Magda Saleh, Egypt’s First Prima Ballerina (1970)
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.
The above clip of Saleh in The Nutcracker is one of the only preserved recordings of her dancing—and her Russian training is undeniable. In true Bolshoi style, she dances fully and fearlessly, eating up the space around her with gusto. Her grand jetés are both powerfully high and light as a cat, and she attacks the variation’s quick transitions with laser precision. And I especially love her Spanish flair during a sweeping passage of ballonés and deep lunges (starting at 0:44). Indeed, at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s graduation performance, Saleh notes proudly that she and her fellow Egyptians were singled out as the best class in character dance.
Saleh’s story is the subject of A Footnote in Ballet History?, a documentary directed by Hisham Abdel Khalek. It follows her and other founding members of the Cairo Ballet Company through its formative years, as well as the difficulties they faced as war, social pressures (especially for women), and the 1971 fire that destroyed the company’s opera house forced many to leave Egypt or end their careers. As the school and company went into decline, Saleh moved to the U.S. to study modern dance, earning a masters degree from UCLA and a PhD from NYU on Egypt’s ethnic dance traditions. She returned to Cairo in the 1980s, where she briefly served as dean of the Higher Institute of Ballet and then as the founding director of the new Cairo Opera House. She now lives in New York City, where she works to present Egyptian art to American audiences. “I’m a big believer in the benefits of culture for building bridges, nationally and internationally,” she says. “I’ve witnessed the effects, so I know it works and brings people closer together.”
From the Horses Mouth, a legacy-based dance theater project, is honoring Saleh next week in a special program at the 14 Street Y in New York City (March 15-18). Among the performances and events will be a screening of A Footnote in Ballet History? on March 13, as well as Egypt Dances, a 1977 documentary narrated by and starring Saleh, on March 17.