The independent performing arts community in Egypt has never had it easy. There are few rehearsal spaces, even fewer performances spaces, minimal funding and limited pedagogical resources.
Music has it slightly better than theater, which in turn has it marginally better than contemporary dance. But for the most part, practitioners in each discipline create works with the most modest of resources. And while the output is inconsistent, amazingly, Egypt manages to create and consume a fair quantity of performing arts.
For theater and contemporary dance there are a handful of festivals, event series and education programs. Karima Mansour’s MAAT Dance M.E.C.A. (Movement for Egyptian Contemporary Art) recently acquired new premises for its dance school arm, Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, and the government-run Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater is scheduled to make a comeback in October 2014 after repeated cancelations over the past three years, while Contemporary Dance Night, run by Ezzat Ezzat Contemporary Dance Studio, has been going strong since its founding in the same year.
Studio Emad Eddin (SEE), meanwhile, is involved in two of the major annual events: it is a collaborator on the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), and it runs the 2B Continued Festival and Laboratory, which is now approaching its fifth edition.
2B Continued returns to downtown Cairo’s Falaki Theater this week — January 16, 18 and 19 — with four new theater and contemporary dance performances produced by emerging Egyptian directors and choreographers.
Launched in 2008-2009 by director Nevine El Ibiary, it has so far provided a platform for the realization of projects by around 30 emerging theater and contemporary dance practitioners, including directors, stage managers and set designers.
Each year, four projects are chosen out of about 40 applications. These are then developed through a laboratory phase (which began in October) under the hands-on mentorship of leading professionals, and then realized as performances for the festival, which provides a small grant for production expenses.
The mentors this year included Studio Emad Eddin founder and theater director Ahmed El Attar (directing), Homma for Contemporary Dance founder Mohamed Shafik (choreography), Freedom Theater production and stage manager Alan Wright (stage management), Lebanese set designer and director Hussein Baydoun (set design), and photographer and director Paul Geday (light design).
“I’ve been with the studio since 2008 running workshops and residencies, but prior to that I was a theater major at AUC,” says Ibiary. “Our senior project was to come up with a performance for a play and we each had an advisor that sort of supervised the process. So that’s how I thought of 2B Continued — to mediate that process into a more professional environment — like a step between being a student and the freedom of professionalism, but with some slight supervision and resources accessible to you.”
The lab and festival evolve slightly with each edition — in the zero edition (2009) dance was not included and theater directors were required to work from a pre-existing text rather than their own writing. Contemporary dance was added into the program in the second edition (2009-2010) and now, in the fifth edition, theater directors have been allowed to work from and create original text.
“The whole idea is to create systems of follow up, to give the opportunity to young practitioners to realize their work by providing them with sustainable methods and resources,” says Ibiary.
Indeed, practitioners are allowed to apply multiple times to the program and, according to Ibiary, are welcome to utilize Studio Emad Eddin’s expertise and resources even after the festival ends.
Meanwhile, throughout the year Studio Emad Eddin runs a series of workshops covering a spectrum of disciplines, including stage management, set design, lighting design and costumes, that culminates in 2B Continued. Each year, four students from each class are chosen to work on the crew for the festival performances under the direction of the participating director or choreographer.
The lab almost becomes a theater company in itself, often providing opportunities for various practitioners: previous participants can be called back for performances, depending on what’s needed.
What to expect this week
This year’s lab and festival features two contemporary dance pieces and two theater pieces, each dealing with urgent social issues. Audiences will vote on which piece is best, and results will be announced on the closing night.
“It’s about society’s endless demands on Egyptian women,” Yasmine Emam Beshir says of her play, “Mirror.”
“When I wrote it, I felt there was always orders being barked at us — all these demands from fathers, mothers, commercials, even women’s rights campaigns seem to order sometimes. So my play is an interpretation of this. Each time the protagonist goes to the mirror, the demands have changed her.”
For the 31-year-old playwright and director, the 2B Continued lab has been a invaluable learning experience. Having studied English literature at Zagazig University, Beshir touched on dramaturgy during her undergraduate degree, but it was through the Studio Emad Eddin workshops that she began gaining practical experience.
“My mentor was Ahmed al-Attar,” she says. “He helped in many ways, without imposing too much input, but rather helped me think more wisely — for example, I started the play with many characters, and Ahmed helped me to shrink it down to make it a monodrama, which I feel really works.”
While 26-year-old Mounir Said’s previous choreographies, “The Game” (2009), “Streets” (2011), and “Don’t Make Me Hurt You” (2012), have been met with mixed reviews, he continues to push his practice forward with each new work. He tries to creatively address pertinent and risky issues in Egyptian society. In his piece for 2B Continued, “A Room Filled with Smoke,” Said tackles the taboo topic of suicide.
“It’s two dancers, me and Mohamed Anwar,” he explains. “There is a live musician playing electronic music. It looks like a room for a single man, a bachelor who is depressed, with no hope. I’m talking about suicide. At the same time, I’m talking about life.”
“Mohamed Shafik has always inspired me as a choreographer and a dancer, even far before working with him in 2B Continued,” Said says of his mentor. “He would attend my rehearsals, he would give out some advice and has a great way of teaching. But mostly, he gives you mechanisms to reach the solutions yourself with some tips here and there about movements.”
Twenty-four-year-old choreographer and dancer Mohamed al-Deeb will also be addressing a difficult topic, one that plagued 2013 — violence — in a piece called “What’s Left…”
“The violence keeps growing, and we are losing our humanity,” says Deeb. “It seems human rights have no meaning in this society. I’ve realized that the body can say much more than words, and so that’s what I work towards — addressing things through different means of expression.”
For 23-year-old Seif Abdel Salaam, 2B Continued offered him resources and a platform for a Cairo debut of a non-academic play in his home city. Having received his BA in theater from the American University in Cairo, and a master’s in directing (text and performance) from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Abdel Salaam is the only participant in this year’s 2B Continued who academically studied the practice. His piece is called “Triangles are My Favorite Shapes.”
“This is the first play I’ve co-written and directed outside of an academic institution,” says Abdel Salaam. “That being said, I felt it was important to first debut here in Cairo — it’s not the most comfortable place to create and perform plays, but I’m happy to be part of the struggle for Egypt’s independent theater. It’s an important struggle.”