News / Middle East

Caracalla Dance Brings Sheikh Zayed’s Dream to Life on Stage

A scene from the 'Zayed and the Dream' performance
A scene from the 'Zayed and the Dream' performance
David ByrdTodd Grosshans

Abdel Halim Caracalla puts his dancers through a strenuous rehearsal at Washington’s Kennedy Center.  The founder of Beirut’s Caracalla Theatre wants every step, every motion, and every prop in just the right place. After all he’s illustrating the life of one of the best know figures in the Middle East, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyah, the founder of the United Arab Emirates.

Sheikh Zayed led the Emirates from its founding in 1971. He is widely regarded as a humble, wise and caring leader who never forgot where he came from, even after the desert kingdoms grew wealthy. It is the Sheikh’s ideals that Caracalla Dance Theater seeks to portray in its production Zayed and the Dream.

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Ivan Caracalla is the production’s director. He says dramatizing the life of someone so well known in an artistic way was his main challenge.

“It’s not just a production that you can present in the United Arab Emirates or Abu Dhabi or Dubai. But even in the Middle East and even around the world through the human side of Sheik Zayed.”

The ballet traces the arc of Sheikh Zayed’s life, from his beginnings as a Bedouin tribesman through his education and his unification of several nations into what became the UAE.

Abdel Halim Caracalla knows about holding different forces together. Enthralled by the modern dance technique of the late Martha Graham, Caracalla studied at the London Contemporary Dance School in the mid-sixties. He had been a champion pole vaulter for Lebanon, but was captivated by the athleticism and skill he saw in dance.

He started the Caracalla Dance Theater in Beirut in 1968, and kept it alive through the Lebanese Civil war. His family would move the living room furniture and that was the studio. Their home straddled the Christian and Muslim areas of the Lebanese capital, and his studio in Beirut was destroyed several times by the conflict. But, like Sheikh Zayed in the UAE, the elder Caracalla kept his dream of a modern dance company alive despite opposition and hardship.

Now, his productions, including Oriental Midsummer’s Nights Dream, Elissa Queen of Carthage, Two Thousand and One nights, and Knights of the Moon, have established the company’s reputation for dramatic, film-like sets, colorful costumes, and top-notch dance performances.

Zayed and the Dream was funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and includes troupes from Ukraine, China, the UAE, and Spain. Abdel Halim’s daughter Alissar is the show’s choreographer. Ivan Caracalla says he hopes the diversity of the cast and the story of Zayed and the Dream will show how art crosses national, religious, and cultural boundaries.

“Because I think the best way to bring people together, the best way to break down obstacles between people and misunderstandings is through the arts and through the cultures. I think it’s a great way of discovery of each other, of knowing each other,” said Caracalla.

Zayed and the Dream has played worldwide, including in Abu Dhabi, London, Paris, Beirut and Washington. In November, Caracalla Dance Theater will take the show to China.

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