Caracalla Dance Theatre balances its dreams and those of its funders

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.

(Nabil Ismail/ ) - Caracalla Dance Theatre performing ‘Zayed and the Dream.’
  • (Nabil Ismail/ ) - Caracalla Dance Theatre performing ‘Zayed and the Dream.’
  • (Nabil Ismail/ ) - Caracalla Dance Theatre performing ‘Zayed and the Dream.’
  • (Nabil Ismail/ Courtesy Caracalla Dance Theatre ) - Ivan Caracalla, director Caracalla Dance Theatre.

(Nabil Ismail/ ) - Caracalla Dance Theatre performing ‘Zayed and the Dream.’

“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.

The guest list caused Caracalla’s creative team some concern.

“That terrified us — not just scared us, but terrified us,” Caracalla says. The pressure was high “not to make any mistakes. How do you portray a man whose kids are there and convey that in a theatrical production with dancing?”

The commission was unusual for the dance company, which typically draws on themes from ancient literature. “We were surprised,” Caracalla says. “We’d never done a production about a person, especially one in the 20th century. It was very scary at moments; sometimes we never thought we could pull it off.”

What scared them the most? “Misrepresentation,” Caracalla says. “And that a certain creative idea which we thought was beautiful would appear completely meaningless to them. It was a very testing eight months.”

Caracalla, 42, spoke by phone from Los Angeles, where his dance company will perform “Zayed and the Dream” after its U.S. premiere at the Kennedy Center. Despite his initial concerns about “Zayed,” it has, Caracalla says, turned out to be a successful production for the company. After the premiere, UAE President Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan conferred a First Class Order of Independence on Abdel-Halim Caracalla, a high honor. And the ADACH has continued funding the troupe while it tours the production, first to Beirut and Dubai, then Paris and London. In the fall, Caracalla will take the work to China.

In true Caracalla style, it’s a stage-filling spectacle. In the Middle East, the cast of 100 dancers was augmented by seven horses. They don’t travel overseas, but local audiences will see the full complement of dancers, including those from other troupes: China’s Hangzhou Song and Dance Theatre, the Ukraine’s Veryovka Folk Ensemble, Spain’s Flamenco Espagnol and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Heritage Company. These guest artists, Caracalla says, have been included “as a symbolic notion of Abu Dhabi bringing the world together. We all become one through the message of love.”

If you’re thinking that sounds like something scripted by the Abu Dhabi chamber of commerce, Caracalla acknowledges that given the way it came about, the piece could be construed as hype.

“People might think it’s propaganda,” he said. “But like in Hollywood, the producer has a say. Sometimes it supersedes that of the director.” But, he adds, his backers “have been very good about this. They have a lot of confidence in Caracalla. Zayed is such an untouchable image; they would never put his image into the hands of someone they could not trust.”

Caracalla knows more than a little about Hollywood; he has a degree in theater directing from Pepperdine University and pursued film studies at UCLA. He brings his directing eye to Caracalla’s works, overseeing set and costume design and paying attention to the overall cohesiveness and dramatic expression, while his sister, Alissar, is the troupe’s choreographer. Their father, now in his mid-70s, is also involved, he says: “He has the older ideas, and we have the newer ideas.

“We push each other to be more creative and not be content with the first idea that comes to mind,” he continues. “Sometimes I say I wish I was doing this alone — and they think the same thing.”

The ADACH had specific requests about the cultural identity and symbolism of the emirates, he said, but gave the company “complete liberty to create from the point of view of choreography, costumes, set design, music.”

“At the end,” Caracalla says, “the artist only succeeds in his creative liberty. Otherwise it’s not art.”

Anyway, he says, members of the troupe spoke with Zayed scholars, family and friends — “We even went to the most simple bedouins to talk to them about him.” Respecting him as a theatrical subject was easy.

“He always remembered where he came from,” Caracalla says. “That is the key to the success of human nature, to remember where you came from.”

It’s a credo the Caracalla family takes to heart. Caracalla remembers the early years of the company, when he was 6 or 7 years old and his father would push back the furniture in their living room to dance with a handful of others willing to make a go of mixing Eastern and Western dance in the desert. The elder Caracalla poured his own money into the troupe to keep it going, even as Beirut was gripped with violence during the civil war.

“My father is an iron man,” Caracalla says. “He is a true artist. . . . He has an instinct of the genius of theater that is incredible.”

In time, the company’s reputation as an ambassador of Arab arts grew. According to Caracalla, King Hussein of Jordan was an early backer and bankrolled one of the troupe’s overseas tours, “to show what Arabs can do and what culture can say.”

Other funders have backed Caracalla, including Rafic Hariri, the late prime minister of Lebanon, and Sheikha Mozah of the Qatar Foundation. But once a project is completed, like “Zayed,” the creators start thinking of a new one. Caracalla says his father would love to spin the legend of the Queen of Sheba in music and dance.

But now that the company has far outgrown its founder’s living room, love alone isn’t enough to make that happen. As of now, Caracalla says, Sheba’s funder is “a big question mark.”

“Zayed and the Dream”

Caracalla Dance Theatre, 8 p.m. Friday

and Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

Tickets are $45-$125. 202-4674600

or www.kennedy-center.org.

 
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