Dancer and choreographer, Suraya Hilal’s creativity innovation and theatrical work have brought a new dance and music culture into view in the contemporary world. Today, the totality of her creative work, choreography and teaching is called Hilal Dance.
Suraya Hilal was born in Cairo, where as a child, dancing in family celebrations was a normal part of life. Dance continued to feature strongly in her student days as she later studied Psychology and Special Education at university in the USA. As a student, she also gave lectures, demonstrations and presentations on Middle Eastern dance and began studying contemporary dance and eastern forms, including Indian and Afro-American at the Catherine Dunham School.
After graduating from university, she left America and travelled extensively in the Middle East and North Africa, studying and researching Egyptian and traditional dances. Her experiences in the US had given her new tools and fresh perspectives and renewed her interest in research and analysis of movement and traditions.
Launching a career as solo artist
Suraya Hilal began her performance career in the early ‘80s as a solo artist, when she moved to Oxford and then London. She first performed her work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1980 and 1982. From this beginning onward, Suraya Hilal’s work progressed rapidly, and continued to receive tremendous media coverage and critical documentation. Throughout the 80’s, with the help of small grants from the British Arts Council, Suraya continued to perform her solo work with recorded music accompanied by a percussionist in small theatres all over Britain. At the same time, Suraya’s creative impulses lead her to innovation and invention extending the traditional to unexplored territories. This is visible in all her work from the beginning up to the present. Along side performance, teaching was an important arena for creating and advancing her work.
This is what the critics first wrote at the Edinburgh Festival 1980 and 1983:
"Suraya Hilal is the spirit of dance and she has mastery of both performance and knowledge." The Daily Telegraph
"What Hilal has done is to master a technique of this style to perfection ... her treatment of this pre-Islamic style has its own purity and nobility, reflecting the ritualistic origins." The Scotsman
Suraya Hilal's career lead to a breakthrough; with her manager (at the time), Jennifer Carmen, she collaborated with a full Arab orchestra of eleven musicians in 1983 and then in 1985, with small grants from the Arts Council. These were sell-out performances first at the Commonwealth Institute and a five-night season at The Place Theatre; this was also the beginning of a long artistic relationship with the fine percussionist Ibrahim el Minyawi.
Throughout their work together, Ibrahim expanded and extended the boundaries of the traditional rhythms with complexity and refinement alongside Suraya’s progressions of the dance. Together, they shared a special relationship and chemistry in their work that continues to enrich their art until the present.
"The rapport between dancer and musicians was an added joy. Suraya Hilal is a choreographer of subtlety and high skill and a dancer of quality. An exhilarating evening ...
The Times, 1983 John Percival, at the Commonwealth Institute concert
The Musicians of the Nile & beginning of Company work…
In 1988, a share dream with Jennifer Carmen was realised. Suraya Hilal worked with nine folk Sai’di musicians from Luxor and their producer, Alain Weber and four dancers. She created Celebration of the Nile, which performed at the Womad Festival and the Almeida Theatre. Granada television produced a documentary on the work, called "The Return of the Desert Dancers". Also in the same years Hilal receive the Digital Equipment award and a Dance Umbrella Time Out Award in 1989. In 1986 Suraya Hilal also received a Greater London Arts Dance Award.
"The evening was dominated by swirling colour, curious sound and exhilarating movement…it had humour, exciting choreography and a wide range of emotional expression to commend it."
The Arts Guardian on the Celebration of the Nile, 1989
A major step forward was made from 1989-94, when the British Arts Council funded Suraya Hilal & Company to produce and tour the major cities in England. Jewels with the Layali El Sharqi Ensemble was created and premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. In 1990-91, Divine Rites was created; a diverse programme including the ritualistic Moulid, an inspired piece for four dancers, with the collaboration of a singer and the full Orchestra. The same programme included a classical piece called The Beloved. This toured in many venues in Britain including a season at the Sadler's Wells. The 1991 also brought another important creation, Rhythms of Cairo, a baladi programme, based on urban folk for seven musicians and four dancers performed at the Purcell Rooms, South Bank. It was then reworked into a longer programme of Colours of Cairo and was performed at Sadlers Wells and toured in Britain and Europe from 1992-94.
"Hilal’s versatility does not just depend on dance invention and physical discipline, it is also rooted in her authority as a performer. She can unite a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall in hushed concentration, then with a wave of the hand provoke a riotous clapping"
The Independent Judith Mackrell, on Jewels, 1989
"The audience exhale in unison as the other musicians strike up in celebration. Suraya Hilal is a unique phenomenon."
The Independent on Sunday, 1992 on Colours of Cairo
Television and Radio
Hilal’s work has been the subject of documentaries by Channel 4, ITV, the BBC and interviews on international television. One was a specially commissioned ten-minute piece made by director Terry Braun for BBC 2 the Late Show.
It was a unique choreographic and narrative piece interpreting the song of "al Atlal" by the legendary singer Um Koulthum. Hilal has also given many radio interviews, in particular at BBC World Radio and Woman’s Hour Radio 4.
Cross cultural collaboration and innovation
Throughout her profession, Suraya Hilal collaborated with composers, and musicians from different fields, not only Arab but also western and international dancers, artists and choreographers. Among these collaborations were:
- In 1984, Suraya Hilal worked with Polish choreographer and theatre director, Halina Witek in Holland. The result was the unique modern contemporary piece called Sahirah performed 5 nights in Eindhoven Holland.
- In 1988 through collaboration with Kathak and Flamenco artists, "Dance Mosaic" was produced and presented at The Place.
- In 1994, Suraya Hilal worked with the composer, Peter Chowdry’s seven-piece chamber orchestra where they produced a 35-minute modern contemporary piece called Journey to Light, which was a sold-out evening featured at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1995.
