'We count it as progress if we survive in the first place,’ replied Emilie Petit, art director and founder of the Alexandrian Nassim el-Raqs public dance festival, when I asked how the event has developed over the past seven years and what direction it would take in the future.
The original article was published in Hungarian in the online magazine Revizor
The festival began in 2011, the year of the Egyptian revolution, and according to Emilie Petit, this is the only public art festival in the region that has survived over the past 6 years. It was however a rocky road that led to the launch of the poetically named Nassim el-Raqs (Whisper of the Dance). Emilie started her career as a painter, and already during her studies in France she was interested in the concepts of ‘convergence’ and ‘crossing’. As a result, a few years later she left the School of Fine Arts in Bordeaux to seek out the essence of convergence and crossing in practice, more specifically in the art of sailing, where she founded an art laboratory and artist residency on a sailing boat. Writers, audio and visual artists, photographers and musicians could join the sailing voyage, which crossed the Mediterranean Sea while going between fishing villages and commercial ports within the framework of the Moutawassat Project, running between 2007 and 2009, for a set period of time. For many of them the geography and physical mobility represented a starting point, but they each reflected upon the unique creative situation from the point of view of their own artistic practices.
‘Now comes the personal bit in this story,’ Emilie says, ‘you see, the captain of the boat used to be my partner and when we split up one day, he left me in Algeria, in Annaba Port, and so I was left without a home or a place suitable for artistic experimentation. Since we planned to sail to Alexandria from Annaba before we split, instead of changing the plan I got onto a plane headed for Alexandria – alone. There I asked myself: how could I transform the kind of experimentation we did on the boat into something else and make it permanent? I “wrote” Nassim al-Raqs in response to that question.’ For Emilie, the ‘creation’ of the festival wasn’t merely the articulation of a concept, it also meant integrating the festival into city life.
Since 2011, the concept of the festival has been following along the lines of thought which were conceived by its founder while still on the ship: invited artists would create pieces which reflected on the given situation during a set time period in a set place – except in this case, instead of the infinite sea and the limited space on a ship, the fabric of the city served as the source of the artistic work. Nassim el-Raqs, however, organised in the city context, enriched the concept by giving rise to a singular ecosystem between the artist, the location and the creative process; according to Emilie, this resulting and ever-changing system is far more important than the work or the performance itself. At the same time, due to the public nature of the work, the creative process also includes instances of ‘building connections’ and ‘maintaining the connection’ with the locals and local institutions, the police, as well as the random audience of the moment.
The festival’s budget has doubled since 2011 and as a result organisers were able to invite more renowned artists than it could during its first years, however this is not where Emilie sees real progress. Rather, she sees it in the fact that ‘we preserved our convictions and dedication, we persevered during the revolution and then during the return of the system, and now we persevere even despite the increasingly harsh nature of the system.’ Naturally, the defining events of the Egyptian political landscape also affect the festival, although not necessarily in the form of changing the programme line-up, but much more so on the level of the artistic work itself, which is heavily influenced by the given political, economic, social and safety situation, along with the difficulties and obstacles arising as a result.
Just look at the programme for 2017 alone: the creative work done in the weeks leading up to the festival and the event itself were held during a state of emergency, following the April bombing in Alexandria; as a result, quite a few permits were not granted to the organisers and public rehearsals were frequently interrupted by the police. According to Emilie, it never occurred to them to cancel the festival or significantly alter its programme despite the obstacles (not in 2017 or any time before that). However, the circumstances greatly influenced the ecosystem built during the artistic process and, as a result, it influenced the exhibited works as well.
Since its inception, Nassim el-Raqs has always had a small scope each year (consisting of four to six projects), however due to its public nature its programme caters to a large audience which primarily focuses on contemporary dance, but artists of other art forms are regularly invited. Because of Emilie’s nationality, the participation of French troupes and artists is substantial, but over the past seven years the programme selection has featured German, Dutch, Spanish, Swiss, British, American, Lebanese and Ivorian artists as well. In inviting foreign artists, the primary goal of the organisers is for those artists to lend their expertise in public artwork to the local artists by collaborating with them, while they also endeavour to ensure young Egyptian artists find their place. They work together with the invited artists for several years so that some truly profound works are brought to life.
Emilie Petit considers the 2017 festival as Nassim el-Raqs’ most significant edition over its seven years of existence. The programme, largely comprised of French-Egyptian collaborations, included three public dance performances, a city walk and a research-based exhibition, though the emphasis of the event was placed not on the collection itself, but rather on the political significance of the realisation of these projects.
The festival began with a piece from Olivier Dubois, renowned French choreographer and director of Ballet du Nord, entitled Wild Descent , which featured twenty Egyptian dancers who were selected by Dubois through an open call. The two-hour performance inspired by Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun took place in ten distinct places simultaneously – on the terrace of a café, in front of a cinema, in a store, along the balustrade of a seaside promenade, etc. Thanks to the bright orange ‘labourer’s overalls’ worn by the dancers, they were easily spotted set against the Alexandrian streets and locales, yet the gesture made by the choreographer in ‘scattering’ the performers across the city served as a kind of response to the state of emergency effective at the time. Somewhere in the middle of the performance and again at the end the dancers gathered in two central locations: first at the Corniche, i.e. the seaside promenade, and lastly at the iconic Mahatet el-Raml station, where they performed their powerful finale on top of the station’s flat roof.
The Egyptian choreographer Mohamed Fouad also made use of the city, albeit in a more confined area, for his performance entitled Poem of The Salty City, a piece which is less ‘conspicuous’ than Dubois’ production, but which was more integrated into the local context. Fouad’s dancers lead their audience through the Cavafy museum, as well as a garage/car repair shop – and while the renovated villa now serving as a museum, formerly the home of the Egyptian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, is among the leading sites in Alexandria visited by tourists, the latter location defines the city landscape in a different way: even downtown there are numerous smaller and larger car repair shops ‘squeezed in’ amongst cafés, clothing shops, convenience stores.
