Arts: Giant steps

Throughout the civil war in Lebanon, Caracalla kept the spirit of the dance alive. But can Beirut's current cultural revival survive the rebirth of Muslim fundamentalism? By Michael Church
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The new Beirut now arising from the rubble is a forest of neon promising a brighter and better tomorrow. With food, fashion, and the delights of suburbia; comfortable homes and contented kids. Assad may beam down from every wall, and Syrian guns command every street, but the home-grown signs suggest a nation looking actively to its future. Mission: Impossible is showing, but it's too soon for showbiz glitz. There's just one gaudy ad to be seen by the approach-roads to the city, proclaiming Elissa: Queen of Carthage, performed by the Caracalla Dance Theatre.

Their auditorium is packed the night I go, as it has been every night for the past 10 months. The show begins with an ancient, quizzical figure in a Sinbad robe opening a vast book out of which spills a troupe of dancers in splendid apparel. The tale they tell - in a combination of mime and Martha Graham - is of the original Dido, tragic daughter of the King of Tyre, who chose to immolate herself rather than marry without love. The show is rounded off with a cleverly choreographed explosion of folk-dance, which the audience cheer to the rafters. No metropolitan cynicism here: just volcanic energy, and burning conviction.

Button-holing punters in the interval, I get the same comments time and again. It's the best show in town - the only thing worth going to - these dancers are heroes. One family, decked out as gorgeously as anyone on stage, is on holiday from the Israeli-occupied south, and is relishing the company's walk-tall patriotic message. But when the fans cluster round for autographs at the end, they're not after the dancers' signatures. What they want is the signature of the intense, power-packed man who has conceived both the show and the company itself.

Thirty years ago, Abdel-Halim Caracalla was Lebanon's champion pole-vaulter; during the country's 15-year civil war, he became its cultural champion. For, apart from the conflict's first year, during which he was paralysed with horror along with everyone else, he and his troupe never stopped performing. Like the Windmill girls in London's blitz, they literally dodged the bombs on their way to work.

"During the war," says Caracalla, "everyone was constantly on the move, looking for safety. So I decided we would be on the move, too, following wherever the audience was." And it was this mobility - plus a topical re-working of Romeo and Juliet - that made him a legend. "Playing in every sector, we constantly had to cross the battle lines. If we had to move from the Christian sector to the Muslim one, Christian soldiers would hand us over to their Muslim counterparts at the boundary. And they in turn would hand us on to the Druze militiamen, if that was our next stop. It was as though the hatreds of war were temporarily lifted for us. As though the people who were killing each other every day had said, 'Let's be OK to Caracalla. Let him survive.' "

But things weren't always so smooth, as Caracalla's son, Ivan - in the company from the age of six - recalls. In what turned out to be one of the opening salvos of the war, a car carrying him and his mother plus two other women was suddenly fired on: he got off with minor injuries but one of their passengers was paralysed, and the other killed. The company's longest-serving member is a highly strung dancer called Francois Rahme whose route to his calling was paved with grief. It's not a story he enjoys telling - you have to drag it out of him - but this is the gist: he was obsessed from his infancy with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and took dancing lessons from one of his two older sisters; all three were travelling together when their car was hit by gunfire - both girls were killed by the same bullet. He was 10, and didn't dance again until he was 16. "The war," he says simply, "was awful. No fun at all."

Tania Haroun - the current show's Dido - went to study in Paris when war broke out, and never intended to work in a battlefield. "I was back home visiting my parents in 1983, and went to a Caracalla show purely out of curiosity. And I couldn't believe that Beirut could produce anything so good, so professional. I took classes with them, and stayed. I found that dance was an escape from all the bad things of war. When you are on stage you always feel good, no matter what is bothering you in real life."

On the other hand, the quizzical gent in the Sinbad robe confounds all expectation. Bert Stimmel is a tiny, sprightly 76-year-old who hails from Ohio, had a gilded career as a West End choreographer in the Fifties, and has worked with Caracalla for 30 years. His Beirut flat was blown to hell in the war, but his only comment is a gentle shrug. "I flew in the Second World War and my B-17 crashed in the North Sea, so I've no problem with danger here." This figure in Caracalla's Phoenician frieze speaks with a dreamy Southern courtesy: disparate worlds were never more strangely linked.

Listening to these dancers talk, and watching them in class with the maestro, one is struck by the awe in which they hold him. Whatever one thinks of his work - and it doesn't please all tastes - Caracalla is that genuine article, a truly charismatic visionary. He acquired his vision - following a noble tradition - in the Roman temples at his home town of Baalbek. "I was watching the world's great companies come to perform at the annual festival, and I suddenly thought - why doesn't Lebanon have its own dance theatre? So I went to study in London, to reveal the dream."

"London" meant the Martha Graham-based London School of Contemporary Dance, and he's kept faith with its aesthetic ever since. His grand aim was to create a fusion of occidental and oriental styles, and thus to give the Arab world a new form. He trawled the Middle East with his camera and recorder, storing his finds in an archive which he will - "at the right time" - donate to the Lebanese government. "It will be the past speaking to the future." He's set up a school for young dancers, from which his company is drawn.

One of his resident composers is a voluble polymath called Walid Gholmieh, who is president of the Beirut conservatoire. Gholmieh's current crusade is to persuade the state to fund a symphony orchestra. "But each time I win the argument, something happens to prevent it - a war on the southern border, or the Israelis shelling Beirut." The orchestra, he says, will be primarily devoted to the performance of Lebanese music. But how much indigenous symphonic music is there? "Not much yet," he agrees, "but once we have an orchestra, it will come. We have the composers already - the problem is that they are in the States or in Europe. We want them back."

When he took over the conservatoire in 1991, it was in very bad shape, with its buildings looted and burned, and 56 professors teaching a mere 48 students. Now 215 professors teach 3,500 students, and he proudly reels off their specialisms: 700 pianists, 350 violinists, 40 cellists, 300 woodwind, 300 opera singers, 500 oriental-music singers...

Wonderful, but what opportunities await them? His face falls. "Your question is quite... delicate. Music in the Arab world is not easy these days. The Islamic conception of music is not favourable to it as a career." He is too diplomatic to say it, but the truth is that even in Lebanon, music is being systematically snuffed out by Muslim fundamentalism. A Beirut television programme for spotting musical talent cruelly reflects the situation: 10 years ago, 60 per cent of the entrants were Muslim, now the figure is five per cent.

Local enthusiasts long to reinstitute the Baalbek festival, but "political interests" regularly foil their attempts. And you only have to sniff the air in the streets to understand why: this Hezbollah stronghold in the Bekaa valley exudes the same dour severity to be found in the Hezbollah area of Beirut. Opera queens - and concert pianists - would just not fit the picture. The old Baalbek, as one conductor sadly said to me, is dead.

Yet, in other places, the cultural scene is humming. Beirut does not yet have a proper hall, but events take place in a wide variety of improvised venues, often at the instigation of the foreign centres conspiring to help Lebanon recover. Next month, the British Council will open a second office in Beirut: it had planned two excellent contributions to the cultural feast this year, but both had to be cancelled because of the Israeli attack. That peace process had better get moving again, fast.

Caracalla Dance Company perform 'Elissa: Queen of Carthage' 12-16 Nov, Peacock Theatre, London WC2. Booking: 0171-314 8800