A lavish season ender

IMG_6048By Georgina Benison — Abdel Halim Caracalla grew up in the shadow of Baalbeck, the historic city of Heliopolis in Lebanon, and the annual International Arts Festival held in the world-famous Roman ruins at its centre. The dance companies performing there provided the young boy with inspiring dreams and he eventually ran away to London to train with the American choreographer, Martha Graham, at Sadler’s Wells in 1960.
From such unlikely beginnings grew the world-renowned dynasty, “Caracalla Dance Theatre”, which now performs in festivals and opera houses around the world in the Americas, Norwich, Africa, the Middle East, Japan and China in the Far East. They first visited Muscat in 1990 with “Oriental Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but last weekend they arrived with a massive extravaganza, a revision of their 2016 “Sailing Through Time”, in an adaptation especially created for the closing performance of the Royal Opera House, Muscat, 2017 season.
Most impressive was the scale of the spectacle. There were dance troupes and musicians from China and India, Fairouz’ younger sister, Huda Haddad from Lebanon, cinematic projections on front-of-stage screens, archival photographs of people and sites and rotating panels for the back-drop. There were lavish costumes, carpets from ancient Persia, eagles, horses galloping backwards, elephant herds moving across the stage and camel caravans crossing the desert – all with superbly choreographed dances from the Levant.
If all this were not enough to delight and amaze a youthful audience, Abdel Halim also composed lyrics for an historic story-line epic to carry a young Timur of today – played well by Majd Caracalla – back in time to the ‘Temple of Jupiter’ where the Roman god sends him on a mission along the Silk Road of ancient travellers. The poetry provides a rather convoluted vehicle for these wonderful scenes and dances – or a strong sense of pan-Arabian pride, depending on your perspective.
The show became wordy and busy, with almost too much to saturate the senses. The poetry was not essential to appreciate the lush glamour of the journey through exotic cultures, and a simple metaphor of a quest for human peace, justice and wisdom would have removed the need for the constant reading of subtitles, which were recited in the unlikely booming voice of Jupiter!
IMG_5813A lengthy opening animation sequence by Ali Noori Oskouei Sayed Olyaee, cleverly depicting tourists at the modern day site of the ancient temples of Baalbeck had dancers in contemporary dress suggesting Italian visitors dancing to a familiar opera chorus, the French to Bizet’s Carmen and Germans marching to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
After the apparition of Jupiter, a traditional Levant wedding scene was beautifully enacted with energy, vigour and stunning formations from the troupe – especially the brilliant male dancers – which comprises many Eastern Europeans. With Simon Obeid in the dramatic role of Timur the Elder, the drama moved to Oman to recruit the expertise of Ibn Majed, the great Omani navigator whom the Portuguese nick-named Almirante, played amusingly by Joseph Sassine, enabling the voyage to India.
A Kathak dance performance, choreographed by Astha Dixit with eight ladies and two male soloists, was superb, intricate and exhilarating. The vocalist, Vidhi Sharma, is a well-known ‘Aarti’ devotional singer in her own right in India, her singing was haunting and mesmerising, sung to a recording of the Ali Brothers’ backing music.
After a perilous sea journey the action moved to Xian, City of the Silk Road and culmination of the quest. The Imperial Court and entertainment for the Emperor provided an ideal platform for some authentic Chinese dances by eight ladies and eight men of the Helan National Art Troupe, under the expertise of Cui Wei and recorded traditional Chinese music by Hasilu. It was an enchanting climax of the performance with dialogue spoken in Mandarin, interpreted by Hichem Meghriche as The Translator.
The expedition trekked over the treacherous Taklimakan Desert into Persia, which was another dance and carpet opportunity, with ‘sumptuous silk costumes in gorgeous oriental hues’ to embellish the poetry of Hafez, Rumi and Omar Khayam.
A nostalgic memory of Venice allows for some fine 18th century Italian velvet ball-gowns to adorn masked dancers in Italian opera classics, and then a rousing and jubilant welcome-home celebration in Baalbeck. Here the beautiful voice of Huda Haddad as Timur’s mother recalls the lyrical warmth of Lebanon’s Fairouz in what should have been the end of a spectacular show.
But a changed ending for the 2017 Muscat audience allowed for some patriotic songs, composed especially for this production in a protracted Finale which stretched the programme another 10 minutes, with colloquial references to the people of Oman. Saturday afternoon’s audience was commendably attentive and patient considering a sound system mal-function during Act 1 caused another 10-minute hiatus.
“Sailing Through Time” blends the combined skills of the Caracalla family – Artistic Director Abdel Halim designed the costumes, scenery and music while his daughter Alissar is the Choreographer and son Ivan is the current Director. Omar Caracalla made a guest appearance as a Folk dancer towards the end and Abdel Halim himself took a curtain call. It forges a new language in dance by merging Western and oriental techniques to build bridges. Caracalla has become the most prominent and professional dance theatre in the Middle East, integrating elements of contemporary dance with distinctive Arabic traditions to create their unique genre.
The virtual Scenographer, Lighting, Set and Projection Designers all hail from Italy, and Music Supervisor, Maestro M. Reza Aligholi, is a well known film composer from Tehran, resulting in a truly ‘glorious inter-cultural achievement’ for which Muscat is the richer. A tighter, less indulgent structure, however, would better result in a production of international proportions for the next Caracalla theatrical-musical collaboration.