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Reda Troupe: Once a Gambler, Always a Backbone

Winter 2014 | ArteZine

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Reda Troupe: Once a Gambler, Always a Backbone

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The Reda Troupe is an iconic Egyptian dance company that survived six decades of Egyptian political history, and Egyptian dance history. The company produced work that raised questions on contemporaneity and tradition, as well as on what are the references of Arab and Egyptian modernism in dance and performance, and how institutions of dance came to be created in the 1980’s at the birth of the second institutionalized movement of dance in Egypt. One can also look at the company as a signifier of sociopolitical changes and ruptures within the governance system or the regime, with the rise and fall of the company’s fame and resources, in relation to how close or far it was aligned/ allied with a political ideology, regime or a particular sociopolitical change. On stage, Reda Troupe chronicled the rise and pride of Modern Egypt. Off stage, they revealed secrets of Reda’s life chronicled the Egyptian state demise.

Choreographer Mahmoud Reda and first dancer Farida Fahmy, the Reda Troupe

The birth of Reda Troupe was a welcome adventure. As entrepreneurs, Reda Troupe members pooled their personal funds, gathered their courage to defy gender and class moulded roles, and with a small budget, presented their first performance in 1959. This was happening at time when Egypt was just shifting from monarchy to a republic. The Reda brothers crafted dance and sold entertainment and culture unfettered by the context of war before or after their birth. Drawing on makeshift theaters, performances in public venues or private facilities the troupe started a dance revolution. Just ten years prior, people like the Reda entrepreneurs were the backbone of Egyptian cultural economy, they created cinema, fashion, music and literature. Such entrepreneurs went as far as setting up banks and economic ventures too. Be it Marie Quinie or Assya, families like the Sednaoui family or the Nahhas, the socio-cultural entrepreneurs came from alternative and socially complex backgrounds. They were classy and ragged innovators, bold gamblers, the politically incorrect, and the socially inappropriate. The complexity of the social fabric, as well as of the political history of Egypt and its cosmopolitan cities was represented in its wild cultural and artistic production circles.

In 1961 the troupe was placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture within the framework of the nationalization and institutionalization of cultural edifices and initiatives in Egypt under the Nasserist regime. By the mid-1970s it boasted one hundred and fifty members including dancers, musicians and costume and stage technicians. Very soon, Reda would no longer be able to ‘freestyle’, in order to keep the resources that allowed them to increase and improve performances.. Many had even become government employees by that time, and they voiced the scripted cultural projects of the government, through performances like, Qatr El-Thawra (The Revolution’s Train), and El Sad El Ali (the High Dam). From choreography to propagandist work, the Reda Troupe was trapped in the new ‘Cultural Scene’ that Nasser crafted: the artist must become a government employer to work. Everything that is cultural is owned by the State and run by the State. Anything that resided outside of the State’s institutions could not exist. The company had but one choice if it wanted to survive, to perform the New Egypt; that Egypt of the 1952 military coup. Reda Troupe was lucky to be adopted early on by Egyptian government when the company’s artistic interests coincided with the political-cultural project of the regime being created. At that time the State had a sociocultural vision and it gave Reda Troupe access to large-scale resources and platforms to influence Egyptian society through uncontroversial performances like Rannet El-Kholkhal (The Anklet’s Tinkle) and Ali Baba Wal Arbe’een Harami (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves). These were performances dealing with narratives from traditional story telling to children tales, enmeshed with the oral history of the Egyptian people. Such usage of this ‘traditional’ material while creating contemporary performances for the stage, allowed the choreographer to access and communicate with many social strata in the Egyptian population. The state instrumentalized the company for that particular purpose, perhaps. What was a group of risk-taking socio-cultural entrepreneurs became then renowned choreographers and artists, running a very busy schedule, touring all cities in Egypt, and major cultural capitals of the Arabic speaking region.

