“It’s a man’s world,” James Brown sang in 1966. And it still is. Perhaps especially here in Egypt.
Even though for many families women are the main breadwinners, it’s mostly men who are in control. Couples can keep having daughter after daughter just to get a son. Social double standards that give men more freedoms than women (pre-marital sex, staying out late, wearing what they want, mobility) are prevalent, and a brother, father or husband often has control over the female.
However, choreographer Hazem Header’s performance Bolt, showing on May 5 at the By Chance Festival, and first shown in September 2014 at the Rawabet theater, deals with a different side of this patriarchal society. It presents male vulnerability and uses six male dancers to revisit and redefine notions of control and machismo, presenting a man’s darkest secrets.
It starts out with some electro-jazz, almost lounge music. We see three rows of men diagonally arranged across the stage. The two at the back take turns alternately dressing up to match the formal wear the rest are in, and dressing down to just tight boxer shorts. The three others, sitting on chairs, look intensely at the audience, stroking the area around their groins and giving looks men give right before they are about to harass a woman on the street.
The dancers capture the male sense of power very well, especially in light of the fact that they spend the rest of the 30-minute performance deconstructing it.
They perform in unison what can only be described as a seductive, hip-shaking dance in their underwear. They shake their hips back and forth, using chairs as support (as a woman stripping in a Hollywood film tends to do) — and I can’t help but laugh a bit. Not because what they’re doing is ridiculous, but because it’s somehow uncomfortable to watch six men do it. Although when women do, we as a society find it seductive and put it in adverts, films and on the stage.
This is where the strength of the piece comes from. It juxtaposes our perception of a man’s strength and status in society with his humanity and humility. Without even trying to, it makes us question whether it would be less strange if we were watching six women.
In another memorable scene, one dancer performs a carefully choreographed solo in a stage-constructed shower. He dances provocatively, then simulates masturbation in a poetic manner. The dancer, Mohamed Elhaddad, is watched by his fellow dancers. He expresses with his body the pleasure this act gives and the taboo society and religion place on it.
Bolt also challenges conformity. It shows male insecurities when it comes to being different, simulates male aggression and friendship, and even looks at homosexual desire.
The dancers carry each segment with great skill. While the performance may border on shocking for Egyptian society, especially for those not used to dance, the performers keep it sharp and touching, which compensates for the potential shock value some might feel.
“I had already done three performances – a trilogy – about female-dominated societies,” Header tells me. “Bolt was written a while ago, but I wasn’t sure how to present it. It works well as kind of a fourth part of this trilogy, it’s a continuation of my previous works.”
“I wanted to look at all the aspects of the male society, as it also has its issues, dualities, paranoia, and many things people don’t even see,” he adds.
Header, a 29-year-old dancer and choreographer, has been practicing contemporary dance since 2009. Having performed with Mirette Mechail’s No Point Perspective group in several performances, he studied at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Workshop’s open classes and at then the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center for 18 months (before it moved from Cairo Opera House to Mohandiseen in 2013). He founded NUT Dance Company in 2011.
The memorable element of Bolt is how accessible it is. While contemporary dance pieces shown in Cairo are often accused of over-philosophising their concepts or being elitist in their approach, both Bolt‘s concept and its approach to movement is understandable, enjoyable and even funny at times — despite the depth of the topic at hand.
Header hopes to tour various Egyptian governerates with Bolt by 2016.
Bolt will be shown on Wednesday May 6 at 8pm at the Rawabet theater.