Scratchy cabaret tunes competing with the incessant chatter of the filmstrip, sepia-toned light casting a parchment-colored glow over angular, art nouveau backdrops, captions flitting below the oriental figures jittering across the stage. This is the world of 1920s silent film as seen through revered Lebanese choreographer Walid Aouni’s nostalgic lens in “The Tale of the Virgin Butterfly, previewed at the Arabic Music Institute last week as part of the 20th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater.
“The Tale of the Virgin Butterfly, described as a “new experiment trying to go beyond dance theater, resurrects the wonderfully simple melodrama as well as the aesthetic mastery of the age of silent film, specifically the Egyptian film industry, drawing on the history of Emad Al-Din Street – the entertainment headquarter of the era – and the glamorous, internationally renowned Casino Corssale, which drew the likes of legendary French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt and iconic Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in its heyday.
“It is a story of a silent movie in black and white, writes Aouni, “[and] this lost art . depended on acting and body language as expression of eyes and movement of lips were more significant than words and sound.
Visually, “Virgin Butterfly is nothing short of stunning. The action takes place behind a transparent screen, on which light from a projector flickers in patterns resembling aged cinema film, black splotches throughout, fuzzy edges, seemingly backlit. The dancers move in broken, rapid gestures, exaggerating flares of passion and dismay.
Thematically, the story of “Virgin Butterfly – written by Aouni, told through captions – is heavy with melodrama, reveling in the “personification of human emotions like love, hate, revenge, jealousy, poverty, wealth, crime, drugs, tears, joy, war, peace.
Zara, a peasant girl, falls in love with the local Don Juan, a man named Metwally. Zara flees to Cairo when her father, falsely accused of killing Metwally, goes to prison. Zara tries and fails to work as a nurse in Cairo.
Luckily, her angelic voice attracts the attention of Monsieur Delbani when he finds her singing for pennies in the Azbakiyah Garden. Monsieur Delbani, owner of the Casino Corssale, immediately tells Zara, “I am going to make you the most famous singer in Egypt. Zara takes the stage name Habiba, and she does, in fact, become the most famous singer in Egypt. Through the course of the story, she has her reputation ruined and recovered; she goes to prison for a murder she did not commit, and then receives a pardon; she loses one love and rejects another. At the penultimate moment, Zara finds herself socially stranded in Cairo. She is emotionally exhausted, friendless in a sea of people. “But there is always the happy ending, Aouni told Daily News Egypt, flashing a boyish smile. In the end, Zara decides to try her hand at nursing, leaving with a hopeful suitor – Captain Anwar, the story’s anti-occupation hero – for adventure as an army nurse on the “frontier.
“I don’t know if there was a war or not during that epoch, Aouni admits, “but it doesn’t matter. There is always the frontier.
“Virgin Butterfly takes viewers to the frontiers of collective memory and myth, evoking what Aouni calls the “historical smell of a simpler, more romantic era when the world was as easy to understand as the script of a silent film. Of course, the world, as experienced by individuals, has never been easy to understand, and the foundations of melodrama depend on severe oversimplification. We seek melodrama both in our own lives and culturally, and when we oversimplify, fitting our world to little more than a silent film script, our self-aggrandizing becomes immediately apparent. It is in this capacity that “Virgin Butterfly is much more than a charming period piece -it is a call to confront our own self-scripted melodramas, and it is an indictment of the foolhardy tendency to think of ourselves as uniquely modern, progressive, evolved. Gazing at Aouni’s beautiful stagecraft – actors, sounds, and sets raised from the grave of theatrical history – viewers feel like museum goers, bearing witness to a bizarre and bygone age, somehow preserved for posterity.
While certainly a living testament to the golden age of silent film, “Virgin Butterfly is not for the museum. Rather, Aouni insists, the production shows that, “Nothing has changed since then. We were in a period without liberty then, we are in a period without liberty now. The starkest difference between the silent world and the present lies in how people have become addicted to the instantaneity of television, and according to Aouni, today’s theater audiences “lack the imagination to travel far.
Though “Virgin Butterfly profits from well-oiled motifs, and from a visual register that is exotic precisely because it is so familiar in the collective memory, Aouni hopes to “make the audience discover something unknown to them instead of “things the audience always acknowledged and expected. Last week, before a packed house, Walid Aouni listened with glee while audience members shouted and cheered as the comfortably predictable scenes unfolded before them. Perhaps the audience’s energy was the result of discovering “something unknown, or perhaps it was the joy of rediscovery. “The Tale of the Virgin Butterfly will run for six days at the Arabic Music Institute in February 2009, then Aouni hopes to travel with the show.