Now in its seventh consecutive year, Alexandrian contemporary dance festival Nassim el-Raqs is one of very few players remaining from the flurry of public space contemporary art events in Egypt that followed the 2011 revolution.
Although the festival was founded by French artists Emilie Petit and Lucien Arino as an independent project, by the second edition they needed an institutional umbrella under which to function. So Petit established Momken Association in Marseille, and Arino’s longstanding dance school in Alexandria, Rezodanse, became the main local partner. Later they established Nut for Arts and Media Productions (not to be confused by Nut for Dance, founded by dancer and choreographer Hazem Header) to take on the organizational side.
Due to the obstacles now facing art in public space, as soon as each edition of Nassim al-Raqs is over, the crew start preparations for the next year’s edition in order to get the necessary governmental permits and clearances in time. The organizers also go to great lengths to prepare the users of their selected public spaces for the performances in advance by introducing themselves, the festival and contemporary dance.
“It’s all about building relationships, which we have been doing for seven years,” says Yasmine Hussein, one of the Nassim el-Raqs organizers, about their approach to working in public spaces. “We work from the spaces we know and have performed in previously, and we expand in those spaces and their surrounding streets.”
This year Nessim el-Raqs opened on May 4 with Wild Descent by choreographer and dancer Olivier Dubois. Twenty dancers from Cairo and Alexandria performed the work in more than 10 locations in the city over the course of the day. Wild Descent is a contemporary adaptation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 ballet The Afternoon of a Faun, about the titular half-man half-goat mythical creature. The original dance, considered one of the first modern ballets, was choreographed to music composed by Claude Debussy in 1894 and based on an 1878 poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.
At Café de la Paix on the Alexandrian corniche downtown, one of the first performance locations, the street bustled with cars in the background, and clients and passersby paused to watch a segment of the performance by dancers Omneya Okasha and Salma Abdel-Salam. For some people, it was their first sight of a such a performance in public. “There’s something pharaonic about the movements,” I heard an audience member whisper.
Around 20 dancers took over the corniche of Alexandria during sunset, not far from Cafe de la Paix. The performance intrigued many who were walking by. Some whispered questions, others laughed over what they couldn’t understand, but many were curious and hoping for more.
Later in the early evening, curious passersby near Nabi Daniel Street, known for being the epicentre of second-hand book shopping in Alexandria, stopped to observe another point in the performance in which dancer Hazem Headar performed solo.
On Saad Zaghloul Street, in Omar Effendi, a local department store chain that was sold to Saudi investors a few years ago, Abdel-Salam and Nagham Salah danced to Debussy’s music blasting through the store.
The final segment of the performance took place at the historic Raml Tram Station, where smaller groups of dancers gathered, drawing a large crowd of all ages. All 20 dancers went up to the roof of the almost 90-year-old station, in front of its iconic clock tower, and then made their way down to the large square to close.
All photos by Randa Ali. This article was commissioned and edited by Rowan El Shimi.