An Interview with Kara Davis: Her Perspective on Dance in Egypt

By Emmaly Wiederholt

I’ve known Kara Davis as a San Francisco dance personality for several years now. I also knew that she’d gone to Israel and Egypt, had met her husband there, and had returned several times since, and I guessed she would have a unique perspective to share on the Egyptian dance scene. With all the turmoil in Egypt over the past few years, I figured Kara would have insight into what Egyptian dance artists are tackling and how their political reality informs their work. When I emailed her to see if she’d be interested in being interviewed, she immediately sent me her research paper on Karima Mansour, an Egyptian choreographer who has been making work in Egypt over the past decade without the support of the state, rarely presenting in Egypt, choreographing with limited resources, yet incredibly driven to make the dances she feels she needs to make regardless of setbacks. I sat down with Kara to learn more about Karima and the Egyptian dance ecosystem.

karadavisPictured: Kara Davis

Kara Davis: It was intense to be there. The Arab Spring happened on January 25th, 2011, starting with Tunisia, and then Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and other places followed suite, although Syria obviously is still unfortunately in the throes of horrendous amounts of violence. With Egypt it’s hard to say what’s happening. That’s what’s so exhausting about being there right now.

There are some really beautiful documentaries, “Noise of Cairo” and “Karima, Hala, and Laila,” about art in pre and post revolution Egypt. Before the revolution public art was censored. There was no graffiti, no public art (outside of monuments), and the Ministry of Culture played a huge role in indirectly censoring Karima’s work under the scenes. She didn’t have access to quote-unquote legitimate spaces, like studio space or performance venues.

She got her BA and MA from London Contemporary Dance. Eventually her visa expired and she had to come back to Egypt. The way I feel about it, the more people that know about her, the better. She’s kind of a mixture or hybrid of things. On the one hand she is really trying to activate a training system or school inside Western mechanisms for training, and on the other hand she wants Egyptian dancers and choreographers to develop their own voice inside the field.  Although she successfully performed her work throughout the European festival circuit, I could always sense a yearning from her to have been able to have access to the things I often take for granted as a Westerner:  studio space, companies and choreographers, sources of funding, etc.

During my first visit to Cairo in 2008 I was invited to sit in on a panel of Pan-Arab artists and festival producers. I was a fly on the wall for about three days. Basically they addressed how artists share resources. They have the same problems that occur in the West, only magnified profoundly because of money, governmental corruption, limited options to travel, etc. Khaled Elayyan from Palestine was there, and I thought, how is this guy even making dance while living in a state of occupation? But he is and it’s amazing. (Read more here.)

EW: So when did you first go to the Middle East? What brought you there? How long were you there and what did you do?

KD: I went to Israel in 2008 for an independent project for my undergraduate degree. I was in St. Mary’s LEAP program. We were required to do a senior project, and one of the reasons why I decided to do that undergraduate program was because I was planning on going to Israel anyway to study gaga [a movement language developed by Ohad Naharin], and I figured I might as well get a college degree out of it and kill two birds with one stone. So I went and studied gaga for seven weeks. It was an awesome time because gaga was just starting to be offered to other communities outside of Israel. I was able to buy a month long unlimited class card for $50 so I took two to three classes a day, and you can’t imagine how amazing my body felt. It was also really awesome because all the teachers I studied from, about 12 different teachers total, all taught in Hebrew. I’d taken enough gaga, and had taken from Ohad Naharin [artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company and founder of gaga] before in New York, so I felt like I could intuitively follow the class even though I didn’t understand much Hebrew. The poetic imagery each gaga teacher uses really informs how one experiences the practice so I was worried that I would miss out not being a Hebrew speaker; nevertheless it was amazing to me how much I absorbed from each teacher energetically and physically even without knowing the language, which speaks volumes about the physical practice itself.

Before I went to Israel, I made a point to not know any of the history or politics because I wanted to hear from the people what it was rather than learn from an academic setting. And so I went to Palestine, I went to Hebron, I went to Bil’in, I went to Bethlehem, I saw the separation wall. I went to a protest that happened every Friday in Bil’in, a Palestinian town which is twenty minutes away from Tel Aviv, and that was really intense to drive twenty minutes away from one place and have a totally different unbelievable reality. It definitely affected me. Obviously there’s complicated history, but no human being should be forced to live in an open air prison which is what the Palestinian experience is.  As an observing human being, the situation there became very black and white.

