Gilded Serpent presents...
Interview with
Mahmoud Reda
Part 2 of 3: The Troupe

June 19, 2003
Transcribed by Karima
(Previously posted-Part 1 of 3-here)

Q:  Where did you get the inspirations for your first dances, the first dances that you choreographed?  What inspired you to pick those dances?

A:  I was in a hurry; of course, this thing needs research.  I postponed a little bit of research and I used my knowledge of folklore because I lived in places in old Egypt, old Cairo.  I had ideas and I used these ideas for my first program that I called “Sketch.” 

Sketch is like a character and I made an idea of a story around this character, like The Syrup Vendor. 

There’s no dance in our folklore called The Syrup Vendor, but I used the character, and brought girls and boys from old Cairo - girls with the melaya to buy syrup from him, and the vendor sees Farida, the first dancer. He flirts with her and things happen.  This is one dance.

Another dance, I call the “Magic Flute”, is about a boy in love with a fellaha [peasant] girl from the village, and the father doesn’t like him.  He uses the flute and plays music for him and let him soften, soften the father mellow, and he even dances with the flute, and the father agrees for the boy to marry the girl. 

For the first program, I used my old, my existing knowledge, that I had and made my first program that I called “Sketches” around folkloric characters.

Q:  Are those dances still in the company’s repertoire?  Do you still do them?

A:  Yes, yes!

Q:  Wonderful!  How close do you like to keep your dances to real folklore?  Do you want them to be close to what the people really do, or do you want it to be more like a sketch or a tableau?  What are your choices there?  What do you prefer?

an Aswan soq in 2002
A:  Well, let me continue as before, so this is my answer to your question:  After the first program was successful and was accepted and loved by the people, I had time to do my research. 

I took a group of 5 or 6 of my dancers and went to Upper Egypt.  We started from Aswan, studying real folklore.  We took cameras. We took recorders. We took somebody to write.

For example, talk to the people and record their stories and ideas and we wrote the songs.  We started from Aswan and continued until we reached Cairo.  In every city we chose, we stayed 3 to 4 days.  We brought the people; they danced for us.  We recorded the dances and the music, and wrote down the stories and everything.

So now, with the folklore of Egypt, there are good things and some problems.  The good things are, this is like a treasure that nobody discovered, a treasure!  However, there is lots of repetition, whether in the steps or in the melody; for example, they can take an old melody and put new words, but you remember the melody was another song.  So, for example, one girl will dance and the rest of the people, like Hagallah, in Mersa Matruh, they will go like this: (claps) for one hour, the boys; and with every step the girl’s hips move 3 times. 

So you have a treasure but at the same time the material is little.  You cannot take one step and choreograph a dance for five minutes on stage.  Stage and theater audience are professional audience.  When you watch the real thing, you will be happy because you can join, because you can sing with them, you can even clap with them, so you feel happy.  But if you buy a ticket at the opera house and sit, you don’t expect to see this.  Any normal thing, you put it on stage, is not normal.  You cannot bring a tree from its place and put it on stage, or a house and put it on stage. 

Even the people, when you bring them, the real folkloric dancers, put them on stage, they look odd, they look strange. 

Their costumes, they don’t know where to look, they don’t know, and if they do their things, it’s very monotonous.  You better go to them and join them, and be happy.  But on stage, it’s different.

So what I call my choreography is not folkloric.  It’s inspired by the folkloric.  It’s inspired.

When you get inspired to do your own choreography, there is a risk. You can change things, and they become something else, and the people won’t like it. I don’t know  There’s no rule.You have to use your taste. For example: I take one step and I imagine myself one of these people.  If I am one of these people, and I have the ability, if I want to do the variation of this step, what would I do?  She goes forward and I backward; side; and turn… and if she sits down and I do the same step, what she going to do?  So I do all the variations possible to this step.  If you’re lucky, then it will keep the same spirit.  If you’re not lucky it’s like developing Arabic language, then it becomes English.  Not good.  So, if you manage to keep the spirit in spite of what you did to these movements, you are lucky.  I was lucky.  So I did all what I could, eh? to put variations of the same step, but still the people watch it, and they recognize themselves in it. 

Farida’s father had something to do with this.  He sits in the audience beside some fellahin people, villagers who came to see the show.  Of course, you know how the dancers move fellahin with the dress. It’s a bit different, and even the jar is painted, eh? --not like the original one.  Then he would say, “What’s this?  This is not fellahin dance, and this is not a fellahin jar!”  So, the people will turn to him and tell him, “No, this is us, and this is our jar, and this is our dance.  So, he’s testing the idea, and he becomes very happy and tells me what happened. 

They recognized themselves, although there is like 90% extra put on the dance.

Q:  I think, maybe they also recognized the way they want to see themselves.

A:  When I am doing this, I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m just inspired, and I do things.  Maybe later I can analyze myself—analyze what I did, but when I’m doing this, I’m doing what I feel.

Q:  From what you tell me, the audience understood what you were trying to do?

A: Yes, definitely!  Yes, definitely!

Q:  Do you have a favorite piece that you choreographed?  Is there a favorite dance that you did?

A:  I have favorites. You know, some dances I did, one or two that I didn’t like; I cancelled them immediately. 

For example, you shouldn’t try to teach the audience something.  Don’t teach. 

The police department here in Cairo called me and said, the traffic policeman is not welcomed by the audience.  Can you do something to let the audience sympathize with the traffic police?  So, I did a dance to comply and the people didn’t like it.  I stopped it first performance.  The dance was good choreography, but you’re teaching the audience to respect police?  No, no, no! 

However I have many favorites in every program.  For example, I do 12 dances, I like this dance better that the other.  Like the stick dance. 

