Two weeks ago saw the venerable Cairo Opera House suspend its activities in mourning for its previous director Abdel-Moneim Kamel who died at the age of
64 of sudden heart failure. Kamel had been at the Sayed Darwish Theatre in Alexandria (the Alexandria Opera House) supervising a ballet rehearsal of Swan Lake when the heart attack overcame him.
The decision to suspend activities in all the opera theatres: the Cairo, Alexandria, and Damanhour theatres, was taken by the Culture Minister Saber Arab and the current Cairo Opera House director Inass Abdel-Dayem. It was taken in honour of the man who is seen as a pillar of ballet and opera in Egypt, a man who almost single-handedly revived Egyptian ballet and brought that thoroughly western art closer to Egyptian’s hearts.
The funeral service for Kamel was held on Tuesday 26 February at the mosque in the grounds of the Cairo Opera House, as was his will.
Kamel was born in Cairo in February 1949, the youngest of three children; the older two were girls. Their father was a professor of engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
When Kamel was almost nine and a primary school pupil, the Ballet School in Cairo opened, managed by Russian experts. Kamel’s mother wished to enroll his two sisters, who were then 12 and 13 and already attended ballet classes in their school, but they were deemed too old. Kamel, however, was the right age, and he was taken. He continued to attend his regular school in addition to the ballet school in the afternoon, where he also learned music and singing.
In 1967, Kamel graduated from Cairo University’s Faculty of Commerce and from the Cairo Academy of Art’s Higher Institute of Ballet. He obtained a M.A in ballet in 1969, as well as a Masters degree in Commerce. Ten years later, he earned a Ph.D. in ballet from Moscow in 1979.
Even during his student years, Kamel built for himself a name as a distinguished professional dancer. At the age of eighteen, and trained by Russian experts, he started his career as principal dancer in several classic ballets: Giselle, Don Quixote, Scheherazade, Swan Lake, Hamlet, and The Fountain of Bakchisaray.
Kamel’s career took him all over the world. He danced as guest artist in great international theatres: in the Bolshoi, the Kirov, the New Siberia Theatre, the Sofia Theatre, the N.H.K. Theatre in Tokyo, as well as in the National Theatre of Maracaibo.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Kamel won countless international ballet competitions as dancer and, later in the 1990s, as director and trainer of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company.
Kamel was fluent in English, French, Italian, and Russian, apart from his native Arabic.
After he obtained his Ph.D. from Moscow in 1979, he moved to Milan’s La Scala where for two years he danced as Soloist, and where he met the woman who was to become his wife, the Italian Erminia Gambarelli. Erminia was also a Soloist at La Scala Ballet Company, but she decided to go to Cairo with Kamel, where their love story was crowned in marriage in 1982.
It was Kamel’s dream to resurrect the Cairo Opera Ballet Troupe (COBT) which had been established in 1966 by Russian ballet experts, and had to its credit an impressive repertoire of great classics including Swan Lake, Giselle, Pakhita, and The Nutcracker. It had performed in Moscow, Leningrad, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Germany, France and Tunis.
The troupe had first performed at the old Cairo Opera House before it was burnt down in 1971; the old Opera House was identical to Milan’s La Scala, and was built by the same architects Pietro Avoscani and Rossi, and inaugurated in 1869. Cairo remained without an Opera House till 1988 when the Cultural Centre built by Japan in Gezira, Cairo, was donated to Egypt and its theatre became the now-famous Cairo Opera House.
When he returned to Cairo in 1982, Kamel found the COBT had deteriorated to only seven poorly trained dancers. Together with Erminia he trained the dancers, brought in others, and choreographed many performances. The troupe was able to perform in ‘small seasons’ twice a year at al-Gomhouriya Theatre in Cairo. Five years later, the result of hard, dedicated work saw the troupe perform during the inauguration of the new Cairo Opera House Theatre.
Honours, and dishonour
With the inauguration of the new Cairo Opera House in 1988, Kamel focused on directing and choreographing ballets for the newly formed Cairo Opera Ballet Company. He became the company’s director in 1991, adding his own renditions of Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Hamlet, among others to the repertoire of the company.
In 1991 till 1992, he was appointed Director for Dance at the Higher Institute of Ballet where he also taught dance classes, and supervised doctoral degrees for dance students.
The journalist and writer Hoda Nassef who interviewed Kamel in 2004 wrote that: “Kamel also choreographed Carmina Burana, which is basically a fantastic opera rather than a ballet, and produced his own version (or rather, vision) of Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Le Corsaire (The Pirate), Bolero, Lorkiana, Zorba, Giselle and Cinderella. His version of these ballets were totally his own conceptions, without derailing from the main classical scenes.”
In the following years, Kamel directed a multitude of classical and contemporary ballets. In 2004, Kamel was appointed chairman of the Cairo Opera House. In 2007, he was granted the “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” from France, the Honour of “Grande Ufficiale” of the Republic of Italy, and the State Prize of Arts from the Egyptian Government.
Following the January 25 Revolution in 2011, however, Kamel was among several figures accused of the corruption. His contract expired in February 2012 and was not renewed. Yet his relation with the ballet company never died.
Aida and Kamel’s big night
Kamel was keen on introducing Egyptian productions. He choreographed and directed Egyptian Steps by composer Attiya Sharara, Osiris by Gamal Abdel Rahim (1984) and al-Nil (the Nile) by composer-pianist Omar Khairat (1990).
With the great entrepreneur and director Maura Palomino, Kamel directed the first performance of Aida at the foot of the Giza Pyramids in 1987, then again in 1994 at the Luxor Temple, and in 1997 with Atelier Colonillo also at Luxor.
In 1998, after he was appointed Artistic Director for the Music, Opera and Ballet Sector in the Egyptian government, Kamel directed Aida in 1998 and in 1999 at the foot of the Pyramids. The performances were such successes that the then Culture Minister, Farouk Hosni, decided to make Aida a yearly event at the pyramids.
Another fabulous production of Kamel’s, and one of his last, was Al-Leila al-Kebira (The Big Night). To lyrics by the vernacular poet Salah Jahin and folk music by Sayed Mikkawi the ballet, originally a puppet show first produced in the 1960s, depicts the street folk celebration of a moulid—the folk celebration of a local saint—complete with song and dance, street vendors and children playing around and getting lost. The challenge was a monumental one, since the show had become an Egyptian classic folk performance. Kamel’s genius, however, resurrected it as a world-class ballet.
10 March 2013