Public art in private spaces: D-CAF’s Urban Visions

The fourth run of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) kicked off last Thursday. For three weeks, on an annual basis, the city center is transformed into a network of spaces presenting multidisciplinary arts from various corners of the world.

This includes, an art exhibition, performances, films, music and, perhaps most interestingly, a program of contemporary dance shown in public spaces and alternative locations, dubbed “Urban Visions.”

However, the performances presented Friday – apart from one public intervention – were shown at techie haven the GrEEK Campus, previously part of the American University in Cairo: A closed open-air space with strict security at the door. The event was originally set to take place in the Cairo stock market’s pedestrian passageway, but the location was changed the day before.

According to playwright Ahmed El Attar, the program’s curator and the festival’s founder and artistic director, this was because they could not get the permits from the authorities on time due to a procedural change they weren’t aware of.

“Even if we had gotten the permits we wouldn’t have held the performances at the stock market,” he tells Mada Masr, referring to the recent security clampdown on the cafes in the passageway.

The performances were moved to the GrEEK Campus, according to Attar, because of the lack of other suitable public spaces. Alfy Bey Street, which hosted performances last year and houses Shehrazade nightclub where much of the festival’s music program happens, is under reconstruction, and the Kodak Passageway is full of plants and trees after its renovation earlier this year.

While the situation is understandable, especially due to increasing clampdowns on public gatherings, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed watching one performance after another at the GrEEK Campus.

It was full of viewers, mostly due to the program’s popularity over D-CAF’s past four years, but they were more or less the same artsy crowd that go to theaters for contemporary dance. Placing the performances away from the street meant missing the opportunity of engaging passersby in alternative arts — a key component of the program and purportedly a goal of D-CAF as a whole.

Attar tells me Urban Visions is not merely dance in public space — it’s about site-specific works that rediscover urban spaces, whether public or private.

This is true of some performances, such as the much-anticipated upcoming How Much?, choreographed by Austrian Christian Ubl and performed by Cairo Contemporary Dance Center at the abandoned Sednaoui department store in Attaba (once the go-to place for shopping in Egypt).

However, rediscovery does not necessarily apply to the GrEEK Campus, as it is one of the spaces in which Urban Visions was performed last year and it hosts regular concerts and performances through D-CAF’s separate performing arts and music programs, not to mention other cultural events throughout the year.

This year’s performances so far

Friday afternoon began with the premier of African Export by T.K Capoeira, a group from Egypt. After many delays, due to what seemed to be a sound issue, the three male performers arrived at the mat in the middle of the space, the audience forming a U-shape around them.

African Export’s idea is to combine different art forms originating from Africa into one performance.

The music was captivating, a mix of Gnawa and Berber music performed live delightfuly by Loopiera Project, and the skilled capoeira performers showed off their grasp of the Brazilian art. The piece offered little new to anyone who has practiced or seen Capoeira before, but it was an enjoyable and refreshing addition to a program that usually sticks to straight-up contemporary dance.

Urban Visions.jpg

African Import. Photo: Mostafa Naguib

Afterward, returning for the third year to D-CAF, Dutch duo 100Hands showed two pieces in collaboration with Egyptian dancers Khadija Yusof and Mohamed El-Deep, titled The Unpracticality of Beauty and Tender Violence.

In the first, the two female dancers, Yusof and Mojra Vogelnik Skerj, occupied a large area for a performance on the complications of being a woman. They ran into each others’ arms and caught one another. They simulated giving each other makeovers, dressing each other using flashy pieces of cloth, and held a fashion show. In one sequence they appeared to fight using their hips, and each had a solo of breaking free of the materials they were using.

The dancers were skilled and the choreography carefully crafted, but it went on for too long. The repetition of several movements had me losing focus rather than being present with the dancers in the moment, suggesting that on the street it would have been hard to capture passersby.

Tender Violence, performed by male dancers Deep and Jasper Dzuki Jelen, unexpectedly involved a lot of conversation between the performers using microphones. It explored how different cultures display manhood and male friendship, violence and intimacy. Shifting between microphones and dance sequences to challenge each other, the performers tried to label each other, consoled the other’s violent tantrums and shared hidden desires with the audience through the microphones.

Like its predecessor, it was lengthy but carefully thought out. Tender Violence also had some homoerotic moments, acceptable in a theater but had it been performed on the street this would have shocked several audience members in a conservative society.

While 100Hands’ previous D-CAF performances were site-specific, using space in a literal way, these two felt out of place in their body of work in Cairo. In 2014, the dancers used rings of rope to hold each other, playing with the circle the audience forms around performers. They moved through the whole space, occupying areas viewers were standing in, forcing changes of perspective.

In 2013, 100Hands used lampposts, walls, trees and windows for Line Engravers, prompting the audience to chase them, eager to see where they would be taken next. Like this year’ performances, their previous ones featured local dancers and simple yet elaborate concepts behind the movements.

Both performances this year fell short of expectations of site specificity — possibly due to the abrupt change of location, but this did not come through as the only reason.

The most interesting project on Friday was Mission Roosevelt, by Tony Clifton Circus (Italy/France). Already staged around the world, the act features 21 volunteers who have to navigate the city as a group — on wheelchairs.

D-CAF hosted a successful crowd-funding campaign earlier this year on Lebanese platform Zoomal to raise money for the chairs, which will later be donated to the NGO Egyptian Abilities. This is one of the interesting elements of D-CAF this year: the emphasis on audience participation to both fund a small part of the festival and to make some performances happen — this performance as well as The Library and A (micro) History of World Economics.


Mission Roosevelt, by Tony Clifton Circus. Courtesy: D-CAF

The day started with participants going around downtown, attempting to glide through the non-wheelchair friendly environment that is Egyptian streets and sidewalks. After a practice run and quick rest at a café, the volunteers formed a line, chained to one another and dragged by the visiting artist Nicola Danesi De Luca on her feet. De Luca was dressed in a beige dress and red sunglasses and was matched by Anthony Clifton, who dragged a boom box with Reel 2 Real’s I Like to Move It Move It booming. It was quite a sight. People stopped to look, ask questions. The police even helped them and stopped traffic to enable their crossing in streets such as Bostan and Tahrir.

“We didn’t get a permit for this performance,” Attar tells me. “We took a risk.”

The group then arrived at the GrEEK campus after the first three performances for the final leg of the show: a wheelchair race.

Mission Roosevelt was celebratory and high in spirits. It intervened in public space by not only having an army of hipsters on wheelchairs, but by shedding light on the issue of diverse abilities in a positive, happy manner without the guilt trip usually associated with such awareness raising.

The long day ended with 100 Pas Presque by Moroccan choreographer Taoufiq Izeddiou’s company Cie Anania. According to the program, the work was about “slowing down movements, gestures, and adopting a different rhythm, one that allows for an altered perception of the body, space and time.”


100 pas presque. Photo by Mostafa Naguib.

The dancers, mostly from the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center with some freelance dancers, formed one line at the GrEEK Campus entrance facing the audience, and slowly presented their moves. They went forward, increasing the pace slightly with each step, making intense movements every so often.

The Loopiera Project emerged again for this performance, presenting a soundtrack paced with the dancers’ movement. The dancers got faster and faster, to the point where they were jumping around uncontrollably — as if in a club. They invited one audience member after another into the frenzy, and it eventually turned into a giant party for about 10 minutes.

This sight of joy and positive energy was moving. But I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have looked like in front of the Egyptian stockmarket.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism