‘We Live In Cairo’: Samar Haddad King Choreographs the Arab Spring

Tonight, We Live in Cairo, opens at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Written by brothers Daniel Lazour and Patrick Lazour, the new musical utilizes an intimate cast of eight performers to tell the story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Directed by Taibi Magar and choreographed by Samar Haddad King, artistic director of Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre (a contemporary dance company based in New York and Palestine), the work “moves from the hope of Tahrir Square through the tumultuous years that followed. As escalating division and violence lead to a military crackdown, the young revolutionaries must confront the question of how—or even whether—to keep their dreams alive.” We caught up with King and associate choreographer Zoe Rabinowitz to talk about the collaboration, creating the movement language, and how they helped to create the feeling of a mass uprising with such a small cast.

{ DIYdancer, Candice Thompson }: When did the creative process begin?

Samar Haddad King:  In August of 2018, I was approached by the director and the writers, who had seen my work on Facebook or some kind of social media. We were in another production when I got called, so we met over Skype: first the director and I, and then the writers and I, and then the producers. It seemed like a good fit, but I approach these things with caution because Zoe and I and some of the artists we’ve been working with Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre go back more than a decade now. Even other collaborators that I work with in other genres, they’re long lasting relationships too. Also, I think Arabs are often misrepresented onstage but I read the script and the score carefully.

But there was a spark that happened when we first spoke and then in January of this year we were in New York doing a 10-day workshop that was a bit of a head start. The music director (Michael Starobin) and I went back and forth over Skype, working and brainstorming. Then April 9, we started rehearsals in Cambridge, but Zoe and I didn’t begin working with the cast until six days later. The role of the associate is so important because choreographing a musical is a lot of responsibility. There is a team aspect to it. We have a cast with varying levels of movement training, but there is a lot of movement going on throughout the whole musical.

CT: Did you get to weigh in on casting?

SHK: I was at some of the callbacks and we did a movement call. But it is a singing heavy show and the music is beautiful, but very difficult, so they are mostly musical theater people. You can’t have a musical with bad singers.

CT: What is their movement language like, to capture this moment of the Arab Spring?

SHK: This is a piece about Egypt, so of course there is shaabi. It is a form of popular street dance with Arab influence. Egypt is very different from Palestine in terms of cultural dance. There is some footwork that is similar to the Palestinian dabke, but it is not the same. I’m Arab, but I’m also a contemporary choreographer. These things are maybe housed within my body, as with a lot of the cast who have some type of Arab heritage. A few of them definitely have this kind of shaabi influence on how they move. But again, we approached it from a contemporary standpoint so Zoe and I generated a lot to establish a specific language. There are motions like throwing up your arms, and shoulder movements and stomping…

Zoe Rabinowitz: Yeah, we were looking at both moments of celebration and revolution for the vocabulary of the people. It is very grounded, very rhythmic and percussive, and very simple because it is like a social dance. We made eight gestures and a base phrase that has become a vocabulary that is used mostly in moments of celebration or resistance.

SHK: Specificity is key for me, so we almost created a library. Trying to show a revolution, where a million people come to a square, and throw over a thirty-year dictator, and it is done with eight bodies only. How do you do that? I felt that there was a level of specificity we could get to, and a language that we could get to, with movement. It is a 32-count phrase, basically four counts for each gesture and they have great names like “party punch,” From there the performers can use this movement to build dances. We codified things but it is also a library they can pull in moments of improvisation when they understand as characters what they want, they understand the urgency. This is now their language, to use to decide how best to get what they want.

ZR: It helps to have this for moments that aren’t specifically dance numbers. There is a cohesive sense of the physical quality of each character. Every character has a distinct physical quality and it came from our explorations and having a vocabulary to draw from.

CT: How does the production shift between more dance and less dance?

SHK: It is funny because this is where the role of dance, and what is dance, and what isn’t, comes up. Someone asked me: do you do all of the movement from Point A to Point B? And the answer was no, the director does that. But it is an ongoing ping pong back and forth depending on the scene. One of the biggest dance numbers has a lot of text in the middle, so we were going back and forth on blocking. There are lyrics that need to get passed through to the audience so things also need to be scaled down, whereas if you were working with dancers that don’t need to sing as well, maybe there is more risk…

ZR: That was an interesting learning curve, in terms of what the performers can achieve vocally while they are performing the movement. Samar’s movement is very physical, very three-dimensional, athletic, so that was a dialogue to have with the creative team. What is landing in terms of lyrics while they are in these dance numbers. There are three major dance sections.

SHK: And they are all very different. One is more traditional Broadway, one is a club scene, and one is a revolution scene. And a fourth one where they are kind of a modern Greek chorus where they are representing the soul of a wall which is inanimate. They function as Arabic storytellers, with six main characters and two ensemble or supporting roles.

