It was 49 years ago that a male Egyptian ballet dancer last competed in the Prix de Lausanne, one of the most important ballet competitions in the world. The eighteen-year-old Luca Abdel-Nour immediately won three prizes this year: the audience prize and the silver medal of the competition, which enabled him to choose the company where he wants to develop as a professional dancer. That became the Junior Company of Dutch National Ballet. As the third trophy he received the prize for ‘the best Swiss candidate’.
Swiss? Abdel-Nour has a French mother and an Egyptian father, was born and raised in Cairo. The conservatory, Tanz Akademie Zürich, is Swiss, where he started working seriously on a career as a classical dancer as a fourteen-year-old adolescent far from his familiar environment. Many publications cannot resist the temptation and speak of ‘the Egyptian Billy Elliot’. That suggests a history that is more dramatic than reality. Abdel-Nour went to a private school in his hometown, which focused on art and culture. His mother put him on the trail of dance and his initially somewhat hesitant father was quickly convinced of the talent and future prospects for his offspring.
Abdel-Nour smiles resignedly and says via a shaky Zoom connection to Cairo: “Ah yes, Billy Elliot. next to the movie Black Swan that is one of the widely held clichés of the ballet world. Good for a nice newspaper headline. I think it’s fine.”
Now he has to make sure he keeps making those headlines. In that regard, the omens are favourable. Although he started late by ballet standards, at the age of twelve, his technical foundation is strong. “It also has advantages. For example, I don’t know whether I would still be dancing if I had started at age six or eight. Twelve may be late for some, still young for others. But that it would be too late is a myth. As long as you know what you want.”
And if the body cooperates, of course, and in that area too Abdel-Nour is lucky. He has beautifully long legs, which he effortlessly puts behind his ear, a strong supple back and feet with high insteps that would kill many a female colleague. The whispered comments from the jury in Lausanne, seen on YouTube, praise the way he uses his body during the basic exercises at the barre: total, masculine and elegant. Also are infectious presence pleased the judges. And then that name: Luca is derived from the Latin word for light, and Abdel-Nour is Arabic for ‘servant of the light’. A marketer couldn’t have come up with a better idea.
At the Junior Company he expects to be able to dot the i’s and cross some i’s. Because in addition to his strong points – nice lines, flexibility, he thinks – he thinks his jump could be better and his technique ‘cleaner’. He is looking forward to developing his dramatic qualities. “Technique is beautiful, but if you can also act, convey your pleasure … wow, I really love such dancers.”
Abdel-Nour had been eyeing the Amsterdam ‘springboard company’ for some time. Two years ago he took a class with it and he has some friends around. During the lockdown, he took a few lessons online from Ernst Meisner, his new boss. “Just before I went to Lausanne, I told a friend that if I won, the Junior Company would be my choice.”
The broad repertoire of Dutch National Ballet also attracts him. In Egypt – where ballet has been the subject of decades of political struggle – he was trained in the Russian style. The focus of the only ballet company, the Cairo Opera, is still very much on the Iron Repertoire from the 50s and 60s, when Egypt still had strong ties with the Soviet Union. After the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, who strongly opposed ballet.
It was feared that ballet would be banned, but in the summer of 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown and soldiers seized power in Egypt. Current president Al-Sisi is less opposed to ballet, although dance is still under discussion. Recently, a belly dancer was arrested and convicted of ‘debauchery’. Yet relatively recently there is also a contemporary ballet company. The current Minister of Art and Culture supports this development.
Nevertheless, there is still resistance to the men in classical dance in particular, because it is seen as a ‘girl thing’ and even as immoral and obscene by conservatives. That is also the tenor of the negative comments that Abdel-Nour mainly – unsurprisingly – reach via social media. “They should know. And as if the girls aren’t working hard! But the new generation is going to change that. The ballet community in Egypt is small, but it exists. And things are starting to shift. Partly because of the many boys who are engaged in dance through hip-hop, that helps. In addition, there are many more ballet studios today than when I was little; it is becoming established as a hobby.”
The hero status of a footballer like Mo Salah (Liverpool player) will not reach a ballet dancer in Egypt – which is equally unthinkable in the Netherlands. “But who knows, maybe ballet will change the world,” he says with a laugh.
For the time being, he is concerned with the near future in the Netherlands. Also in a practical sense: “Where am I going to do what, how am I supposed to get there. I study the map of Amsterdam.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 26, 2021