My roommates at the time, one was a Jewish-Israeli and one was a German guy, recommended I go to Egypt and go to the Red Sea and check it out. There’d been a lot of bombings in 2005 and the Israeli government had put people on alert not to go there, that it was dangerous. However, the Red Sea used to be the Israeli Cancun. Everybody would go to the beach. Now, you go there and the shores of the Red Sea are littered with half built resort hotels. It looks like a war zone in a weird way but the collision between human intervening with nature, how these half-built places reflect certain aspects of human histories colliding with one another, is so searingly haunting and beautiful. The desert. The sea. The colors. Metal and mortar.  It’s so open and quiet. And it was strange having come from a place that was so full of face-to-face tension. In Tel Aviv, there is an eighteen year old everywhere carrying a semi-automatic weapon.

I met my husband on that trip and seven months later we got married in Tahrir Square.

A friend of mine who was the theater director at Dance Mission, Debbie Smith, was coincidentally in Cairo at the same time I was there. She’s a belly dancer and a dance advocate and has worked for the Arab Cultural Center in San Francisco. I knew she went to Egypt annually.  She invited me to sit in on a panel of Arabs from different countries who were strategizing about how to share resources and invigorate dancers and dance audiences in their countries. Karima Mansour was one of the artists on the panel. It was December, 2008 – a couple of years before the Arab Spring. I could just tell by listening to Karima that she was really frustrated. The Ford Foundation was funding that meeting, and I sensed that there were histories that were not talked about within the room that also heightened the tension.

Anyway, I approached her. I was really intimidated because she was such a strong outspoken woman and the only Egyptian woman in the room. There were other women but they were foreigners. I approached her and said, Hi I’m Kara, I’m going to be in Egypt a lot, I’m marrying an Egyptian, I’d like to know you and pick your brain about the scene here. So we went out and she said, Oh San Francisco, do you know Janice Garrett? And I said, Okay she’s basically my aunt. I danced for her for twelve years. Out of all the people in the world she would know Janice! So that was our tie. She was really affected and influenced by Janice, who she trained under at London Contemporary Dance. Karima came back to Egypt from Europe when she was twenty-six. Walid Aouni, a Lebanese man, was directing the Modern Dance Theater Company housed in the state-sponsored Cairo Opera House and was totally inept. He managed to convince the Minister of Culture that his experience as a graphic designer and visual artist qualified him to be the director of the opera house school and dance company; but this level of placating corruption is typical of the regime and how it operated, not just in the cultural sector but in all sectors that involve innovation or progression. As long as you appeased the regime you could get paid handsomely by the state without needing to be qualified or do much of anything. A stagnation of imagination resulted from all the hybrid regimes that have emerged in the Arab World following the Cold War, and I think Egyptians are trying to figure out how to cleanse themselves of governmental corruption, and reinvigorate their society with progressive and authentic thinking and action. During Mubarak’s era, there was no incentive to think outside the box. Placating the regime became the way to ensure stability in life. Karima refused that and insisted on making work that she stood by even though it was rarely performed in Egypt. In many ways she cleared the ground for others to come after her and make a voice that’s specific to the Egyptian experience.

karimamansour2Pictured: Karima Mansour, Photo by Raffi Kehiaian

I’ve taught a handful of workshops for Karima. One in particular must have been in 2010, before the revolution. She said, Hey you should teach a three day workshop, I know a space. It was in a tent outside. The floor was covered with that foamy material usually found on kindergarten playground floors. Every time we went to the floor our skin would turn the color of dark gray, so I couldn’t really do anything on the floor. It was filthy and hot and sweaty. About 30 people came and they all wanted to learn. Everybody wanted to dance. There were far more men than women which goes back to cultural and religious norms. A woman dancing holds associations dating back to French and British occupation; women belly dancers were paid to dance for occupying soldiers, and eventually were forbidden by the Egyptian men to dance out of fear that the eyes of the infidels should not rest upon women of the “true faith.” It’s changing but definitely men have much more of a presence in the contemporary dance scene there today.

EW: Is it ever seen as gay or wussy for men to dance the way it can be seen here?

KD: No I think in the Arab culture it’s so common to see Arab men arm in arm. They’re super affectionate with one another. In fact it’s the opposite from here. If an Arab man hugs or kisses a woman in public it’s often seen as offensive. When my husband and I first got married he didn’t feel comfortable giving a hug or a kiss goodbye in the airport. We shook hands goodbye.

