A conversation between Ben Cunis of Synetic Theater and Ivan Caracalla of Caracalla Dance Theater of Lebanon
Caracalla is, by all accounts, a phenomenon. Founded in 1968 by Abdel Halim Caracalla, the Lebanese dance-theater has toured all over the world, bringing its unique fusion of Middle-Eastern dance styles and Martha Graham’s developments in the form to international audiences. Their current production, Zayed and the Dream, will play for two sold-out performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on July 15th and 16th.
Zayed and the Dreamtells the story of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the United Arab Emirates. The dances portray his birth, and his receipt of seven virtues, his planting of the “stars of glory” in the desert which unite his people into prosperity.
Touring the massive production required the acquisition of 130 visas for the artistic and technical staff. It took a year and a half to put the show together, and over the four years of its running and touring it has been continually changed and updated.
I had the chance to sit down with Ivan Caracalla, the director of Zayed and the Dream and son of the company’s founder, and learn about the philosophy and growth of this remarkable company over the past 40 years. A soft spoken man, he speaks with a quiet intensity born of a fierce dedication to his art, family, and company. He believes strongly in the role of his family’s company as a way to promote cultural dialogue between nations.
“The best way to bring down obstacles and to promote understanding is through arts and culture,” he says, praising the Kennedy Center for its 2009 Arab Arts Festival as a shining example. “We represent the Oriental heritage in a way that really contradicts what is typically depicted in the media.”
“It is a symbol of Lebanon, it is a symbol of national pride, even a symbol of Arab pride,” he says of the company. “It is no longer just a dance company, it is an institution. We have over 50 dancers who are professional dancers, they have no other jobs. We have our own theater, we are the only dance company in the Middle East who has their own theater named after them. We have our own dance school with over 1200 students.”
To understand just how remarkable this accomplishment is, one has to look at the culture of the arts in the Middle East. Says Ivan, “In the Middle East, dance is not taken very seriously. A parent may take their child to the dance studio but by the time they’re 18 or 19 they will tell them to pull out, saying, okay, it’s time to be serious now.
This is different from the East — in China, for example, if there is a dancer in the family, this is a prize, it is a great honor. Before Caracalla, if you went to the Middle East, the role of a dancer was not a very prized job, but in the past 40 years things have actually changed. If a dancer becomes part of Caracalla they are respected…It is wonderful that we have changed the point of view.”
Perhaps much of the company’s success can be attributed to its ability to balance traditional Middle Eastern dance forms with modern choreographic techniques, resulting in what has become known as the “Caracalla Style”. Abdel Halim Caracalla studied under Martha Graham in London before returning to Lebanon and forming the company that bears his name, and according to his son he spent 30 years researching and spending time with the various Arab cultures that color the Middle East, taking their folklore and traditions and infusing them into his own work.
“If you take folklore, any folklore, it’s fantastic. It’s interesting because it’s you. But after five to ten minutes it becomes repetitive. He [Abdel Halim] was able to recognize that… Caracalla is taking folklore a step further.” Indeed, the Caracalla style is the most popular style taught in their school of 1300 students. “Classical is required. Modern, jazz, hip-hop, and then there is the Caracalla style, the disciplined folklore. How to balance between your spirit and your mind and your body. How to balance that and how to perform it through the discipline of the dance.”
Discipline and dedication were frequent topics in our conversation – indeed, the recognition of the arts as a discipline that requires regular dedication and time is a challenge to prove in any culture – whether in our own, where material fame and talent are often disassociated from dedication and discipline, or in the Middle Eastern culture, where the majority of arts takes the form of traditional dances and music, subsidiary to celebrations such as weddings.
In Caracalla, discipline is paramount. “He runs the company like an army — but at the same time his company is his family. One thing we lack a lot in the Middle East is discipline. He was able to take the discipline he learned from professional dance training and apply it to these folkloric, traditional dances.”
It is this development of a particular style that differentiates Caracalla from any other dance company, as well as its identity as an ambassador of Arab culture.
The company has grown and changed over its four decades of existence. “If I view a production from 1978 and compare it to today, it’s a very different focus on the production. It started as a focus on the choreography, it was pure choreography. Then we developed choreography, adding costumes, then set, then lighting. Now the directing came into play — the order of the scenes, how to give the dancers the edge on the choreography, adding acting.
We went from Caracalla Dance, to Caracalla Dance Company, to Caracalla Dance Theater.” Indeed, the company has become known not only for traditional dance productions but for its dance-theater adaptations of Shakespearean works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew. I was struck by the parallels (as well as significant differences) between the development of this company and DC’s own Synetic Theater (of which I am a company member). While there is definitely a more traditional dance focus to Caracalla, I enjoyed talking with Ivan about the challenges and joys of working with a “synthesis” art form.
Ivan was quick to praise the Kennedy Center. “The Kennedy Center is a beautiful place, not just in terms of the architecture but in terms of the dedication of the people working there…The people at the KC are outstanding, dedicated, authentic, sincere. They’re not dealers, they’re not petty. They have a big heart, and they have Michael Kaiser at the head.”
Ivan’s idealism and hopefulness certainly pervaded our interview, and this is very much an attitude handed down from his father. In the London program of Zayed and the Dream, Abdel Halim is quoted as saying, “If the mind believes that truth, ideals of the righteousness and the image of beauty are our guiding light in our journey through time, then arts is hereby the keeper of these ideals.”
I asked Ivan what he would hope an audience will come away with after seeing Caracalla. He said “I want them to say, I had no idea Lebanon had such an artistic company.”
Again emphasizing Caracalla’s mission as an ambassador of culture, he added “there’s a huge difference between the ruling governments and the people. I would like the people to discover the people, not via the media, not via politics, but from the people to the people.”