For the penultimate performance in the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) Urban Visions program on Wednesday, contemporary dancers filled Sednaoui, one of Egypt’s largest and oldest department stores.
How Much, choreographed by Austrian dancer Christian Ubl and performed by Cairo Contemporary Dance School students, has a variety of themes that all fall under the umbrella of materialism and the perception of value.
Ubl juxtaposes contemporary dance with the history of Sednaoui. Built in 1913, it was once one of Cairo’s most luxurious stores, but now sells inexpensive household goods. Designed by French architect Georges Parcq and named after the family who commissioned it as their flagship store, the building is in Cairo’s central Attaba district. It was nationalized in 1961 but retains its original architecture, from its three-story-high central atrium to its glass chandeliers.
The performance was initiated by the Nassim el Raqs festival, a five-year-old dance creation festival that mainly hosts site-specific performances in Alexandria’s urban spaces. The Austrian Cultural Forum, the financer of the performance, selected Sednaoui as a space to work in.
“I’ve been passing by Attaba to buy things for years, but never come into this place,” says Mohamed Khamis Shehata, a coordinator at the Austrian Cultural Forum and a visual artist. “People have come to see the performance while the store’s also open for shoppers, and this brings attention to our heritage.”
“I want to question the value of the performer in Egypt today, because I think musicians have a better status here than performers,” Ubl tells Mada Masr. “I don’t know what they can expect in the next 10 years. How are dancers or performers going to earn money?”
The performance was divided into five segments. On the ground floor, a procession marched with specific, strictly choreographed sharp movements that the dancers turned into improvised dance on demand once they were touched by audience members.
Up on the first floor, the music was strong and the movements poetic and slow. The dancers turned into puppets and then statues, like mannequins, interacting with the shoppers and using the goods as props. Eventually they headed back downstairs for the last segment of the one-hour show. Oranges were strewn around the place and played a role in the performance.
“It was very interactive. I loved the place, the fact that the music was live, and the part of improvisation in the performance was great,” says Basaka, a 29-year-old audience member. “The most striking part was on the first floor, when they started to move around and then spread out. First, we felt the tension of the space, a bit too tight for them; then they dispersed. It was very intense.”
Finally, Ubl invited the audience to join the dancers, eat the oranges and dance with them.
Words by Rowan El Shimi and photographs by Amir Makar.
How Much will be repeated in a department store in Alexandria on April 16 during Nassim el Raqs, which runs until May 2.