Hidden gem

The Balloon Theater's folklore troupes are putting on memorable shows to empty seats

Francesca Sullivan

The Mahmoud Reda troupe

What’s on the agenda for the majority of tour operators when it comes to entertaining visitors to Egypt? There’s the tanoura show, currently in a temporary new location at the Citadel. There’s the inevitable dinner on one of the Nile cruisers, with a belly dancer and possibly a mediocre folkloric performance. And perhaps, at a stretch, an arranged dinner in a romantic desert setting somewhere in the vicinity of the pyramids.

But for some inexplicable reason, one of the best, most culturally stimulating showcases the country has to offer is strangely lacking the very audience that would appreciate it the most. On a regular basis at the Balloon Theater in Agouza, the world famous Mahmoud Reda Troupe and the National Folkloric Troupe have joined forces to produce a full two hour extravaganza of one of Egypt’s strongest national assets: its folkloric dances.

The lackluster sets and depressingly empty auditorium are compensated for by an excellent orchestra, great costumes and a level of skill and enthusiasm from the dancers themselves–that’s a tribute to their professionalism. It must be disheartening to come out and face a trickle of people in that huge space each night, but you’d never know it from the amount of energy they put into their performances.

Two weeks ago a visiting couple from Germany found themselves the two lone guests in an empty theatre, but were nevertheless treated to the full programme with as much effort as though it had been a packed house. "We tried to clap and applaud as much as we could after each number, so they wouldn’t feel bad," they said afterwards, full of admiration for the show.

Folkloric performance in Egypt is suffering from the same doldrums as much other live entertainment: an apathetic audience, influx of new, more western amusements for a younger generation, and the present economic climate which is keeping many families at home. But even with subsidized tickets–the Balloon only charges for the show–there is also the danger of over-exposure. The original rush of enthusiasm for Mahmoud Reda’s innovative work with folkloric music and dance in the 1960s, and its endorsement by the government, has seen the growth of hundreds of troupes around the country over the past decades, as well as regular television coverage. Perhaps one of the problems of folkloric dance as modern entertainment lies in its intrinsic nature: the role of folklore is to preserve tradition and therefore it cannot easily be developed and kept fresh with new ideas. And although the dances presented in this theatrical setting are by Reda’s own definition "not authentic folk art (which by its nature belongs only to social gatherings such as weddings and other celebrations) but an artistic rendering of those traditions," the troupe continue to use the same repertoire handed down to them by Reda during his 40 years of work.

"Mahmoud Reda gave us well over a hundred different dances to perform," said Nevine Ramez, one of the Reda Troupe’s principle trainers. "This is enough to keep us going for a long time. Yes, if one of the troupe members has a good idea we can incorporate it, but are they going to produce something better than Reda himself? I don’t think so."

The show is an equal split between the National Folklore Troupe and the Reda Troupe, with two of Reda’s specially choreographed dances from his last production in 1999 included in the latter’s repertoire. These both have a fresh feel to them, perhaps partly because they make use of the youngest female members. The shib-shib or clog dance is done with just a drum solo as backing and the clogs adding extra percussion, and the roba bekia dance has a group of young girls buying scarves from a street seller and using them as wrap-around props. Both of these dances originate from urban Cairo, but there are also pieces from Alexandria and–always a hit–a strong stick dance from Upper Egypt.

The National Troupe’s contribution includes a shamadan (candelabra) opening, a lively sea-side tableau from Port Said, a lyrical Nubian wedding dance, and lots of comedy. Their dancing horse (two male dancers in a pantomime horse costume) is especially adorable. The National Troupe, which was founded at the same time as Reda’s troupe, is subtly different stylistically. Originally formed with the help of folkloric dance trainers from the USSR, their input gave a distinctly Russian flavor to much of the technique.

It’s a relief to see that despite the lack of an audience, the technical standard of both troupes has been kept high. But these days they have to travel abroad to receive the kind of appreciation they deserve. What can be done to improve this situation?

"Unfortunately the people now responsible have not proved very successful in PR," laments Mahmoud Reda himself, who officially retired from the company in 1990. "They need to prepare a schedule at least one year in advance, and forward this information to tourist agencies, who could then bring groups. Right now they’re playing chess with only one move; they can’t see any further."

Reda also suggests that the ticket price is still too high for the average family. "The troupe is not there to make money; they’re already paid by the government, so why not make the fee just a nominal one–a pound or two?"

There certainly seems to be an unfair degree of apathy towards the two troupes by the Ministry of Culture, which is in danger of letting this precious national asset slide off into a backwater. Chances are most people don’t think of the Balloon Theater as a must-go destination when visitors come to town, but they should. It’s well worth the trip.

The Reda Troupe and the National Folklore Troupe perform at the Balloon Theater, Al Nil St., Agouza, (347-1718). As of press time, the Troupe was touring abroad, but the Balloon Theater says it will resume its show in Cairo in mid-March. Call to confirm dates

Volume 5, Issue 47
7 - 13 FEBRUARY 2002



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