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Community and innovation: Q&A with Karima Mansour, Part II

Egyptian dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour graduated with both a B.A. and a Masters degree in contemporary dance from the London Contemporary Dance School after having completed her B.A. in film at the High Institute of Cinema, Academy of Arts in Cairo. Upon her return to Egypt, she founded her company, MAAT for Contemporary Dance–the country's first independent dance company–in 1999.

Since then, she has created ten full choreographic works that continue to be performed at various international festivals. Karima also formed MAAT MECA (MAAT Movement for Egyptian Contemporary Art), an initiative that aims to develop the local dance scene through choreographic work and organized workshops. Guests from all over the world are invited to attend dance film screenings and discussions on the topic of dance and choreography.

Mansour has worked as a teacher at the Cairo Opera Dance Theater Company; as an assistant professor at the Ballet Institute, Academy of Arts from 1999 to 2000; and is currently teaching dance as part of the PVA (Performance and Visual Arts) Department at The American University In Cairo. She continues to work as a freelance teacher, both in Egypt and abroad, while creating and developing her own choreographic work and language.

In part II of her interview with writer Ismail Fayed, Mansour discusses the Egyptian contemporary dance scene, problems associated with finding space in which to perform, and the modern Japanese butoh dance.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: Which of your contemporaries, local or international, do you identify with artistically and personally?

Karima Mansour: I find the word “identify” dangerous because in the world of art, you can see a work that speaks to you and you would think, “That is exactly how I feel.” However, this does not mean that you want to produce the same work. On the other hand, if you say “identify,” this might be misconstrued as aligning yourself with a particular work or choreographer and people can start asking, 'Who do you think you are?”

In that sense, there are artists whom I admire greatly–their approach, the topics they choose. For example, Lloyd Newson [an Australian choreographer living and working in the UK], who delves into the human psyche with poignant work. And there is Josef Nadj [a French choreographer]. I appreciate his work for its depth and attention to detail. I don't compare myself to these people; I strive to be like them, but they are completely different and from a different generation.

Another person would be Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker [a renowned Belgian dancer and choreographer], who has a completely different aesthetic and a completely different approach–more of a mathematical approach–but I admire how she goes about the creation of her own vocabulary, the musicality of her work, and what she has offered to the world of dance.

They are people that do what I like; they are, for me, complete. They have strong concepts, strong emotional depth, and strong aesthetics–so content and form are equally present and strong. If all these components are present, then it creates a really powerful work.

I truly admire, for different reasons, the work of William Forsythe [an American choreographer and former director of the Frankfurt Ballet]. He has a very high sense of aesthetics, although the emotional aspect is not necessarily as obvious as the others–but the lines are beautiful, so watching his dancers, it does not necessarily move me. I admire what he has done to classical ballet, the boundaries that he has broken, the extraordinary work he has created, in addition to the improvisational tools he has created.

Someone else I admire–also for completely different reasons–is Xavier Le Roy [a French-born, Berlin-based choreographer and dancer]. I like his analytical, conceptual approach; coming from him, it's acceptable, it's believable. What I have a problem with is when this approach is used as an easy way out by others. I don't have a problem with conceptual work, but I have a problem when it is used to evade a certain situation by being obscure and using inaccessible language, or for the lack of capability to simply dance. And, of course, Pina Bausch is another choreographer I hugely admire and respect.

I also like to see other genres. I remember seeing a butoh [a form of modern Japanese dance] piece and I was gobsmacked! It is still imprinted in my mind. It was a butoh performer improvising with contemporary dancers; she was a female dancer, she completely stood out, she was an animal in a positive sense… the emotion, the technique and presence were just amazing.

I also saw a performance of whirling dervishes that went on for hours. It was mesmerizing.

Al-Masry: Do you think you could ever collaborate in a butoh piece?

