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Gilded Serpent presents...
Interview with
Mahmoud Reda
Part 1: The Beginning

June 19, 2003
Transcribed by Karima

Karima's note- "In June, 2003, I was privileged to assist Morocco in the videotaping of the following interview with Mahmoud Reda, the founding director of the Reda Troupe

When we arrived for the interview, Mahmoud Reda purposely had on his computer screen one of his favorite all-time movie segments to show us:  a dance by Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire in “On The Town,” where they are dancing with Ann Miller in a museum setting and doing a takeoff on imagined Neanderthal cave-man dancing.  It was clear that his enthusiasm for one of his original sources of inspiration, Hollywood musicals, had not at all dimmed over the years.  He seemed to want to make sure that we understood how this early fascination with the American musical form sustained and nurtured his desire to dance, and later propelled him to want to present the essence of Egypt in this way in theatrical form.  Perhaps I should not have been surprised. After all, his legacy is dance stars known for their theatrically creative (rather than strictly traditional) dance styles.

At once warm, enthusiastic, yet incredibly modest about his achievements, Mr. Reda charmed us for over an hour with the story of how his dance troupe began.  He shared openly about the various inspirations for his choreographies, and how he shaped and enhanced things for the stage.

I hope you will find this interview as delightful as I did.   I felt honored to be in the presence of a man of dance who brims with creativity."--Karima Nadira

Q:  Did you dream about being a dancer as a young boy?

A:  Maybe — yes and no.  What I was interested in, what took my activity, was sports at the beginning.   Of course, I went to school like everybody, primary school, secondary school and university, and during this time I started with swimming.  Swimming was my passion.  I never thought that I would stop swimming but I stopped because I found it monotonous. The training takes time.  You go and come and go; you want to do like 2000 or 3000 meters, so it takes all day, and during practice you think about — what?  I found it monotonous.  However, I took championships under the age of 16 in Cairo and all of Egypt.

Then I switched to diving which I was also good at.  My specialty was 10 meters, top from 10 meters, until I had an accident with my back making 2 and one half somersaults.  I hurt my back so I had to stop.

Next I switched to gymnastics.  During this time, I was also interested in dancing; I happened to see that my brother Ali was dancing. 

During the Second World War, we had many soldiers from different parts of the world in Cairo, like Americans, English, Greeks and Australians, and in their spare time they used to dance. 

The style at this time was, you know, Rock ‘n Roll, Swing, Samba, and Rhumba, and Ali was very good at these dances; so I watched.  I was young: --15 or 16.  I admired what he was doing, but I was busy with my sports and studies!

rhumbaI started dreaming of dancing, and it replaced the gymnastics.  Gymnastic also took a lot of my energy and thinking and dreams, but during the gymnastic period we had a trainer from Switzerland, and when he saw that I was dancing a little bit, he told me, why don’t you put some of your dancing steps in the free exercise of gymnastic.  I was the first in Egypt to do this, and he was very happy with this.  Anyway, I started dreaming about dancing when I stopped gymnastics.

olymipic poster from 1952Q:  Was all your training in Egypt?

A:  My gymnastics training? Yes, it was in Egypt.  I represented Egypt in the Olympic Games in 1952 in Helsinki.

Q:  Wonderful!  When and why did you get your inspiration to start your dance company?

A:  Yes, that’s a big story!  (Laughs)

My first inspiration was my brother.  Then came the time of the American musicals; that was the 50’s:  Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly starred in these movies.  I used to see the same movie, maybe 30 times.  Every single night I went, even when I had exams, I’d take my book and sit in the lounge of the Metro Cinema, for example, and study during the first part – not the movie but the cartoons and the news – but once I heard the movie start, I’d close my book and go.  If I learned something, I’d try it on the street at night, in the dark street, like this. I’d try before I could forget.  So, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were my inspiration. Really!

What I learned from them, I didn’t use in my work.  I used the art, not specific steps,

because I’m doing Egyptian Folklore anyway.  Then with my gymnastic ability, (you know; I had fitness!) I could move very well.  I discovered I could learn from movies, although you have to reverse the moves you see: left to right, and right to left. 

Argentinean danceI was busy with my University studies and exams.  On the last year of my exams, there was a group from Argentina, a dance group, performing someplace at the Pyramid Street, I don’t know if it’s now there or not, and I went to watch.  I liked them very much.   They were very, very good!  I went to shake hands and congratulate Alario; he was called Alfredo Alario.  He asked me, “Do you dance?”  I said “Yes!”  “Show me.”  So, I showed him a step from Fred Astaire, a step from Ali Reda, a jump from gymnastic.  They needed a dancer, so they chose me.

I performed with them in Cairo, Alexandria, Rome and Paris.  Then the idea came to me: I’m dancing Argentinian folklore.  Why not dance Egyptian Folklore? 

Therefore, the idea started there in Paris, and then I left the Argentinean group.  I came back to Cairo with the idea of starting my own folkloric troupe.

Q:  In what year did you start the company? 

A:  When I came back from Paris it was 1955.  I engaged; I was in love and, I felt, had to marry.  She was Farida’s older sister -- 5 years older than Farida.  At this time, (1955 means I was 25 years old) Farida was 15. 

So it went like this:  We were supposed to fall in love, Farida and me, because everybody was asking “Is Mahmoud Farida’s husband?” 

