later, however, 20 students enrolled in a three-year program found themselves in limbo after its sudden suspension without announcement or explanation. They have been banned since June from entering the premises.

Starting November, the Creativity Center building in the Cairo Opera House complex has been hosting Studio al-Mawaheb (The Talents Studio) in place of the dance center. This is a program of short-term workshops offered to the public in singing and acting, tap dancing, graphic design and calligraphy.

Khaled Galal is the head of the Creativity Center and director of the new workshop program. He told Mada Masr that the workshops, unlike the suspended dance program, will not offer any specialized qualifications. The workshops are, however, expected to be popular with the public, and will bring new revenue to the Culture Ministry’s funding arm, the Culture Development Fund (CDF).

Former Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi established the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center in the fall of 2011 through a ministerial decree. He appointed Mansour, who is also the founder of the first independent dance company in Egypt, as its artistic director.

“Mansour had a holistic vision for the school and center,” he told Mada Masr. Her vision included a professional training program, as well as morning classes open to the public, and allowing independent dance troupes to rehearse in the space for a nominal fee during non-school hours. After the program was announced, auditions were held and classes kicked off in early 2012.

Local dancers and performers were thrilled by the center’s opening. The Modern Dance School, once directed by Lebanese choreographer Walid Aouni, had been closed for a while. And, with the exception of brief and sporadic workshops hosted by non-government-affiliated artists and institutions, no facility of this size and vision existed for dance in Egypt. The center seemed to fill a gap. Because the contemporary dance scene is quite small, the prospect of having twenty dancers with a professional training certificate was good news for everyone.

Many of those who completed the first year of training are active on the local scene, taking part in various performances, including the Hal Badeel Arts Festival in April, the Kalamonology exhibition at Cairo’s Ofok Gallery in May, and Contemporary Dance Night 2013, a series of performances that toured Cairo and Alexandria in September.

In order to commit to the rigorous program at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, many of the students quit their jobs or pursued ones with more flexible hours. The program included contemporary dance and also ballet, pilates, yoga and aikido, as well as anatomy, physiology, dance history and appreciation. Now the students seem to have been pushed out of the picture.

After communication was cut off with Mansour and a months-long attempt to meet with Culture Minister Saber Arab and CDF head Mohamed Abu Sida, the students were told in September that the fund cannot currently support such a costly project. They were asked to draw up a detailed two-year plan for how the dance school would operate, should it be able to continue, and to secure funding from outside the ministry.

In October the students submitted the requested plan, but no official decision about the program has been made — and the Talents Studio workshops have begun. A program known as the Actor’s Studio — also directed by Galal — continues to take place in the same building.

“For the past few months, the CDF reps have been playing for time,” says Rasha Magdy, a student enrolled in the dance school. She has been attending the meetings with CDF. “They are demanding the unattainable from us. […] How can institution which is supposed to support artistic projects ask the students to prepare a budget and manage the space entirely on both the artistic and administrative levels?”

Magdy adds that the students are following through with all the CDF’s requests, but the impression they are getting is that CDF representatives hope the students will eventually give up and drop the matter all together. The main challenge currently facing the students is the uncertainty of their legal position as students who have paid subsidized tuition for an officially backed three-year dance program.

Abu Ghazi explained to Mada Masr that ministerial decrees are not legally binding. A decree by any of the three culture ministers who followed him, or even a decision by the CDF board, can overturn his decrees — especially because the dance program was established as a cultural service rather than a school in the formal sense.

Abu Ghazi blames the closure of the program to the ministry’s poor financial resources. Much of its funding comes from the Supreme Council of Antiquities. With the collapse of tourism revenue since 2011, the ministry has been cutting down on projects.

“But of course there’s the moral obligation the ministry has toward the students as it had committed to a three-year program,” Abu Ghazi adds.

Mansour, however, believes the problem to be not purely financial. She says the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center covered 30 percent of its total annual costs during the first seven months of its operation. And other programs at the Creativity Center, including the Actor’s Studio, are free of charge.

“Our problems with the Culture Development Fund began the day Abu Ghazi resigned [in November 2011],” says Mansour. “The committee [which could more accurately be described as a board] he had set up to oversee the programs of the Creativity Center was dissolved and we were left to the whims of various administrative staff at the CDF.”

Mansour cites repeated attempts to intimidate her, as well as the local and international dancers she hired to lead specialized workshops during the program’s first year. Representatives of the CDF legal department required her to sign documents assuring the “proper conduct and values” of foreign tutors and identifying their religion.

Payment of trainers’ salaries was also often late, sometimes by months. Then the CDF stopped transferring money to the center altogether and cancelled a scheduled public performance by the students.

From January to June 2013, Mansour fulfilled the duties of both artistic director and administrative officer. She also led all classes for free, as she was no longer able to pay trainers. Beginning in June, Mansour and the students began organizing protests and sit-ins to publicize the issue. These protests were unfortunately confused with other protests by artists who wanted to remove former Culture Minister Alaa Abdel Aziz.

“They had promised to discuss the operations of the center after they saw the end-of-year performance in March,” says Mansour. “But no one from CDF came to the show.”

Finally, after the issue caught the attention of the press and after numerous requests for meetings, the CDF began negotiating with the students — negotiations which are still ongoing.

Aya Metwally, another student, says that they first learned about the possible suspension of the program in May, when a huge banner advertising the Talents Studio was hung outside the center. The negotiations that followed were slow, complicated and inconclusive. Magdy says that when the students met with CDF representatives, the latter first suggested that the new workshops could replace the dance coursework at the center.

“But when we began discussing how the workshop program fits with our curriculum and classes, Galal admitted that he is unfamiliar with the technical aspects related to the contemporary dance program,” she adds.

Still, for now the students are not giving up.  Magdy is just one of many who enrolled in the contemporary dance program with the hope of making dance a career.

“The center has helped us develop immensely, on both the technical and conceptual levels. We’re not going to give up until they give us an official document saying that the center is closed,” she says.

Mada Masr made several attempts to speak with Mohamed Abu Sida, head of the Culture Development Fund, but he was not available for comment.

Mai Elwakil 

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