London, Asharq Al-Awsat- As Iraq celebrated the anniversary of the founding of Baghdad formerly named Dar Assalam by the Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar al Mansour who built the city, the Iraqi National Folklore Ensemble presented a show at the national theatre near Rafasa, one of the biggest theatres in Iraq.
The show was regarded as a courageous move in light of the security situation in the Iraqi capital and as a bold defiance against those who seek destruction and death for Iraq.
The audience in attendance believes that one day Iraq will return to its former glorious days during which the National Folklore Ensemble used to perform on a monthly basis at the Al-Shaab Hall in the Bab Moazzem district near Rafasa in Baghdad, spreading joy amongst its audience.
The National Folklore Ensemble was put together in the seventies by pioneering Iraqi artist Haqqi al Shibli but was then known as the Al-Rasheed Folklore Ensemble. Since its establishment, the group has received an outstanding level of moral and financial support. Experts in the art of folk dance were brought in to train its members and these experts included Qamar Khanem, Rashid Ban Farankis and Kim and Antoli. Lebanese choreographer Joseph Khoury also participated in training the members of the National Folklore Ensemble and Iraqi choreographers, such as Farsan, Soliman Mohammed, Hassan Saadoun, Hanaa Abdullah, Ritajon, Nahida Ali, Mohammed Abdullah and Fouad Thanoon, soon replaced their Lebanese counterparts.
The National Folklore Ensemble soon became a popular international touring group and a real representation of Iraqi art. It won awards in many international festivals in which it had performed. In the mid-eighties it was selected as the best international group for folkloric arts during a festival that was held in Bulgaria. Leila Muhammed who danced as part of the ensemble was crowned the beauty queen of the festival.
According to the Ensemble’s director Fouad Thanoon, the group’s first dancer Hanaa Abdullah, who later became a choreographer, was frequently labelled one of the best dancers of popular music in any festival that the group took part in throughout its long history. Ritajon, who was another dancer, received a Masters degree in philosophy but practiced the profession that she loved, namely, folk dance. The group also included Leila Muhammed who later became a successful actress in Iraqi theatre. As for Nahida Ali, she now studies the art of folk dance in Amman.
Hanaa Abdullah has expressed her complaints regarding the fact that there is a lack of females who want to work as part of the group because of the social conditions in Baghdad. She said, “The band trains newcomers in different areas of dance such as ballet as well as folk dance which is a rhythmic art that does not focus on the beauty of a woman’s body but rather revives artistic heritage in Iraq.”
The deteriorating security situation in Iraq has forced many members of the group to leave the country; accordingly this has led to a decline in the group’s popularity and has caused a scarcity in the number of male and female dancers. As a gesture of loyalty to the efforts of the band and in a bold step that was initiated by Hanaa Abdullah and the first male dancer of the group, Fouad Thanoon, they decided to rebuild the group based on new foundations in order to retrieve its previous status. They decided to recruit young members; the group now has over 30 male and female dancers in addition to a new music band.
“One of the most important shows that the group holds is the Al Husjah show; it demonstrates the traditions of Iraq’s gypsies. There is also the Iraqi Dabkah show (known in Iraqi colloquial as Chobi), a popular style of dance that is frequently seen at different events and in weddings in eastern and western Iraq. There is also the Andalusia show which is a relatively modern dance and the Bedouin Wedding show which demonstrates the habits and traditions of our ancestors in the Arabian Peninsula and the generosity, chivalry and nobility that they portrayed. There are also shows from the south (such as Ammara and Basra) and shows from central Euphrates in addition to Kurdish shows and other presentations from Mosul,” explained Thanoon. He added, “In all these shows, ideas are inspired by popular and folkloric arts and the shows preserve the originality of these arts and tells the story of Iraqi unity with all its diverse groups and sects.”