Ballet Stars

#TBT: Magda Saleh, Egypt's First Prima Ballerina (1970)

Magda Saleh in "La Bayadere." Photo Courtesy Saleh.

When you think of Egypt, you might not immediately associate it with ballet. But during the late 1950s and 1960s, the country worked hard to establish its own world-class ballet company. With the help of the Soviet Union, Egypt's then minister of culture Dr. Tharwat Okasha established Cairo's Higher Institute of Ballet in 1958, bringing in teachers from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy to train the country's first generation of ballet stars. In 1963, five female students from the Institute's inaugural class were invited to finish their training with the Bolshoi in Moscow.

One of them, Magda Saleh, would become Egypt's first prima ballerina, and go on to perform with the Bolshoi and Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballets as a guest artist during her career. "Young girls in Egypt live a very sheltered life, and even to be studying ballet was exceptional," Saleh said in a phone interview last week. Their time studying abroad in Cold War-era Moscow was "character forming," she says. "Life was tough then for the majority of Russians, but it became very helpful for us during our careers, where we had to overcome many obstacles." In 1966, shortly after the women returned, the Cairo Ballet Company produced its first ballet, Boris Asafiev's Fountain of Bakhchisarai, in which Saleh starred. The performance was enormously successful, and for the next several years the new company enjoyed an exciting golden era.

Film clip courtesy of "A Footnote in Ballet History?"


The above clip of Saleh in The Nutcracker is one of the only preserved recordings of her dancing—and her Russian training is undeniable. In true Bolshoi style, she dances fully and fearlessly, eating up the space around her with gusto. Her grand jetés are both powerfully high and light as a cat, and she attacks the variation's quick transitions with laser precision. And I especially love her Spanish flair during a sweeping passage of ballonés and deep lunges (starting at 0:44). Indeed, at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's graduation performance, Saleh notes proudly that she and her fellow Egyptians were singled out as the best class in character dance.

Saleh's story is the subject of A Footnote in Ballet History?, a documentary directed by Hisham Abdel Khalek. It follows her and other founding members of the Cairo Ballet Company through its formative years, as well as the difficulties they faced as war, social pressures (especially for women), and the 1971 fire that destroyed the company's opera house forced many to leave Egypt or end their careers. As the school and company went into decline, Saleh moved to the U.S. to study modern dance, earning a masters degree from UCLA and a PhD from NYU on Egypt's ethnic dance traditions. She returned to Cairo in the 1980s, where she briefly served as dean of the Higher Institute of Ballet and then as the founding director of the new Cairo Opera House. She now lives in New York City, where she works to present Egyptian art to American audiences. "I'm a big believer in the benefits of culture for building bridges, nationally and internationally," she says. "I've witnessed the effects, so I know it works and brings people closer together."

From the Horses Mouth, a legacy-based dance theater project, is honoring Saleh next week in a special program at the 14 Street Y in New York City (March 15-18). Among the performances and events will be a screening of A Footnote in Ballet History? on March 13, as well as Egypt Dances, a 1977 documentary narrated by and starring Saleh, on March 17. For more information, click here. Happy #TBT!

Ballet Careers
Sisters Isabella Shaker and Alexandra Pullen. Photo Courtesy Alexandra Pullen.

This is the second in a series of articles this month about ballet siblings.

My mom was in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. A generation later, so was I. As if that's not enough for one family, my younger sister Isabella Shaker dreams of following in our dancing footsteps. Her endeavor, and her status as somewhat of a child prodigy, stirs feelings of pride and apprehension within me, since I have lived through the ups and downs of this intense yet rewarding career.

Ballet will always be my first love and the thing that brings me the most joy, and my dance career has opened endless opportunities for me. However, it's a difficult career path that requires a lifelong dedication. It's super competitive and can lead to body image issues, physical injury and stress. Most dancers will face some of these problems; I definitely dealt with all three.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Jayme Thornton

It's National Bullying Prevention Month—and Houston Ballet breakout star Harper Watters is exactly the advocate young dancers facing bullying need. Watters is no novice when it comes to slaying on social media, but his Bullying Prevention Month collaboration with Teen Vogue and Instagram is him at his most raw, speaking about his own experiences with bullies, and how his love of dance helped him to overcome adversity. Watters even penned an incredible op-ed for Teen Vogue's website, where he talks candidly about growing up queer. Catch his amazing anti-bullying video here—and, as Watters says, "Stay fabulous, stay flawless, stay flexible, but most importantly, stay fearless."

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News
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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