Continuation of Blog called “There is Always Hope” Mahmoud Reda (September 2015)
Rosa took me to the balcony of their apartment and described how empty the street was when they moved in 52 years earlier and how much has changed with the area built up now. Remembering the balcony, I realize now that this visit was evening time but somehow back in the presence of Mahmoud, it was daytime again. His spirit of light is so bright.
In my first meeting in 2009 with Mahmoud in Spain, he and Farida told me of when the Egyptian Ministry of Culture forced him to retire. Two years after founding the troupe in 1959, the Reda Troupe was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and incorporated in to the Egyptian government. It was easier this way business wise. After Mahmoud’s reluctant resignation in 1990, the government continued to tour his company presenting his repertoire of old choreography in a pale form, a shadow of what it once was. He said it broke his heart because they took his baby away from him. He no longer could create with his company that he created and became very depressed.
Eventually he started to tour on his own as a teacher. Touring with the Reda Troupe, he lost count of how many countries they performed in, but he says he taught by himself in over 60 countries. After the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in California in 2000, Amir Thaleb invited Mahmoud to teach in Argentina. Amir announced to him that there were 200 students registered but when the day came to teach, 620 dancers showed up. Both him and Amir did not realize until that day how Mahmoud’s legacy had touched so many.
According to Farida, the last trip he made to teach overseas was in Canada in 2012 when I brought him for the last International Bellydance Conference of Canada. Several years before I had asked him to give a talk when he came to Canada which was supposed to be in 2010 (volcano in Iceland made it impossible at that time). He told me he was not good at public speaking and did not know what to talk about. I urged him to just tell the same stories of struggles and triumphs he told me in Madrid. Before his scheduled trip in 2010, he happily announced that he had a full lecture prepared with Power Point presentation. I was not expecting that but of course was thrilled and made arrangements for his lecture to be properly presented.
When the day finally arrived, the 200 seat room was filled to capacity and then overflowed with all the conference attendees. He was shy so he had Sahra Saeeda sit with him to help out. Every ear in the room was fixed on Mahmoud’s words. The only other sounds were a few gasps and giggles at his funny stories. It was almost 2 hours in length. He could have continued for days with so many stories to tell. Each photo on the Power Point inspired many stories. He never made it to the end of the Power Point presentation so he stopped when he began to get tired.
Everyone immediately took to their feet with loud applause and vocal praises. He nodded his head and thanked everyone several times but they would not stop clapping and cheering. He did not know what to do or where to go. He turned red and began to look confused so I escorted him out of the room and upstairs. When I turned to look at him, he was shaking and crying. I asked him what was wrong and he answered “I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know”. I asked what is it that he didn’t know. He answered “I did not know anyone cared”. At which point, of course, I cried, hugged him and told him “listen to them, they are STILL clapping, they love you, you have given so much and they love you”! We had left the lecture room, walked a flight of stairs, talked, cried, even Dr. George Sawa had joined us by now and they were still clapping downstairs.
I did not tell many people at the time about him crying because he was embarrassed and by the time people came to join us in the hall, he was full of smiles for the camera. The next morning I told Sahra and of course, she cried. I am hoping now he will forgive me that I write about it.
Every minute I have spent eating meals or en route with Mahmoud, I have learned so many gems of wisdom. He is constantly teaching. He is a master at telling jokes and even in joking, he is teaching a lesson. He told me once I can not be a good choreographer if I can not deliver a joke well. He said delivering a joke is like creating choreography with timing and sequence playing a large role in how the audience will respond.
He gave me advice on how to direct a company and how to coordinate the different personalities involved, how to be a good diplomat when dealing with people in power and how to accept defeat for the better good. He told me I need to change the artistic method according to the artist as was the case when he choreographed for Samia Gamal. She could not learn choreography so he allowed her to improvise and then created choreography for the back up dancers that would match Samia’s nuances. I could go on and on about the riches that Mahmoud has given me beyond his inspired and brilliant choreography. But in that moment, holding Mahmoud in my arms while he had a revelation that his life work was indeed profoundly important changed me on such a deep level that I can not articulate. I am shaking now just thinking about it.
It seems that the beginning of his career, and even throughout, was fraught with media criticism for breaking cultural rules like putting men and women to dance together, let alone on a stage. At the end of his career, the Ministry of Culture made him feel worthless and that his body of work was insignificant. As Farida says, the photos, international newspaper reviews and film footage owned by the Egyptian government of the Reda Troupe had been destroyed or lost. All that is left are the two feature films which are broadcast several times a year.
However, on this beautiful August evening in his living room in Cairo, he says he is very happy these days. Excited, he told me about the three presentations of his choreography at the Library of Alexandria (2007, 2008, 2009). Forty of his choreographies were presented by dancers from different countries. For the 50th anniversary of forming the Reda Troupe, all the choreographies were presented by Nesma of Spain. The foreign dancers were mostly female so they used Egyptians for the male dancers. He had sent video footage to the foreign dancers to practice with. The day before the performance they brought the male and female dancers together where they rehearsed all night long. He said the presentations were very successful.
When I ask Mahmoud if he fulfilled his dreams, he says more than he could have imagined. He tells of how just a few days earlier, nine very emotional and enthusiastic dancers from South America visited him. The Library of Alexandria has dedicated a corner with a permanent exhibit for him where he will store his trophies and awards. The current Minister of Culture promises him that after he passes, they will rename the Balloon Theatre to be the “Mahmoud Reda Theatre”.
He says “I have had a wonderful life as a dancer, teacher and choreographer (300 choreographies), presented all over the world including Siberia, what more could I ask for”.
I arrived at Mahmoud’s home with the intention in August 2015 to videotape an interview but he preferred not to be videotaped or audio recorded. He was having trouble pronouncing some letters so I took notes which are the basis for this blog post and the one called “There is Always Hope” Mahmoud Reda from September 2015.
More thoughts on Mahmoud Reda read the blog post called Bias Confession from January 2014.
The photo below is my first meeting with Mahmoud in Madrid in 2009 at Raks Madrid where I got to talk about choreographic process with the master. I was giddy.