I was famous for that; I did my own stick dance. 

I performed it, so it became one of my favorites.  The “Magic Flute” is one of the favorites and there in the Andalusi the (Muashahat), I have one like (Layalat Awalem), one of the Andalusian dances.  I have many favorites.

Q:  Do you decide first on the style of dance you want to choreograph and then look for music for it, or do you hear a piece of music first and that inspires you?

A:  You know, inspiration is a funny thing.  It comes from out of nowhere.  For example, if I’m driving in the village and I see a woman with nice costume, this inspires me for a dance.  If I hear nice music, it inspires me, and if I hear a story, or somebody tells a joke, it inspires me.  However concerning music, we did everything; we did every way.  It depends on the situation.  For example, when I started my first performance, I didn’t have the musician, but I had the ideas, I had the steps, I had the ideas for choreographies.  I had the dancers; I was teaching them.  I choreographed nearly all the first performance without music. Somebody plays tabla, I tell him, “8 counts here, 16 counts there, change the rhythm.”  When I found a musician, Ali Ismail, who was introduced to me by my brother, Ali Reda, I showed him the dances, and he wrote the counts, and he composed. 

We had difficulties because I count differently than the musician. 

For example, a musician counts Masmoudi rhythm:  DUM DUM  Rak-a-tak-a DUM Rak-a-tak.  When I choreograph or teach, I count 2.  (repeats same rhythm, but twice as fast)  Easier.  So he composed more music than what I wanted because I gave him more counts, and he thinks this is more bars, but this was the first performance, choreographed first on tabla and then he [provided] the music.

Later, when we knew each other, I explained to him my idea.  I told him about the dance and how I wanted the dance. For example, the Saidi, boys and girls: I will start with the boys with the sticks, for how many counts, and then the girls come, and then we put them aside, and there is a  solo boy and solo girl.  We discuss it, and this dance will take about 5 minutes.  I leave him to compose, and he goes home and composes.  I start doing some experiments with steps on the rhythms I gave him.  When he finishes the composition, he gives me a piano version.  He records a piano version.  Then I listen and I can tell him, “This is too long. This is too short.” 

I use this piano version to do the choreography and then when he comes and sees the choreography, he gets inspiration from me!  I get inspiration from his piano.  Look, listen!  He gets inspiration from the way we talk at the beginning; our talk inspires him.  Then, when he gives me his piano composition, and I get inspiration from this piano, I do the choreography.  When he watches my choreography, he gets more inspiration, things he didn’t imagine, so he goes and plays more.  Next he makes the composition, not only the piano, but the whole arrangement.  When I hear the orchestration, I get more ideas: now the violins are saying something and the drums are saying something else — then I correct my work and put more ideas in it.  We go like this until it fits.

This is the perfect way, but it’s very difficult because you can not have a musician handy beside you to work together, but this happened for me for some time.

Q:   It’s a lot of work.

A:   Yes.  Then he became famous, and he didn’t have a lot of time for us.  He became famous doing songs and background music for the cinema, for the movies. 

So, then, I remembered one time I was doing choreography of a big opening, and I called him at home, and he was asleep.  I call him after 5 minutes, and he had gone out.  After 10 minutes, he was in the bathroom.  

But I needed to talk with him!

So, I took my wife.  My wife was Yugoslavian (you know, after the first wife died).  She didn’t know Arabic.  I took her, I took my bag, my pajama and I went to his house.  He was there working on something.  I told him “I am staying here.”  My wife went to his wife.  She did not know English and my wife did not know Arabic, and I don’t know how they communicated.  We left them.  I stayed with him 3 days and nights.  He played and I danced.  I showed him what the girls should do, and he wrote music.  I showed him what the boys should do, and then I danced my part, and he writes.  It was about 1 or 2 o’clock at night when I fell asleep on the couch.  At 3 or 4 o’clock he woke me up, saying “Continue.”  We continue, OK?  We did like this 3 days and nights, and the show went on!

Later, he told me, I have a confession. 

“What confession?”  “The first night, I was not doing your music.  I was writing a movie and you were dancing, but I was writing the background music for the movie.” 

I said, “Why you let me dance?”  He said, “You gave me inspiration.”  “Why [did] you wake me up at 3 o’clock in the morning?”  He said, “To keep me company!” (laugh)

Q:  At least, he was honest.

A:  After the first night, the next day when we were doing this, he said, “Look, what we did yesterday.  I don’t like it; let’s do again.”

So, we did music first, and dance first, and then we did the music and dance together. We tried every way...  [It depends on] whether you have musician, or you don’t have musician.

Q:  Does each dance get easier to choreograph or are there always new problems?

A:  The problem increases with time. 

When you choreograph one dance, you still have many ideas and many stories but when you choreographed 400 dances, first of all, you want to do something you yourself didn’t do before and somebody else didn’t do before you.  So, it leaves a big problem to find a new idea, a new style, and new steps.  After you have choreographed 400 dances, the problems increase. 

Some dances, you do quickly.  When I start to do the dance, sometimes in 1, 2, or 3 hours, I can finish the dance.  Sometimes it takes longer.  There is no rule.  You don’t know why.  So you come next day and continue.  The best thing is to choreograph the dance very quickly, so you do it in one mood, because tomorrow you don’t know what mood you’re in. You may have different moods in the same dance.  If you finish the dance quickly, you can correct and finish and do the finishing touches later, but do the whole thing very quick.

10-26-05 Interview with Mahmoud Reda Part 3: Film & Future by Morocco
If you know about photography, then it will help performing for the movies or for television because usually the choreographer stands beside the director of the movie.

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