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23 October 2007

The Prima Donna of Egypt




The Prima Donna of Egypt:
Erminia Kamel


By Hoda Nassef


Erminia Kamel, née Erminia Gambarelli, was born in Milan, Italy, and studied at La Scala Theatre School at the age of nine before she entered Scala Ballet Company, when she was eighteen. She speaks fluent French and English, apart from her native Italian, as well as some Russian and adopted country’s language of Arabic. She comes from an artistic family, especially from her father’s side, who began his career as a talented photographer and gradually became an industrial designer. Erminia said, “That was before computer technology, and even after its birth, my father, being a real artist, preferred to do without them. Up till now, he doesn’t have very much computer knowledge, even though he is sometimes obliged to use it,” she admitted fondly.

When Erminia was 13, she discovered that she had an aunt (“of second degree”) who was already a famous ballerina in America. After her parents were sure that she was going to become a dancer, they told her, “You are going to be like your aunt, who is the first ballet dancer in the Metropolitan Theatre Company in New York City.” Soon after that revelation, she went to New York with the Scala Ballet Company to perform for one month, and that’s when she met her aunt for the first time, who had resigned at that time from the ballet troupe, and discovered that people still remembered her. “Unfortunately, she passed away ten years ago. But in America, people still remember her because of her dance technique and extreme beauty.”

Ermina’s professional career at La Scala Ballet Company lasted for six years before becoming its Soloist (star performer) in 1979. During the last year there, she met her future husband (Abdel-Moneim Kamel) in 1980, who was in Italy and performed in her La Scala Company on a one-year contract, also as a Soloist. It was love at first sight, for both of them! They got married in 1982, and returned to Egypt together that same year. At that time, the Russian experts, who were the first ballet trainers at the Cairo Opera House, had left due to political problems, and there remained only seven to ten dancers who were not very well trained. Kamel assumed correctly that he had to return, for without him, ballet in Egypt would cease to exist.

“My problem was when he asked me to join him in Cairo, because it meant that I had to leave my career in Italy behind. I had finally reached the level of Soloist in La Scala Ballet Company, after years of had work. So, it was really a difficult choice to make. It meant also leaving my family, culture, and everything else behind! In a few hours, after boarding a plane from Milan, I was in Egypt, and then suddenly I realized that I was cut off completely from my past lifestyle, career, family and friends.” But, she has no regrets.

When she first arrived at the old Cairo Opera Theatre, she discovered that the ballet troupe was ‘really weak’ and that the dancers were out of shape. So, her husband asked her if she was able to start working right away, and together they started choreographing and bringing in other choreographers. They performed ‘small seasons’ twice a year, at the Gomhuria Theatre. For the inauguration of the new Cairo Opera Theatre, they prepared a first performance. “This was the turning point in our careers and in our lives, because of the fantastic international stages in the new Cairo Opera Theatre, and all the facilities for ballet performances and other activities in a vast multi-purpose cultural center. This was finally a real opera house!” she exclaimed. Within the last twenty years, Dr. and Mrs. Abdel-Moneim Erminia Kamel built a ‘ballet company’ that traveled all over the world, and was in fact Egypt’s cultural ambassador worldwide, gaining international acclaim. The Cairo Opera Ballet Troupe had finally emerged to sparkle on the list of first international ballet troupes, and became a landmark in international cultural tourism as well.

The Cairo Opera Ballet Troupe now comprises over 68 dancers. They are divided almost equally into girls/women and boys/men. That’s very good, in comparison to the fact that many years ago, male performers were very few. In fact, many male dancers have launched their fame here, but have left the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. “Those who have left are now working abroad in big ballet companies, mainly in Hamburg or Dresden, Germany, and Philadelphia, USA. Now they are famous ballet Soloists.”

“Why do they leave?” I asked her. “Is it because the Cairo Opera House does not give them a good salary, or cover insurance, or has no real plan for their future, or what?” I persisted. She answered, “The salary is not one of the highest salaries here (tinkling laughter) but hey leave mostly out of curiosity; to see what they could achieve on their own, and to compare their own level with the standard of foreign dancers abroad,” she explained. As an afterthought, she added, “Competition also encourages them to be better, especially when they realize they are as good, if not better, than foreign Soloists. Sometimes the dancers request to return to the Cairo Ballet Troupe, either to perform for a whole season or to participate in certain ballet performances with other foreign troupes assigned here for a while.”

Her husband, Dr. Abdel-Moneim Kamel, has performed and partnered with her as a duet. His colleagues Magda Saleh and Maya Selim were also his partners. Both ballerinas had long since left the Cairo Ballet Troupe and continued their careers abroad.

Erminia now trains and teaches ballet, and choreographed for the first time completely on her own “Hassan and Naema”, with its opening night on 6 December in 2002. It was a big hit, following Opera Aida which was performed at the Pyramids Plateau. They choreographed also Osiris, El Nil, Oriental Steps, Zorba, and waltzes and tangos to the tune of Arabic music for the Arabic Music Festive in 2002. “That was my first experience with Arabic music,” she said.

Erminia, with her silky heavy hip-length blond hair, which she keeps in a ballerina knot, is 1m 62”, and her weight fluctuates from 45 to 47 kilos…”when I am fat.”! She is also noticeable for her graceful swan neck and remarkable big grey eyes. She keeps fit by eating the right food prescribed to her by her childhood doctor (meat, vegetables, fruit, pasta and the occasional sweets) and sticks to this diet up till now, which is a typical diet for all athletes, and continues with her 6-hours daily exercise, to ‘sweat out all the toxin’ from her system, as well as help her keep her muscle tone flexible, her heart functioning well (touch wood) and her metabolism in good shape. She has a twenty-year old son who loves art and music, but does not think of following in the steps of his parents’ career. Her own parents often visit from Italy a few months a year, or they vacation together in Italy.

Finally, this delicate, graceful and beautiful gazelle, with her sparkling personality and warm big eyes, told me that she chooses to dance now only in what she is confident in performing perfectly, and is switching to choreography and training other ballerinas and dancers. But, if she had to choose family over ballet, she said, as any typical Italian…or Egyptian, “Family, of course!”


H.N.

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