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.