Interestingly, the other French invitee of the 2017 festival, Corinne Pontier, who is the director of the Ici-Même company in Grenoble, also compares the creative process of their city walk to ‘writing’, just as Emilie does. The ensemble already started experimenting with a uniquely immersive art form in the 2000s, in which a ‘guide’ leads each member of the audience blindfolded through chosen locations across the city, though the paths taken by the ‘pairs’ are not predetermined; the guide improvises en route by taking the spectator in directions that might be unknown and undiscovered even to them, all the while seeking out unusual, unexpected sounds and smells to ‘bestow’ upon the participant. The senses desynchronise during the walk (we don’t really notice how in sync they are in everyday life, but at the very least we don’t analyse it), in the ‘absence’ of sight our hearing and our sense of smell sharpens, but owing to the fact that the guide is merely holding our hand, in other words guiding us with very little physical contact, we control our movements and progress forward much more consciously as well. The minimal physical contact also aids the guides, who are thus ‘free to react to everything around them, seeing as they are the authors of the path, they write the space,’ explained Corinne about the creative process.
This is the second time Ici-Même has participated in the Nassim el-Raqs Festival: they worked in the poorer, more religious quarter of Kom el-Deka in 2016 and a year later they started out from the shady garden of the French Institute located in downtown Alexandria and walked the streets around the train station packed with merchants (the organisers originally wanted the troupe to present their night-long Night Walk in 2017 but did not receive permission from the authorities). According to Corinne, when working in Egypt it is integral to map the relational and socio-political dimensions during the adaptation of the walk in addition to constructing a ‘sound act’, because on the one hand gender issues are most definitely raised (the significance of the gender and ethnic composition of the guide-audience member ‘pairs’), and on the other hand questions regarding the use of a public space so drastically different from the one in Europe (the ‘blending’ of private and public space). This is exactly why a lengthier ‘presence’ is an important component of the creative process, during which the locals become accustomed to the unusual activities carried out by a group comprised of French artists and Egyptian collaborators and become integrated into everyday life – thus the ‘connection’ Emilie Petit mentions comes to life, an ecosystem forms between the artists, the location and the creative process.
However, the most compelling production of the 2017 Nassim el-Raqs can be said to be Shapers, an international collaboration. The project, together with eight participating organisations active in the contemporary dance field operating in the Euro-Mediterranean region (among others, the Ex Nihilo company based in Marseilles, the Alexandrian Rézodanse and the Nassim el-Raqs Festival, the Sevillian Mes de Danza, the Casablancan Espace Darja and the Sarajevan Festival Zvrk), started out with EU funding and the collaborative workshops, performances, conferences comprised a series that took place in several Mediterranean cities. The backbone of the collaborative was a public performance however, featuring eight young dancers (Egyptian, French, Spanish and Moroccan) led by two of Ex Nihilo’s choreographers, where the creators adapted the production to the context of each city. The premiere occurred within the framework of Nassim el-Raqs, and the Alexandrian performance is particularly significant because the dancers were not making use of scenes from everyday life, occupying the streets, squares, stores (as in the case of the performance realised in the 2015 edition of the festival, also by Ex Nihilo creators, as well as with the collaboration of Egyptian and Moroccan dancers, and also under the name Shapers), but this time they used the square adjoining Alexandria’s largest mosque, the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, as their venue. For this, the permission of the mosque’s imam was required and was granted to the festival, which was an incredibly important moment because, as Emilie put it: ‘In Egypt, contemporary art and Islam generally do not mingle, but in this case the square next to the mosque became the kind of meeting point and creative space which is usually impossible.’ (It must be noted that, though the organisers received permission from the imam, the police – citing the state of emergency – continuously disrupted rehearsals, and as a result the premiere transpired after the dancers had a mere six hours to rehearse on site; it was uncertain if they would even be able to perform the full forty-minute production without interference from the police.) The performance indisputably bore the mark of the two Ex Nihilo choreographers, Anne Le Batard and Jean-Antoine Bigot, yet at the same time the eight young dancers infused their own style and habitus into the artwork. The choreography is a matrix of solos, duets and group scenes, the relationship between the dancers is constantly shifting, simultaneously struggling with each other and then helping, supporting one another.
Shapers could be viewed again a few months after Nassim el-Raqs as part of the Sarajevan Festival Zvrk, where the performance made use of the area surrounding the Historical Museum, a building straight out of socialist realism. Since the physical, historical and social dimensions and richness of the site determine the performance every time, just as with other Ex Nihilo performances, the Alexandrian and the Sarajevan versions were quite different from one another. In the square serving as the Egyptian location, next to the mosque surrounded by multi-level, often seemingly unfinished residential buildings, the audience also surrounded the ‘stage’, which created a sense of confinement, as if the animated, energetic movements of the dancers were barred by invisible, yet quite palpable ‘boundaries’. In contrast, in Sarajevo the performers could make full use of the areas around the rigid concrete buildings standing beside the multilane motorway: scenes took place on broken stairways, at the base of the parapet designed to separate the museum from the traffic, the park area behind the building. A different performance came into being, because the choreography of the performers ‘fighting’ one another or the dancer carrying a heavy rock held different meaning in an Alexandrian square, enabling the convergence of Islam and modern art, or in front of a robust museum building representing Sarajevo’s laden past.
The quoted interviews were conducted by the author on 10 May 2017. The creation of the article was supported by the Balassi Institute in Cairo and the In Situ Network.
Author: Fanni Nánay - Artistic Director of Artopolis | PLACCC Festival