National Troupe for Popular Arts to document local popular dance [Archives:2009/1228/Last Page]

January 26 2009
Photo from archived article: photos/1228/lastpage1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/1228/lastpage1_1
Ola Al-Shami
The development of local performance arts should receive more encouragement and by the Ministry of Culture, stresses Ali Al-Mohamadi, chairman of the National Troupe for Popular Arts in Sana'a.

Al-Mohamadi is well informed on the state of local performance arts in Yemen. He is the first Yemeni to have graduated with a Masters of the Art in Ballet Choreography, and was the choreographer for dancing breaks in the Ramadan children's dance competition that has been running on Yemeni television for the past ten years. In 1985, he received a Masters of the Arts in Ballet Choreography from the Higher Institute for Culture in the former Soviet Union, and in 1998 he was awarded a diploma in Popular Arts from the Arts Academy in Cairo.

Ali Al-Mohamadi, who is an expert at fusing professional ballet with traditional Yemeni dance, describes local performance arts as “dying”.

“We have many genres of music and dance in Yemen. There are about 45 dances including as Al-Haqfah from Tihamah, Al-Ettah from Hadramout, Al-Bara'a from Sana'a, and Al-Lewah from Aden, and at least five sorts of music including Al-Sana'ani from Sana'a, Al-Yafi'i from Yafi', Al-Hadrami from Hadramout, Al-Lahji from Lahj and Al-Adani from Aden. But we don't really appreciate this heritage,” he claims.

Arab and foreign researchers and historians agree that the Yemeni performance arts are among the oldest to appear in the South of Arabia.

Based in the Cultural Center in Sana'a, the National Troupe for Popular Arts was established in 1975 as a man-only troupe. After the unification in 1990, some women were allowed to join but they could not perform regularly because they were not given adequate support to overcome social restrictions. Al-Mohamadi's band was awarded third position in a competition in Bulgaria in 1990, and has since participated in shows in many countries including Oman, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Japan, the U.S. and Dubai.

However, recently work has not been as abundant as in previous years: “Performance art and musical performances are in decline and our troupe's activities have been affected. We now work on national occasions and this affects our productivity,” Al-Mohamadi complains.

The troupe's singers and dancers are not accurate representatives of their rich music and dance heritage because they do not receive enough support to develop their skills, says Al-Mohamadi.

“The artist suffers and he is still ignored by the government. For example, it doesn't help artists financially so that they can produce better,” he explains.

“Documenting the different kinds of dances in Yemen would certainly save local performance arts from dying out completely and accordingly save our cultural identity,” he says.

The documenting process would require traveling to every governorate to record existing dances, costumes and musical instruments, but there are still obstacles to carrying the project out.

“I have been running from one office to another in the Ministry of Culture trying to find support for this project of documenting local Yemeni dances for the past 15 years, but have received no practical response,” says Al-Mohamadi.

Fifteen years ago, there were other bands that were active in Hadramout and Aden which have since disappeared. Al-Mohamadi regards this as being he direct result of people's indifference and the government's lack of support.

When Khalid Al-Rowaishan headed the Ministry of Culture, more attention was paid to the country's performing artists, he nevertheless adds.

In 2004, Sana'a was awarded as the Capital of Arabic Culture. Al-Mohamadi recalled the activities organized at the time with a smile and says, “Khalid Al-Rowaishan paid special attention to music, dance and other performance arts even after 2004. This was the golden period of one or two years for the local performance arts in Yemen in my opinion.”

“The financial support provided to the artists and dancers during that period was of great effect on the quality of art produced during Al-Rowaishan's time,” he adds.

But, says Al-Mohamadi, Yemen appears to be the only country that lacks a stage where to perform dances or plays: “The hall in which I train the dancers is too small and uncomfortable, and we don't have a local stage in Sana'a as it is not considered to be necessary to promote the arts.”

Artists in Yemen face a lack of support in their endeavors as both official and non-official bodies ignore the value of arts and music in particular.

“There must be a root for studying music in Yemeni society, beginning in schools. We would certainly enrich the student's sensitivity if we had music as one of the main subjects taught in schools. Then, there are no institutes or even a faculty to study arts and music in Yemen. The government should take into consideration the absence of formal music education in Yemen which creates cultural problems and understanding of music and art roles.

When a singer comes to Yemen to give a concert he usually brings his musicians with him. Al-Mohamadi commented that the reason is that Yemen lacks what he called “note reader” musicians who are able to read written music and play it professionally.

“We don't have a local orchestra here and we are the only country without professional musicians who can interpret and play set of notes they are presented with,” he says.

He added that there seems to be no interest in training actual Yemeni musicians to do so as a matter of building on their skills

Al-Mohamadi concludes by emphasizing the need to mobilize efforts to develop musical studies in Yemen: “Artists or musicians cannot progress at all until they are given the chance to do so with the support of the government.”