Mansour: I don't think I could in a direct way. This is one kind of dance; if you are not Japanese, I believe you cannot dance it. This is the kind of dance where, if you are not part of the culture, it is not the same. There is something very particular about the body memory, which is very specific to Japanese bodies and culture.

I don’t mean that one cannot be inspired by butoh or use the conceptual side of it in their work–many artist do that already.

Al-Masry: What about bharata natyam, classical Indian dance?

Mansour: Less so with bhaarta natyam than with butoh, as the latter remains a very special case. But, again, it can be a source of inspiration like any other dance form. You see such known dance forms–like belly dancing, Sufi, folkloric, etc.–as one very specific thing. But using them as a source of inspiration–that is different and each has his or her own way of being inspired and manifesting this inspiration.

Al-Masry: You don't perform in Egypt as much as your audience would like. Why not?

Mansour: I am always asked this question. I don't want to come across as someone who is complaining, but it is a sad situation. I think it needs to be changed, rectified, dealt with. I’m personally not sure what is to be done.

But to answer your question, very simply, since 2004, I have not been able to find a theater. All theaters are state run, and if your work is not produced by the government, you are not able to perform as an independent artist like myself. For a long while, I had to choose to perform in spaces I was not entirely comfortable with, or I had to compromise, or not perform at all.

Now, it is time to change my perspective. I am opening up a little bit. Maybe it does not have to be in a well-equipped theater, since the available spaces are not technically prepared. I still have a problem concerning artists who don't have the freedom to choose where to perform. Choosing a performance venue should be an artistic choice, not a forced situation.

It is only fair that the individuals who dedicate the time, experience, and know-how to this country and produce high-quality work that is respected everywhere else, that these people need to be given the chance and opportunity to develop and have access to these resources so as to share their work with others. It is foolish not to make use of these Egyptian artists.

Why is this being done? In the interest of who? It is a big question that I keep asking: Why is this happening? I wish someone could answer. We have so many talents, so much possibility that is going to waste.

I am trying to perform in Egypt. I have an upcoming piece that I hope to perform in Egypt in 2011, but I am still looking for a space. The other option would be that you perform in a space that is not technically equipped–in terms of sound, floor etc.–where you will have to adapt your piece to it and pray that people are aware of the limitations of the space, or deal with independent monsters who are monopolizing and running spaces according to their own interests or agenda–spaces that cater to particular or personal interests.

It is not as free and open as it needs to be, and we have to work with these limitations. No one wants to claim responsibility. People are not aware of why this is, and the one question that remains is, Why isn't somebody answering? Nevertheless, it is not stopping me. I am continuing to create choreographic works, I am continuing to teach workshops and classes. My activity has not, and will not, stop.

I think it is foolish that we are not making use of these artists. They could do so much with us, and they could achieve a lot. I find it stupid. We have resources that are not being used.

Al-Masry: In assessing the situation of contemporary dance in Egypt today, what would you personally like to see changed?

Mansour: First and foremost, perseverance. One needs to continue what he or she is doing while maintaining certain ethics and sincerity, and remaining true to oneself. Because, in the arts, when things are not given the chance to develop properly, there is a lot of room for charlatans to appear.

There seems to be a systematic destruction of the artistic scene. We should not only blame the system; it is also our responsibility as artists to acknowledge what we know and what we don't. We have to try to share the knowledge amongst ourselves as much as possible. We have to try to think as much as possible to find other creative solutions without having to compromise the quality of the work.

The Egyptian contemporary dance scene is a very small scene, with people from different backgrounds. It is very individualistic and there is apprehension and mistrust, which is silly because we are like one big family–we don't have to like each other, there simply needs to be respect, appreciation, and support, because at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat. When we come together, we are stronger–and maybe then we will be heard. There is only so much you can do on your own.

We have to form a community based on ethics and respect, where people can learn from each other, support each other, share resources and ideas and aim for high artistic quality. In our context, this can and should happen. It does exist sometimes, but we need to do a lot more–and with conviction.

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