A special work created in Cairo
Suraya Hilal created Spirit of the Heart in Cairo, (1996) and premiered it at Queen Elisabeth Hall London (1997). The work is based on the inspiration of the voice with the unique and remarkable singer Ruh el Fuad and seven musicians who come from the original school of Baladi. Also, the collaboration with Egyptian/Armenian artist, Chant Avedissian in the costume design, brought an added authentic aesthetic. This was a milestone in Hilal’s work for it was the beginning of the creation of the Hilal Dance form.
"Hilal through her choreographies expresses the depth of Egyptian culture whether from the South or the North ..She has succeeded through movement to combine cultural/artistic expression with social mores."
Al Ahram, 1997
Suraya Hilal’s artistic career has always developed in parallel with an intense didactic activity of work. Through years of research in the field, Suraya has studied, documented and delved deep into the knowledge of the traditional dances of Egypt and the Arab world. With this research in dance and the connection to its music, she has redeveloped the technique, refined the aesthetic, and most of all, defined the three styles of dance:
- Sha’abi, the earthy, fiery dances of the Sa’id and the Fallahin of Upper Egypt
- Baladi, the urbanized dances of Cairo and Alexandria
- Sharqi, the Arab classical and courtly tradition
This effort of codifying a choreographic language from the Egyptian matrix is the basis of Suraya’s teaching activity which had began in London in the late ‘80s and has spread across Europe. This new language of dance has become the cultural reference for all those who, in various capacities, are involved in Egyptian dance in Europe and the Arab world. Suraya’s creative work and choreographic language evolving from solid cultural roots, has expanded the potential expression of Egyptian Dance, and has gone beyond the present Orientalist clichés giving rise to a genuine artistic movement. This new language, free from “geographic borders” encompassing traditional, modern and universal expression, has come to be known as Hilal Dance® from the year 2000.
Suraya Hilal once again, is attracting public and critical attention, as an avant-garde artist whose innovative theatrical work has managed to bring a new culture in the contemporary dance world.
The Hilal Dance School for ten years now, is continuing to expand its teaching through, the thematic workshops, residential courses, and professional training.(see Hilal Dance School)
Working with a new idiom
Al Janub, a coproduction with Tanzhaus nrw in 2002 is another important step in Hilal’s work, where the movement language of Hilal Dance began to take shape. Al Janub is a coherent integration of movement, music and archetypal imagery, bringing new meaning and a contemporary presence to Egypt’s Upper Egyptian rural dance traditions. This piece is dedicated to the authentic musical tribes of Upper Egypt, the Metqual family and their brothers, the Mohammad Murad family whose art upholds the last of a dying tradition. Suraya had worked closely with these special families in 1989, and now, she revisits the same ground in a new way.
"…Suraya Hilal, Marie al Fajr and Alessandro el Bascioni move through space with upright, elegant steps. Moods change with the music and the authentic, multi-layered garments, and the seemingly feather-light solos, duos and trios are filled with dramatic tension. The canon of movement of the dance is so rich and complex that the choreography dispenses with the use of scenery-and rightly so. Suraya Hilal has a love of the abstract, purist dance, which has at lease as much to relate as the tales from the 1001 Nights."
Westdeutsche Zeitung-B Trouwborst, Feb, 2002 Al Janub
Collaborating with Alessandro Bascioni
The collaboration with Alessandro Bascioni in 2004 brought the creation of Aseel where Suraya and Alessandro moved the Baladi form into new, modern territory. Working together with three excellent musicians, they premiered Aseel at the Tanzhaus nrw Duesseldorf, and reworked in 2005.
"In Khud w’hat, a duo performed by Hilal and Bascioni … the pair created what might perhaps be called harmony at a distance. The contact between the two remained limited to the eyes throughout, their bodies never touching. But the movements of the woman mirrored those of the man and vice versa, an unaffected, joyful cooperation evolved, no game of contradictions pressing for resolution".
Westdeutsche Zeitung 28.02.04
A guest appearance
In 2007 Suraya Hilal performed a dynamic solo piece on live rhythm with Ibrahim el Minyawi, appearing as a guest artist of the Iskandar Dance Company with the production, El Saqiyeh at the Sadler's Wells in London and at the IMA (Institute du Monde Arabe) in Paris.
"A guest appearance by Egyptian Suraya Hilal showed an earthier, more authentic quality in her solo – one step back to the folkloric roots of this dance form."
Dancing Time Magazine, Gerald Dawler 2007
Oscillations the 2008 latest creation
Suraya’s love and fascination for the Oud, the foremost musical instrument of the Arab world, lead her to the creation of Oscillations. The sounds of this instrument vibrate crystal clear notes of pure intellect and simultaneously, the wood resonates with the warmth of heart. After finding the work of the oud player Joseph Tawadros she began to work with Sarah Hamilton on a piece which took them on a journey of discovery within the deeper body language. Coupled by the clear and evocative sounds of the oud, the choreographies bring to light the essential elements of energy containment and minimalism in searching for a point of balance. Premiere at Rothebul Theatre in Stuttgart.
"El Mizan" a recent development & work in progress
El Mizan, encapsulates a distillation and the essence of movement with the clear and vibrant sound of classical instruments and the voice. The piece brings to life the complex music of 18th and 19th century Egyptian courtly heritage. In this collaboration Suraya Hilal and Alessandro Bascioni, bring together a classical trio of expert musicians, Emile Bassili on Violin, Gamil Awad on the Qanun, and Ibrahim el Minyawi on Req/ percussion and two other dancers, Sarah Hamilton and Alaitz Arregi. El Mizan, was premiered with Oscillations.
The work continuing…