Ballet dancers defy odds to find passion on Egypt stage
In this March 23, 2017 photo, Ahmed Nabil, left, Hani Hassan, practice during a rehearsal, in the Cairo Opera House, Egypt.
Ballet is in its own bubble in Egypt, removed from the surrounding society.
Ballet dancer Fady El Nabarawy feels he can finally breathe again the moment he enters the gates of the Cairo Opera House after a commute from his ramshackle, poor neighbourhood. This is where he and his fellow dancers practice, perform, love and create.
"Every day, I cannot wait to come here. My oxygen is here," he said.
Ballet is in its own bubble in Egypt, removed from the surrounding society. The country has grown more conservative, and in the eyes of some, ballet is outright "nudity".
Still, the young men who found their passion dancing ballet are hardly isolated elites. They're firmly rooted in the middle and lower-middle classes, managing to carve out their own Bohemian zone of diversity and creativity.
Ballet's audience in Egypt may be limited, but it's enthusiastic. On a recent night at the Opera House, located on an upscale residential island in the Nile River, the Cairo Ballet Company brought a packed house to its feet with a rousing performance of "Zorba", a ballet based on the same novel as the movie Zorba the Greek.
In the 60-member, state-funded company, almost all the ballerinas are foreigners, coming from Serbia, Italy, Japan, Ukraine and Greece, with only a handful of Egyptians. The male dancers, in contrast, are almost all Egyptian.
El Nabarawy said he's proud both of being a ballet dancer and of being from Cairo's district of Omraniyah.
In rehearsals, as the dancers sweat and strain, it becomes clear how it's a space for some diversity. Some of the men sport a "zebiba", a mark on the forehead from prostrating during Muslim prayers, and head out to pray during rehearsal breaks. Others have pony tails, a style that still gets disapproving looks on the streets in Egypt.
The male and female dancers mingle, chat and smoke together. The 39-year-old Hani Hassan Hassan, the son of an army officer, exudes joie de vivre, flirting with ballerinas and showing off his fluency in Russian - his ex-wife was a Russian dancer. He proclaims repeatedly he's travelling soon to Spain for a guest performance, a badge of honour.
At least six of the male dancers are married to or dating foreign female dancers.
It's often a lesson in broadening horizons. El Nabarawy describes himself as a practicing Muslim - - and his girlfriend, Kristina Lazovic, is a Christian Serb.
Fellow dancer Waleed Eskaros and his fiancée, Greek ballerina Antigoni Tsiouli, are making their own cultural adjustments. Both are Christian, but he's Coptic Orthodox and she's Greek Orthodox.
Presiding over the rehearsals is Madame Erminia Gambarelli, the artistic director. She's the Italian widow of Abdel Moneim Kamel, the giant of Egyptian ballet who rebuilt the company in the 1990s, mentored many of its current dancers and died in 2013.
Ballet in Egypt has been immersed in politics from the start.
The national company was founded by the government in 1958 as a way to strengthen the bond with Egypt's top ally at the time, the Soviet Union.
Ballet was thrust onto the political stage after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power following the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Conservative lawmakers demanded an end to state funding for the company. One legislator denounced ballet as the "art of nakedness".
Some dancers had often worried privately over whether ballet was acceptable under their faith, Eskaros said.
The conservatives tipped them over the edge, and several quit, declaring it "haram", or forbidden.
Fears over the fate of ballet and other arts became a rallying point in the popular campaign against the Brotherhood. When a conservative was named culture minister in 2013, artists and intellectuals held a month-long protest outside the minister's office.
It turned into a nightly street party of singing, poetry and dancing. Hassan, Eskaros and others in the company performed a dozen times. "I thought I'd dance on the street to let people decide for themselves whether ballet is haram or not," Hassan said.