It is Monday May 26th, 2014 and at 9 o’clock this morning Egyptians began to cast ballots to decide their next president. The election is largely symbolic – there are only two candidates, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the presumed winner, and Hamdeen Sabahi, and the joke, delivered with a good humored cynicism, is that the only two options are the President and the other guy – and many Egyptians, most of them young, feel disgusted and disenchanted with what, to them, is a farce. Others hope that at least Sisi will bring stability, and hopefully tourism, back to a country whose recent history has seen a revolution, a military coup, and four different presidents in as many years. When you speak about Egypt with most people this is what they are familiar with: the Arab Spring, a revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak who had been in power for 40 years, the only leader an entire generation of Egyptians had known.
What most people don’t know is that Egypt also has a richly developed, consummate, and vibrant contemporary artistic community who are working, in spite of political instability and uncertainty, to create work that reflects an Egypt that is not limited or defined by political turmoil, but that is full of generosity and hope and kindness and humor and curiosity and thoughtfulness and aspiration and deep and abiding care; an Egypt that is steeped in its history, its four thousand year old pyramids and eight hundred year old mosques, but that is also fervently and definitively here now; an Egypt whose air smells like incense and exhaust and bread baking and meat roasting and garbage, where rooftop bars overlook the tranquil waters of the Nile and the majesty of the city’s skyline, where the secret hip bohemian intelligentsia of Cairo gather at the Greek Club or a hookah bar or a falafel restaurant to have conversations about privilege and art and history and shared struggle and hope for the future.
I was honored and privileged to be invited by Ezzat Ismail Ezzat, an Egyptian dancer, choreographer, producer, and administrator, to travel to Cairo earlier this month to work with a group of Egyptian dance artists on establishing parameters for basic artists’ rights. I went without expectations, having never been to Egypt before and knowing nothing about the contemporary dance community there.
I was overwhelmed.
There were some who feared for my safety, a fear that I never felt fully myself. Certainly there had been the revolution, which was largely peaceful with the exception of Mubarak’s hired thugs and some scattered run-ins with the police, and then there had been a brutal military crackdown on protesters after Mohammed Morsi was deposed, and there have since been isolated incidents of insurgency and minor acts of terrorism, but nothing that amounted to anything more dangerous than walking through Prospect Park after hours. And in any case it is especially during times of difficulty that people who are working under trying and even hostile circumstances to make a place for art and art makers need to be supported. I had been heartened, emboldened, and continually inspired by Ezzat’s energy, passion, and dedication to working on substantive issues pertaining to artists’ rights and services during conversations leading up to the trip and felt strongly that if he was willing to do this work in spite of the challenges he was facing then the least I could do was show up. But I arrived to an Egypt that was calm, if bustling; a city that welcomed me with generous arms opened wide, far from a violent hotbed of political turmoil.
The contemporary dance community in Cairo is small – I imagine I met most of them in the short time I was there – but fiercely committed to one another. There is a great deal of love there.
A note on my host: Ezzat Ismail Ezzat is one of a singular breed of human beings, an extraordinarily selfless, committed, and capable individual. He graduated from university with a degree in architecture and a desire to dance. Upon surveying the scene and realizing that there were no dedicated dance spaces he took it upon himself to design and build his own. When that was done he proceeded to begin producing Contemporary Dance Night, a festival of Egyptian contemporary dance, because there were few opportunities for Egyptian dance artists to present their work. Now that CDN is well into it’s fourth year he is taking on a third issue: that of addressing a deep need for trained dance teachers with a program called SEEDS that brings teachers from all over the world to train budding Egyptian dance teachers in anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, movement analysis, etc. Ezzat is a giant and I was humbled by his deep sensitivity, his compassion, and the humility that imbues everything he does.
We spent three days in conversation with Egyptian dancers and choreographers discussing, in detail, all the issues surrounding dancers’ rights in the rehearsal process, during performances, and on tour. We talked about the challenges of working in the Egyptian context, where there are only three foundations that fund contemporary dance, where there are only six festivals that commission and produce work, and where there are no meaningful or enforced labor rights in general. We got into the weeds about how many exceptions there would be to any guideline or stipulation that we set in stone. The whole conversation was incredibly thoughtful, nuanced, and respectful and it resulted in a narrative document outlining a simple proposal: that clarity, openness, and communication, in the context of a community of goodwill, could lead to a stronger, more vibrant arts community in Egypt, the important thing being that expectations and the details of an artistic commitment be outlined clearly before the beginning of a working relationship in order to avoid unintentional exploitation.
Nine days is hardly enough time to address the root of the issues we had convened to talk about, but often it can be useful just to get stakeholders in a room talking to one another. It was the beginning of a much larger and more complex conversation that will hopefully continue in the coming days, months, and years. Many of the challenges faced by Egyptian dance artists are not unique to them; the concerns addressed in our workshops have been echoed by many dancemakers in New York: limited access to affordable dance spaces, the scarcity of resources and funding, a lack of affordable training for professional dancers, and the widespread instances of dancers working for very little or for free. These are issues that have prompted similar convenings in New York, resulting in things like the Dancers’ Forum Compact and The Brooklyn Commune Project’s report The View From Here, both of which were discussed during the workshops in Cairo.
We have a ways to go; the road is not short, nor is it easy, but this work is important and we have to believe that it can lead to change. It is the existence of people like Ezzat who believe enough to fly someone halfway across the world for one week to have these conversations, and of the people who showed up for a week’s worth of four hour workshops to participate in these conversations who give me hope.
It is their existence that makes me believe that things can get better, that they must get better, that they will get better.
A draft of the document that resulted from the week’s conversations can be read here.
The workshops were sponsored by the American Embassy in Cairo in partnership with Ezzat Ezzat Contemporary Dance Studio.
Alexander Leslie Thompson is a freelance dancer, choreographer, musician, administrator, and transplant to New York City by way of his hometown in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves on the Dance/NYC Junior Committee and Doug Varone’s Junior Board and works as the Associate Artist Program Manager at New York Live Arts striving to find ways to provide much needed services to dance artists in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @lexanderthomp.