Confusion!  However, as I told you, she was 15 and her sister was 20.  So Farida’s older sister was just suitable for me – she was 20 and I was 25.  We met in the sporting club, and we fell in love; so when I went back from Paris, I had a plan to marry.  I could not wait to start the group, but I had to work just anywhere to make some money.  Being married without money is not good.  I worked as an accountant at the Shell Petrol Company, and they transferred me to Suez, so it took me a longer time to start my group.  Anyway, when I came back from Suez, I started, and August 6, 1959, was our opening: The Reda Troupe.

Q:  Where did you open, at what theater?

A:  That was a problem!  The problems we had when we started, and the problems we have now, funny enough, are with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.  That shouldn’t happen.  The Ministry of Culture should be of help, not a source of problems.  But anyway, they had control of all the theaters, so to find a theater we must go to them, but they gave us problems.  I don’t know why; maybe they were jealous! 

Ours is a private troupe, and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture wanted to have its own troupe.  

I think this is it, because after our opening, a few years after, they started their own troupe: The Kawmiyya Troupe.  Anyway, it was an open air theater, in August.  It doesn’t exist now; it was called Al Ezbekiyya Teatru, means “in Al Ezbekiyya Gardens.”  They gave us only 10 days, and then when we were successful, we continued a month or so.  This was the beginning.

Q:   Did you do this alone or were there others who helped you organize the troupe?

A: You can never do a project like this like this alone.  I knew only how to dance, choreograph, and teach, but theater needs artists, singers, musicians, and an organization, so one of the first people who helped me – the pioneers of the Reda Troupe – was Ali Reda, my brother, because at this time he was assistant director in the movies. 

And he knew most of the artists through the movies, so he knows the set designers, musicians, and nearly everybody, so he helped bring me these people:

someone to do the set, to design, somebody to do the lighting.  I didn’t know anything about lighting or design, or…  Therefore, it was Ali Reda first.

Others were as follows:  Farida’s father helped a lot in his capacity as a University professor.  We learned from him. (He is a professor anyway; we learned other things than the dance art.)  As a professor, he knew another professor in University of Engineering, planning, and things like that, and being a professor (and the father of the dancer) helped by giving importance to this kind of art, because at this time, the reputation of art was not good; and art is dance and dancers.  We had problems!  This was one of our first problems.  If we talk about problems then we must talk about this.

Then, the musician, the composer, Ali Ismail… he has since passed away.  He was a genius, and he was introduced to my brother, Ali Reda.  He was a genius in composing and directing and collecting the musicians. 

Farida’s sister, Nadida, (the sister I married) designed the first costumes for our first performance.  Nadida passed away because she had a rheumatic heart.  We were married about 5 years; then she died.  Our marriage was a mixture of wonderful things and sad situations. All life was in our troupe.  Life is sad and happy.

Q:  Besides you and your brother Ali, were there any other people in your family who had music or dance talent?

A:  They all had talent, but as amateurs.  My father was a religious Muslim.  He wrote many books about Islam, about the Prophet, but he used to like to play the oud, and my sister played piano.  Two of my elder brothers played violin.  My younger brother, 10 years younger, went to the music Institute and he graduated as a composer. 

Originally, I lived in a family of 12 people: father, mother, and 10 brothers and sisters.

Q:  How wonderful; you always had playmates!

A:  Yes, yes, this was good because I was near the middle, --nearer to the end, actually. I learned from everybody, and I had help from my brothers and sisters.

Q:  That’s wonderful!  Who were your first dancers, aside from Farida Fahmy, and where did you find them?

A:  Because I married Farida’s sister, I became a member of her family; and I actually lived with them in the beginning — in the same house.  Farida grew up – she was 15 when I first met her, and then when she was 18 or 19, and she was going to ballet school, children’s ballet schools, and she was good.  Farida was the first dancer.

We needed dancers to start the troupe.  We didn’t have dancers.  We had some dancers to work in the nightclubs or the movies, but everyone was different.  First of all older people and then everyone has his own style, one doing acrobat, one doing tap dance, one doing whatever.  They are not the style of dancers that you need to have in your group.  You need dancers who look the same, who have the same style and the same technique. 

So, I brought from the sports clubs male dancers whom I knew from there, like for example, Mo Geddawi; you know about Mo Geddawi.  Like me, Mo was a diver, but younger.  He had no idea about dance, but as doing dance, and taking instructions: right and left, or fast and slow.  Therefore, we chose him.  People liked our choice.  In the beginning, we had 7 men; we started with 7 men and 7 women.

Finding the women was a bigger problem, because of the (as I said) reputation of the dance; what family will give you their daughters?

Q:  Exactly.

A:  Once I was in a taxi, I ask the taxi driver, “What would you do if your daughter wanted to join a dance troupe?”  He said, “I would kill her!” 

So, this is a big problem; we were happy with any girl who agrees to dance with us.  We were not very choosy.  At the beginning, we were not very choosy.  We accepted good ones and half-half, just to start, to open.  I started teaching from scratch, from zero.  So, apart from Farida, this is when we had 7 men and 7 women.

8-19-05 Interview with Mahmoud Reda Part 2: The Troupe by Morocco
So what I call my choreography is not folkloric. It’s inspired by the folkloric.

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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