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Egyptian Dancer Mohammad El Deep On Street Theatre And Existential Philosophy

Sanabel Al-Najjar talks to contemporary Egyptian dancer Mohammad El Deep about this upcoming performance at D-CAF, which reflects the myth of Sisyphus through contemporary dance.

During a tiring day at work, it only makes sense that we should imagine ourselves dancing at the beach to some Hip-Hop music, happy under the sun. Similarly, newlyweds are expected to do the awkward ‘slow dance’ during their wedding just like the eccentric and beautiful fictional character, Zorba, from Nikos Kazintzakis’s Zorba the Greek, danced during the funeral of his little boy because, according to him, dance relieves the pain. Be it a native tribal dance, the rain dance in some cultures, or even the goofy little dance you do in your bedroom as you get ready for the day, it would be naïve to see dancing only as a mere form of entertainment rather than an actual expression of life and the celebration of it.

Just like the African dance, the Turkish Horon traditional dance, or the Shami dabkeh, Egypt as a culture takes part in this choreographic expression of human life through belly dancing, club dancing, ballet, hip-hop dance, contemporary dance, and others. To find out more about Cairo’s dance scene, I talk with Mohamed El Deep, an Egyptian contemporary dancer, participating in 100 Hands’ Body to Body performance as part of D-CAF’s performing arts program. The dance, inspired by the fascinating myth of Sisyphus and taking place on Friday the 15th, will use contemporary dance to reflect this philosophical theme. Dance and philosophy have always been a great mix to my liking, so I had to investigate more. 

El Deep, a performer at the beginning of his dancing career (which is seemingly fast-flourishing), is now focusing on physical theatre and will be performing his very first dance piece in the street. “My mind has always been set to ‘in the box’ or theatre performances, but the next step for me is street theatre. I found it very challenging at the beginning to participate in D-CAF’s Urban Vision performance series, where performance takes place in open spaces,” he says. El Deep, who has been dancing with Urban Visions since 2013 and till 2015, stayed performing with 100 Hands dance company and overseeing the performance. 

“I am now most interested in street work,” El Deep tells me. “I feel I am responsible for introducing contemporary dance, which is a new form of art, to those who are not familiar with it. Most Egyptians categorise all dancing genres as either ballet or belly dancing, and I really want to change that and open their eyes to this genre of dance, which is quite new to them.”

El Deep tells me that his target audience isn't really the people who know beforehand when he is playing and at which venue. “I care more about the passersby and the shopkeepers, as I feel this is the mission I have been set to and even created for.” I comment that, when I spoke to a street musician one time about playing music in the streets of Cairo, the musician told me that he already knows that the Egyptian public might not be very open to the idea of street performance. I ask the dancer whether he expects the same reaction.

“It’s not true," the artist says. "Of course the Egyptian public is more conservative than, say, Europeans, but only because it’s new to them. But the way I see it, street performance has been ingrained in our culture for a long time, such as the haawi and the aragouz, which is very distinctive of Egyptian culture. So the question here is how to bring back street performance, which I see D-CAF is doing very well.”  

“To Egyptians, dance is different”, he tells me, “especially contemporary dance, because this genre of dance includes presenting an idea while keeping in mind the possibility that the audience might not perceive it the same way you had in mind. We all have different backgrounds and have emerged from different cultures and social classes. So, meaning to the contemporary dance is really derived from each person’s individual experience, which causes the diversity of effects and meanings of the dance.”

El Deep explains that Egyptians might really like contemporary dance but have not yet been exposed to it and so can’t really form a reaction about it. “People, especially as of recently, have been expressing genuine interest in contemporary dance to me," he shares. "This includes mostly the Egyptian youth interested in arts and human rights, but still, the interest in the genre is still increasing.”What is most interesting - and warranted - for El Deep is to bring the performances to Champolion Street in Downtown Cairo. I feel like the inhabitants of that area are the ones mostly needed to be exposed to art. “I’m sure half of the audience who will be watching site-specific performance already have knowledge about the performance and familiarity with its content and context. So, I care more about the other half who don’t enjoy the luxury of spending 30 - 40 LE on a theatre performance. This is why I really love the idea of performing in the streets,” the artist comments.

I had to voice my excitement to El Deep about such an existential concept being articulated through physical body movements. “What really interested me in Body to Body are the repeated moves in the dance that we keep doing and the carrying of the stone, or the burden – a modernised reference to the myth of Sisyphus. I love the concept because we keep doing things throughout our lives without knowing why the hell we do them!” he exclaimed in passion. “It’s not about the rock and the physicality of what we’re doing, but the mindset of it while we do it. What is the end of this vicious cycle we call life?! There is no end to this." 

El Deep interestingly explains to me how wars always provide fertile grounds for dance inspiration, as the conflict always creates a state of creativity. “It’s the responsibility of the artist to reference this back in their art and this is why wars or conflicts in general create high forms of art,” he explains.

El Deep tells me that he would like to open up dance workshops in the poorer areas of Cairo. “I did this once in an orphan home in Maadi, and I performed with them and presented about the potential workshops, which people very much welcomed and encouraged. I want this idea to reach places where it never goes, such as Matariya or Sayeda Eisha,” El Deep says.

I thank the delightfully eccentric dancer for his time, and for opening up my mind to the different corners from which contemporary dance can be viewed and appreciated. I also think to myself that, in such a troubled world, what we need the most of is art, in all its forms, especially if it involves a physical expression of the human state and the burdens of living, which at times need to be deeply acknowledged by fellow human beings so we can continue living and loving life.  

For more information about D-CAF’s events, you can check out their Facebook as well as Instagram.

Photo shoot by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.