If you go to weddings the men and women are dancing separately but the men are very physical and lead really physical lives. Dancing is not seen as feminine. It’s a physical culture. When I taught that first workshop my husband took it. I said, You’ve never taken dance in your life. And he said, I don’t care, I’m just going to do it. No self-consciousness at all.

EW: Can you speak about what you saw or experienced of Western dance versus ethnic dance?

KD: More or less everybody knows how to belly dance the way everybody in Cuba knows how to salsa. Men and women. But as far as Western dance, people have been affected by the colonialist mentality that assumes that anything “foreign” is better. I think it’s because they’ve been so isolated from the world; unless you come from a wealthy family, it’s pretty hard for Egyptians to travel to other countries. Many Egyptian dancers and choreographers have appropriated a lot of stuff from YouTube. I think there’s a desire to appear innovative to prove to Egyptian audiences that concert dance is a legitimate mode of expression, without trusting that innovation doesn’t need to rest entirely on Western contemporary dance paradigms. There were a couple of students who said, Oh yeah I know William Forsythe [a famous choreographer known for his improvisational technologies]. And they would show me this copied version of Forsythe’s solo found on YouTube. I thought how amazing it would be if Egyptians could have a more one-on-one access to this improvisation method that could perhaps inform the physical language they might develop on their own.  Even more, I thought, how amazing it would be for them to hone all of the genius that rests inside of how their bodies move culturally outside of formal state-instituted training in order to share that with the larger world!

Karima will talk a lot about her identity and wanting to take Western paradigms and infuse them with her own experience as an Egyptian woman to create a unique choreographic and physical voice. Similar to what Ohad Naharin did. I mean Ohad took his influences from the West, like the technique of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, when he returned to Israel. I can totally see how he took Graham’s information and infused into his own experience when he created gaga, a movement language authentic to the Jewish Israeli experience, and I would argue, the Palestinian experience. Both histories are tangled in the experience of displacement, extremes, and the visceral interface with life’s fleeting uncertainty!  I think Karima is trying to figure out how to do that as well. As of yet she’s not developing her own system of warming up; she’s teaching her students Cunningham and anatomy and Pilates and yoga and ballet, the Western basics.

EW: You already kind of touched on this when you talked about men dancing more openly than women, but is the exposure of skin and physical line, particularly a women’s physical line, frowned upon?

KD: I think a lot of it goes back to the expectation of domesticity. Karima will complain about that. Some of her most promising students are married women. But at a certain point they’ll get pressured to have a baby and start a family because that’s what women are indoctrinated to aspire towards by their society.  After childbirth your body changes and it’s hard to get back in shape, especially if you don’t have a consistent history of training. I think men are fighting a similar domestic battle but I think it’s a much different one for women. Karima is really a fighter because she refused that whole life. She’s a beautiful, talented, multi-lingual, highly educated, unmarried woman.  I think a lot of people are threatened by her because she’s so strong, informed, and outspoken. She challenges the status quo on multiple levels. Culturally and socially. And she’s created her own career. She is a trailblazer, an example of how a woman can live an independent life outside the domestic expectations that women are socialized to believe is the ultimate goal of life.

EW: From your experience, where do you see dance in Egypt going in the future?

KD: There’s so much happening. I just talked to my husband. He’s in Egypt right now. And he said there are festivals and performances constantly going on in the streets and in the underground theater spaces. There’s this huge campaign I know Karima was involved with this last fall. The slogan of the campaign was “Culture doesn’t just exist in the opera. Culture also exists in Shubra,” a neighborhood in Cairo that is densely populated with lower to middle class citizens. When average Egyptians think of the word “culture” they don’t imagine it could include their familiarity of belly dancing for each other at a wedding celebration or the way they dress or their colors.  They have been indoctrinated to believe that “culture” only exists in the Western institution of the Opera House.

EW: They don’t identify those things as art and culture?

KD: Exactly, or the idea that their ways of moving through their lives, their national identity, their perceptions as humans, is somehow less because the expression of those things hasn’t been developed on a proscenium stage.  So that was what the campaign was about, that Egyptians can, and HAVE for thousands of years, expressed themselves through dance, visual art, design, architecture, music, and science.  It is a reclaiming of an innovative heritage.

The artists were on the front lines of the 2011 revolution, and they still are. They’re on the front line of all the protests. They want to have an outlet for their voices. They want freedom of expression.

Read Kara’s research paper on Karima Mansour.