Reda Troupe continued to travel for field research to all corners of Egypt to document Egyptian folk dances and choreograph them. This was the departure point for the company at its inception. It was through the field research trips of Reda brothers and their dancers, to every small town and village in Egypt, that the material of ‘Egyptian dance’ was collected. Egyptian dance is a generic term that includes many forms of an extremely diverse racial fabric (given the diversity of the Egyptian population itself, from those who reside within the Nile Delta, to the Nubians in the South, the Berbers of Siwa, or the cosmopolitans of Cairo and Alexandria). The form possessed no inherit system of teaching or choreographing though. Unlike in western classical dance with its pedagogic modes and systems, Egyptian dance had always been transmitted orally and visually/ corporeally. While classical ballet served as a foundation to create dance education formats within the modern and contemporary traditions of the 20th century in Europe and in America, Egypt and the Arab world had no dance systems that boasted scores and propagation to catalyse the early moments of ‘new dance’. Egyptian dance has and had within itself systems and codes embedded in improvisation, orality, and relationality. One could argue that it is only thanks to the Reda Troupe that Egyptian Dance survived, and is traced, documented in choreographies, in bodies, in stories and in the many educational facilities the company had established. Without Reda Troupe’s early endeavour, Egyptian audience of mainstream media would have never seen a Haggala or a Bambouteyya dance. Without Reda Troupe, Egyptian subcultures would not have met and known each other. Without Reda Troupe, the city dwellers, the massive Egyptian cinema industry, or the theater goers would have never seen the dances of the south from Upper Egypt, or those of the north from the Delta villages.

In such folk dances, Reda’s choreography was an important and unique repository of meaning, documenting the folk time and space, yet updating it with relevance to our contemporary life. For example, the famous ShekShek Marzoo’a folk performance discussed contemporary problems of unemployment, criticality of work ethic to improve the market, as well as gender issues, social stagnation, and social inclusion; all through a centuries-old dance. The choreography that embodies and reenacts the daily movements of throwing and pulling fishing nets by the sea, was taken by the troupe and was presented in another frame. Here, side by side you see women and men dancing the choreography, in an unprecedented manner. The centuries-old popular dance that fishermen by the water banks know, and know which music it is danced to, is suddenly there on stage, performed by women and not just men. By this mere shifting of choreographies into and through different bodies, the gender equality and aesthetics of labour are brought to the stage, gradually introducing parts of the agenda of those years, when the ‘system’ called upon everyone to work, and highlighted the role of the peasant and of the worker, in the Arabic version of socialist and communist ideology, and the glorification of the aesthetics of labour.

The Reda Troupe is an important repository of meaning when one studies the political history of Egypt post-1952. It is also just as important when one studies the cultural institutions of Egypt and the Arabic speaking capitals that followed the pathway of nationalization of culture, and the edification of its core organs. Reda Troupe’s prominent role lapsed under the rule of Sadat and later Mubarak. With Sadat’s introduction of the ‘Infitah’ or open market policy, the country’s sudden shift of sociopolitical maps (and hence of cultural agendas, and of propaganda) impacted the troupe’s work drastically. Under Nasser’s regime, the country looked towards the East and the Orient, be it the USSR, China or other Arab cities fighting against colonialism. With Sadat, the shift focused on the West, changing the interest of collaboration to include cultural institutions and forms that are on the other side of the previous map. The troupe despite having been nationalized, institutionalized, used instrumentally in the construction of certain identities and in their marketing locally and regionally, used in pushing forward ideologies into the smallest villages through acts of reenactments and re-appropriations of common dances, suddenly the company’s prolific role was of no use- instrumentally speaking- to the State.

The troupe was no longer commissioned for massive propagandist pieces that reflect ‘Arabness’ and the hidden spirit of the true Egypt as a critique of the colonialist years. The troupe was not produced to construct a Pan-Arab performance. At the same time, the edifices of culture in Egypt that were nationalized and modeled after USSR systems of producing and ‘propagating’ culture, started to fall apart. With the ideological shift, and with the new maps of alliances, the cultural agenda of the state changed. The troupe’s work retreated into repertoire. No inclusive archive has been created to document the work of the company. No major institutions teach their choreographic legacies. All of a sudden, the Reda Troupe was displaced into another frame.

With such a long legacy within a country that witnessed several historical ruptures in the past 100 years, their choreographies were termed traditional, anti-colonialist and Arab. They were coined modernist, traditional again, even post-modern and then obsolete. From risk-takers to dance anthropologists, cultural entrepreneurs to relics of a glorious (problematic) past, the troupe stands as a dense pool of information. The repertoire of Reda Troupe problematizes the construction of frames around artistic creation, at times of engineered political ruptures, just as much as it problematizes technically what we think modern choreography is in a country like Egypt. I am thirty years old, born after Reda Troupe’s sunset, I realize that: Until the gamblers can dance again, and the socially outcast can dance again, Egypt has no backbone.

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