Six dancers sway across a spacious rooftop that has sheet-iron ceilings supported by steel rods. There is a certain charm to the space. The almost industrial ceiling structure, the black adagio dance floors and the windows overlooking the skyline of Giza’s middle-class Haram neighborhood are picturesque and inviting.
This is one of the spaces at the Ezzat Ezzat Contemporary Dance Studio, just off Faisal Street. Established in 2010 by Ezzat Ismail Ezzat, one of the most active members of the Egyptian contemporary dance scene, the space serves as a venue for rehearsals, training and residencies.
When it started, it was just a space on the sixth floor. In a large apartment, Ezzat set up a large main room as the dance studio, with offices and residency areas in other rooms. In 2012 Ezzat, who was educated as an architect, took over the building’s rooftop and designed it as a dance studio.
That was when Ezzat registered the studio as a company, set up a professional website and social media presence for it, and started officially hosting activities. Usually, international resident artists (such as the UK’s Jennifer Irons and the US’s Megan Mazarick) teach workshops, while he runs an introduction to contemporary dance program.
The studio is supported by the British Council, the Embassy of the Netherlands and Association Sud Sud, and prices range from LE25 for a class to LE1500 for a six-month program, with some scholarships.
Ezzat’s involvement in contemporary dance came during his university years as an architecture student. He got involved with a dance troupe and then the engineering faculty’s theater troupe, where he met fellow dancer Sherine Hegazy. The duo started performing together before both joining a training programme at Studio Emad Eddin in 2008 called the Contemporary Dance Workshop Programme.
“I haven’t stopped dancing since,” says the 28-year-old.
Ezzat believes that dance and architecture are very interrelated. They both deal with the relationship between space and the human body.
“In architecture, you fill the space with your design. It’s not just about putting bricks next to each other. It’s to deliver a certain concept through the design, so when you go into the structure and leave it you pass through a certain experience,” he says. “It’s the same in dance — the difference is the tool used. In dance we use the human body and objects that make up the performance scenography. But it’s the same concept. The human body is common in both, you have to understand the human body: how it thinks, moves, functions, how energy forms, how colours affect the body and its relation to the space surrounding it.”
“[In Cairo], all the contemporary dance initiatives are born out of need. A need for space, a need for education or a need to expand the audience,” Ezzat tells me, after finishing the general dress rehearsal for BOLT, a performance choreographed by Hazem Header showing on May 6 at Rawabet theater as part of the By Chance Contemporary Dance Festival.
The festival, running from May 3 to 8, really did happen by chance. Several dance performances were set to take place this month, and Ezzat was involved in three of them. He suggested to the groups that they pool their efforts and present the performances in the same week. That way they share resources and promote all their performances as one package, to a hopefully larger audience
Ezzat tells me this is the first time an organic initiative of this sort is happening in contemporary dance. A similar initiative took place in 2012, calling itself the Independent Combo. Several musicians (such as Maii Waleed, Youssra El-Hawary, Aya Metwalli and Syrian band Tanjaret Daght) and the Choir Project, along with theater performers Al-Tamyye Theatre Troupe and Al-Khayal Al-Shaabi came together to present a week of performances under the same umbrella. It proved successful in terms of attendance, and the combo was repeated later that year.
The By Chance Festival is presenting eight performances in six days by both local and international artists. Its administration and marketing is being handled by the artists themselves, and Ezzat affirms that it is a truly collaborative effort, where no company or artist is taking charge, but rather sharing both the tasks and the resources they have.
A similar initiative to promote contemporary dance was Contemporary Dance Nights (CDN), which has been halted for the time being. It was initiated by Ezzat in 2011, a time when he says the scene was not as large as it is now but had great potential for growth.
“There were about four choreographers and 15 dancers who graduated from the Cairo Contemporary Dance Workshop Program,” he says.
They came together and put on a self-financed night at Rawabet of short performances (5-10 minutes each). The following year they were supported financially by the British Council, AFAC, Studio Emad Eddin and Townhouse, and moved the performances to the more spacious Falaki Theater. They were able to expand the program and range of marketing.
It grew each year, in terms of number of performances, audience participation and the cities it was presented in, until its last edition in 2014, which also hosted international artists.
“CDN’s mission was to reach a large audience and spread the phrase ‘contemporary dance’ to get people to know about it,” Ezzat says. At the end of each dance night, the artists hosted an open discussion with the audience, answering questions about the art form and discussing their pieces.
“The second goal of CDN is artist development: all artists were paid, had space to rehearse, and had a production budget which increased every year. There was a separate team from the artists handling the administration and the marketing, allowing the artists to only focus on their performances. We wanted to set a standard for dance events,” he continues.
After the 2014 edition, Ezzat decided CDN had achieved its purpose and reached its ceiling. He prefers to keep the scene open for initiatives reacting to the scene’s current needs to pop up, rather than repeating CDN for the sake of repeating it.
Ezzat believes his studio is very complimentary to Karima Mansour’s Cairo Contemporary Dance School. “The school is very focused on education to produce professional dancers,” he says. “My space works to develop the scene so that when these dancers finish their studies they can find spaces to work, festivals to show in and audiences interested to engage with them.”
Ezzat’s studio and the school are the only two spaces in Cairo that are totally focused on contemporary dance. Other performing arts associations host some contemporary dance programs but with no particular focus on it. The other space focusing on contemporary dance outside of Cairo is Rezedance in Alexandria, who organize the annual Nassim Al-Raqs festival, which takes place in urban and public spaces.
“Dance is not just showing something on stage, it changes a person’s life. Some people who were dancing with us, their lives have changed 180 degrees, 100 percent,” says Ezzat. “This is what happened to me, my whole life, personality, approach changed because of dance, and this is my main motivation for anything we’re doing here: I want to give the opportunity and the choice for anyone who could find this option fitting for them, to open a door to people who can be involved, who can find themselves in dance.”