ZR: Another layer of the show is that there are projections, incorporating scenes from Cairo, from Tahrir, really beautiful images in dialogue with the live performance that is happening onstage. That long revolutionary scene is integrated with all those projections. How do we uplift these other mediums and not be in competition with each other? There has been a lot to navigate that has been interesting for us. We had two solid weeks with movement heavy days. It was more or different than they had anticipated or done before, a fun challenge, but then following that there were musical rehearsals, and then there is so much tech to manage.

SHK: The works I have done in the past have had different elements, like scripts and projections, so this doesn’t feel foreign. The difference is in scale. This is a very large scale, an inherent difference between contemporary dance and musical theater. We are trying to count have many technical people there are, it feels like 70 people are in the room.

CT: I want to circle back to talk a little more about the twin themes, or maybe how the same moves, can show both celebration and resistance?

SHK: You can apply the same movement to different situations. A kick for instance, a grand battement can mean something in classical ballet, and then you ground it in intention and an atmosphere, and then it can become a sort of resistance. The movement is not random. There are certain thing you see, say a a fist bump in the air, it could be chant at a protest or it could be you are at the club. The movement was curated with a specificity so that it could jump back and forth. It can become infused with so much meaning, and it is the thought process of the performers that infuses the movement with meaning. The subtext is what is interesting, the iceberg. It’s not just the steps that you see, but it is the whole story of everything underneath that is grounding it.

ZR: To Samar’s point, the movement is not at all arbitrary. A lot of the work we do involves improvising with movement to develop the kinds of intention that asks “this moment of the piece, what is the thing you are trying to accomplish?” So the same phrase in a different context, in the same piece, can have a very different meaning. Just changing the tempo, the rhythm, where you are in space, those kind of more abstract things, can re-contextualize the movement in really interesting ways. We wanted to give the actors all these tools to really understand how they can fulfill the movement.

As far as celebration and resistance, one of the real common themes is that they are communal acts. The act of the revolution, all these people coming together to resist, or to overthrow, and then coming together to celebrate. We’ve also been talking a lot about how Egyptian culture is so physical, watching videos of people, just talking and debating with their hand movements and a lot of that went into what we developed. It is really about the group feeling and the communal aspect of the story. even though there are only six characters, you see the revolution and its effects not on these grandiose political stages but it’s effect on a group of friends. What happens to the relationships between these people. It’s big but also on this intimate scale, the experiences of joy and resistance.

CT: I know I have been struggling with the politics in this country, and of course in the last couple of weeks in Georgia, and so I am wondering: does this show give you hope for the our future?

SHK: I was in Palestine when Mubarak left, or resigned. I remember we marched to our square and there was a little man with a sign that said, “1 down,” in English funny enough, and he had an X through that line, an underneath it was 21 more to go.” We know what they did there and the euphoria that was created and started in Tunisia. There was an elation, everyone, myself included, felt like we could do it, we could win, the people could win over these old dictatorships, this money, this power this cruelty, that has been so prevalent in so many Arab countries. There was such a feeling of hope. And now last week, [Abdul Fattah] el-Sisi has a new referendum saying he can be in power until 2030. So it wasn’t all cake, and ice cream, and butterflies. This musical focuses on that aftermath too.

As for Georgia, that has inspired me for my next creation. I grew up right next to Georgia. You can see the real violence in policy at work. I mean, I am constantly asking myself what is the role of art? Why am I doing this? Why it’s important when you look at this world and how dismal it is. There are real people that are risking their lives and their lives are being taken from them in various places all over the world. And it’s unfair, it’s an injustice. It’s wrong. So it’s like where do we begin? It always seems like we are starting over. And some days I go into rehearsal and I’m very quiet because I think it is important to just go and do your job, try to do it as best as you can, and not to mope and say, “woe is me. How I am fixing the world?” Because at the end of the day, we aren’t. No one piece or one movement in art is going to change the world so to speak, but I do believe it can bring some awareness. I think hope exists in seeing people just pick themselves up and keep going, and that’s what I am trying to do.

ZR: The overthrow of the leader of Sudan happened during our second week of rehearsal, and there was a parallel, the activists were quoting Egypt. So, just to know the ripples of that event continue to move outward and have effects that we don’t yet know. There is some hope in that. The story does not end in this show tied up in a neat little bow. Also, I see that even when you don’t know where it will take you or what the final outcome will be, the important thing is to stand up for what you believe in. The struggle towards justice is important. I don’t see any of the characters in this show arriving at liberation but they are people struggling towards it, and that is important. I hope that it resonates with American audiences because personally, I see a lot of apathy in this country.

SHK: I am generalizing here, but living in the Arab world can be relentless. You fall down, you get back up. There is this constant cycle of perseverance, recharging. That to me is the most hopeful thing in this show.

ZR: Also to know that existence can be an act of resistance. Claiming your narrative, claiming your right to exist in your life. Doing your work or goin to the grocery store can be resistance.

We Live in Cairo runs now through June 23 at American Repertory Theater. Get tickets while you still can!

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