Carving out a Space for Contemporary Dance in Cairo
When Karima Mansour returned home to Cairo in 1998 after several years in Europe studying contemporary dance and choreography, she was keen to bring her art to Egyptian audiences.
Contemporary dance was not well known in the country at the time, and the broader dance scene itself was quite limited, with just two dance companies and a ballet institute, all state-run. “It was a desert,” said Mansour.
Eager to build a contemporary dance scene in Cairo, Mansour founded the country’s first independent dance company, MAAT for Contemporary Dance. But she often struggled to find opportunities to perform in a cultural scene dominated by the state and administered by an entrenched bureaucracy that controlled access to venues.
Independent artists in Egypt “don’t have access to any government body; you cannot use the studios, you cannot perform in any of the state theatres,” said Mansour, who trained in Italy and graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School with a BA and an MA.
It was not just a lack of venues that presented a challenge; independent artists also lacked access to studio space, preventing them from developing their work.
“Training was very difficult because there was nowhere to go. Even just being in a studio and playing around and experimenting was very difficult,” said Mansour.
As a result, the acclaimed dancer and choreographer created many of her pieces during residences abroad, where she had the facilities she needed.
These experiences convinced Mansour that one of the main problems facing contemporary dancers in Egypt was a lack of independent venues.
She became convinced of the “absolute necessity” of creating a space where anyone who wants to dance “can be educated, where they can develop, where they can train properly, where they can have artistic residency, a space where they can think and research, a space where workshops can happen,” she said.
Mansour was also clear that if contemporary dance were to flourish, dancers in Egypt had to be properly trained. “As a choreographer, sometimes I had to deal with a lack of dancers,” as those taking part had either been trained in ballet, in Egyptian folk dancing, or had no formal dance training at all.
“Sometimes I would find myself in the position while I was choreographing that I wasn’t just choreographing, I was doing a choreography-slash-workshop,” she said.
“So all of this created this project in my head.”
Mansour’s vision of an independent venue and school was realised after the Egyptian revolution in 2011, when she founded the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center.
The turbulent politics of the 2011 revolution had shaken up the arts scene in Cairo, and brought in a new culture minister who was more receptive to independent artists.
The new minister, Emad Abou-Ghazi, agreed that the ministry should house and fund the new centre. The centre would provide a three-year full-time professional training course in contemporary dance, designed to create a new generation of trained dancers.
The centre was established in 2012, and the first cohort of trainees began classes. But Abou-Ghazi’s tenure as minister was short-lived, and after he resigned, Mansour felt that the centre’s work was being undermined by hostile bureaucrats within the ministry.
Convinced independence was the only way to safeguard the work, she and her students found new funding and moved the centre to a new venue, decoupling entirely from the ministry.
The fully independent dance centre held its first class in January 2014, and in June 2015, the first cohort of the training programme completed their programme and graduated.
“This is the first ever generation of trained contemporary dancers in Egypt, and it's the first in the region with this consistency,” said Mansour. “Great work is being done in places like Morocco, Lebanon, Tunisia, but those are mainly shorter programmes, or visiting artists. This kind of programme doesn’t exist elsewhere in the region.”
The centre has also helped the contemporary dance scene to flourish, providing the space envisioned by Mansour for independent artists to train and to create work.
These developments have been met with enthusiasm by local audiences. “The West is suffering from an audience problem because there is an inundation of events... so the audience has become very picky and very sceptical,” she said. “Here, we don't have that problem, because it's a sheer question of numbers,” she said. “If you have good funds for publicity, you have an audience. People come because they’re curious, they’re bored, they’re hungry for something new, they come because they’ve been following the scene.”
In an attempt to reach new audiences, Mansour and the centre have also collaborated with a number of different initiatives that aim to bring arts to the streets, such as Stop and Dance, a project led by Mahatat for Contemporary Art, which brought dance performances to Cairo’s metro in 2012.
In February of this year, Mansour and the centre collaborated with Mahatat on a similar project, this time performing on the streets in the cities of Damietta, Mansoura, Port Said, and Cairo. The performances drew sizeable crowds and the audiences, she said, were enthusiastic, engaging with the dancers and enjoying the narrative of the pieces.
Financial, political pressure
Mansour stresses that, despite these successes, the centre and the broader independents arts scene itself face major challenges, some familiar and some new.
For one, there remains the old problem of unequal access to space, particularly performance venues. “The only independent spaces we have are Rawabet Theatre, the Factory Space and Falaki Theatre, and it’s a huge problem because it creates a monopoly within the independent scene. All the other performance spaces are state institutions,” she said.
But the critical challenge facing artists at present, according to the choreographer, is a lack of funding that has been exacerbated by the political climate. “It’s really a crisis,” she said. “If things don’t get better soon, the centre will close.”
The government has begun to enforce laws related to the foreign funding of NGOs in increasingly restrictive ways, and several independent cultural initiatives have been raided or closed. Mansour believes the state is trying to “intimidate” artists as a way of regaining control over the independent scene.
As a result of this political climate, donors are “more careful, more apprehensive,” she said, exacerbating the difficulties for independent initiatives.
Although the centre offers dance classes to the public, such activities do not raise nearly enough to offset the funds required to maintain the venue. In addition, donor funds are often short-term and project-based, preventing strategic vision and planning.
Mansour argues that artists and donors alike need to be more open to charging audiences for performances. “I think this relationship between artists and art initiatives and funders has resulted in a dangerous, co-dependent relationship where you are relying on funding and not working on sustainable business models,” she said. “Art needs to be sustainable, and we need to convince people that you do need to pay.”
Given these risks, the centre’s future is far from assured, and if it is forced to close, Mansour believes it will be a major loss for the dance scene. “It will be like going back to fifteen years ago,” she said.
But she is nonetheless proud of what the project has achieved so far. “We have twenty grads and they’re all very talented. Three or four have now started choreographing through our platform.”
“Now it’s up to them to develop and continue. They have the tools.”
For more information on the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, please click here
Content produced in collaboration with Cineuropa