After touring the world for 50 years with their cultural performances, Caracalla Dance Theatre will stop at Wolf Trap for the first time on June 12 to take American audiences somewhere far away. It is “One Thousand and One Nights” as you have never seen it before, incorporating the unique Caracalla dance style.
Since there were no dance-schools in the Middle East in the 60’s, Abdel Halim Caracalla, the founder of Caracalla Dance Theatre, had to travel to London, where he enrolled in London College of Contemporary Arts and became a student of Martha Graham. He graduated under Martha Graham, and eventually formed his own company and developed his own dance style, which carries his last name. "Once [he] formed his own company, he realized that he cannot just teach the Graham style because that would be copying many different companies around the world. So, what he introduced was the discipline of Western dance and he intertwined this with the identity of the Orient. This gave birth to something called the Caracalla dance style that exists today. It’s East meets West,” said Ivan Caracalla over the phone, sharing the story of how his father founded the dance company that the Washington Post considers “king of the musical theater world in the Middle East.”
It is interesting that your name is Ivan and your father's name is Abdel Halim. His name tells me he is Muslim. Your name tells me...are you Muslim too?
CARACALLA: I am not going to tell you that.
CARACALLA: Our religion is theater and arts and culture and promoting the beautiful things of Lebanon. That's our religion.
That’s great. You know what? Reading about your company, one of the things that caught my attention was how you strive to unite religions in Lebanon. Is that true?
CARACALLA: Absolutely, that is so true. I'd like to point out that even during the whole Lebanese war, when different religious facets were fighting each other... I think that Caracalla was the only company in Lebanon that had people of all the religions living under one banner... And that's the banner of culture, and arts and we really brought together these people. Especially since the company was not just continuing to perform outside Lebanon during the war, but also inside Lebanon.
As you know, Lebanon was divided into different sectors, and Caracalla was the only company, well the only group of people, allowed to cross from one sector to the other to perform in all parts of Lebanon.
CARACALLA: So this is really what made Caracalla stick together. So, if I may add...the founding of the dance company in an Arab country was a very difficult task.
CARACALLA: Because dance was not regarded as a professional job with a future. So, the Caracalla Dance School and also the Caracalla Dance Theatre, were able, little by little, to change the point of view of the Lebanese and Arab community toward dance from being something that was labeled as entertainment, to something that became labeled as culture and image, reflecting the heritage, the culture, the traditions, the identity of Lebanon and the Middle East on the highest level possible...and performing this identity on the most reputed stages around the world.
Does this also mean that it was hard for you to find professional dancers in the Arab world? Did you have to train people to become dancers?
CARACALLA: That’s a very good question because, yes, we did have a difficult time finding dancers-- professional dancers. So, that's why we introduced our own dance school, from which we graduate
dancers into the company. In addition to training our dancers in Lebanon, Caracalla became more of an international company and we used to [hold] auditions in Europe, so we have dancers from all over Europe. We have dancers from London, we have dancers from Argentina, we have dancers from Spain, we have dancers from Ukraine, we have dancers from Syria. So it’s quite an international company. However, the creative force behind the Caracalla dance is the Caracalla family from Lebanon.
I know that the vision of your father, the current artistic director, is to fuse Martha Graham’s dancing style with the tradition of the Orient. Is it like mixing belly dance with ballet for example?
CARACALLA: It has nothing to do with belly dancing at all; it has nothing to do with belly dancing. It has to do with the disciplines of dance … It’s taking classical disciplines, the disciplines of Western dance, but the interpretation is the Oriental body. It is the way the hips move, the elbows move, the whole body comes together. So, this is the Caracalla style. This is where East meets West. And this is also interpreted in the music, in the costumes, in the scenography.
I saw videos of the “One Thousand and One Nights” performance online and, somehow, it reminds me of the musicals in which the legendary Lebanese singer Fayrouz performed. Do you think it relates?
CARACALLA: Well, when the Fayrouz company started to do dance musicals, my father was the one training the dancers. So, it was his company training the dancers, but eventually he moved on just to do dance drama and not musicals. And eventually he moved on to the dance world rather than the written word.
How would you respond to critics who say that Arabs and Middle Easterners still live in the past?
CARACALLA: In which context?
Like the performance itself, it takes us to the past. Right?
CARACALLA: Well, not really. I mean the past is all right, it’s our identity. This is what we inspire from. This is what we base ourselves on in order to look into the future … Our productions are very much contemporary productions. They're not set or based or stuck in the past--not at all. They're contemporary productions using the most contemporary techniques of theater and performed in the most contemporary and advanced theaters around the world. However, we are very adamant to keep our identity, our roots and our heritage.
What I meant by "living in the past" is that I feel like we try to feed our pride and ego by going back to the past instead of analyzing the present.
CARACALLA: Well, this is a big argument that can be adapted to not just dance or theater. It can be adapted to every different aspect of our present life. Tradition, identity and culture have no beginning and no end. This is the identity of the people.
What can American audiences expect from Caracalla’s Wolf Trap performance?
CARACALLA: Well, it’s quite exotic because they will be listening to music they recognize: for example, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Ravel's “Boléro.” Everyone recognizes this music. However, this is all performed and re-orchestrated and composed to Oriental music. The costumes are lavish. The set design is quite wonderful, actually. The video projection, which is being developed for us, which we did ourselves, compliments the cinematography, the set, the music, the story. The exuberance and the energy that the company portrays really burst out into the audience… they will be surprised to see that some company of this caliber does really come from the Middle East, especially from Lebanon.
The question that I did not ask is: If Disney’s “Aladdin” reinforces stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East, can this internationally renowned performance by a Lebanese dance company challenge them?