How does an artist reconcile his dream with reality? For Beirut’s Caracalla Dance Theatre, survival in the Arab world depends on a careful balance of imagination and financial pragmatism. Love and money perform a delicate duet.
Love: Caracalla, known as the Middle East’s largest contemporary dance troupe, began as a living-room experiment, grew into a wartime unifier and now travels the world as a symbol of Arab pride. But years before its first steps, the idea of it lodged in the heart of a child for whom dancing was forbidden fruit. Growing up in Lebanon, Abdel-Halim Caracalla was a standout athlete who became a champion pole-vaulter. But he was fascinated by the dancing he glimpsed at the annual international arts festival held in the Roman ruins overlooking his hometown of Baalbek.
“When my father was a boy, he used to climb around the rocks and peek at the dancers performing,” says Ivan Caracalla, who directs the company his father founded. It returns to the Kennedy Center on Friday and Saturday. “One day, he saw a member of the Royal Ballet turning in the air and had this dream of what he wanted to do.”
Against his parents’ wishes, the elder Caracalla went on to study dance in Paris and London, trained with the legendary Martha Graham and, in 1970,founded the dance troupe in his name. Weathering his family’s disapproval and the far greater challenge of the 15-year Lebanese civil war, Caracalla turned his dream into an institution in Beirut, with its own theater and 1,200-student school. Caracalla Dance Theatre tours with up to 100 dancers in lavish productions drawing on Middle Eastern culture, such as “Two Thousand and One Nights” and “Knights of the Moon,” which it performed at the Kennedy Center in 2009 as part of the Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World festival.
Those who saw “Knights of the Moon” will undoubtedly recall its stunning filmic backdrops of dunes and moonrises, the brilliantly colored velvets and silks in its treasury of costumes and the extraordinary energy of the dancers. The movement style blends the bouncy rhythms of Eastern folk dance with the fluidity of ballet and angularity and drama of Graham’s form of modern dance. Abdel-Halim Caracalla has called Graham “the genius of all geniuses” and “the god of modern dance.”
Money: Ivan Caracalla says the company relies mostly on ticket sales for its funding. But its newest production, “Zayed and the Dream,” which it will perform at the Eisenhower Theater, arose in a different way. Its multimillion-dollar cost was paid by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH). In 2008, the authority asked Caracalla to create a dance-theater production that tells the story of Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of Abu Dhabi and founder and first president of the federation of monarchies known as the United Arab Emirates.
To top it off, in the audience on opening night would be Zayed’s friends and family members, including his son Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who happens to be Abu Dhabi’s crown prince.