THE HISTORY OF THE LAYALI EL SHARQ ENSEMBLE
The Layali El Sharq Ensemble was formed in London in 1985, as a result of a creative collaboration between the UK based Egyptian dancer Suraya Hilal and producer and costumier Jennifer Carmen, to realise their shared vision of Raqs Sharqi (Eastern dance) on the concert stage. Under the direction of Qanun player Abdel Aziz el Sayed, the Ensemble toured with Suraya Hilal and Company over a seven year period, in England and abroad.
The aim of this collaboration was to present Raqs Sharqi on the concert stage as a contemporary female art of power, dignity and beauty, showing its wide range of expression, and unfolding creative possibilities unimaginable within the cabaret context in which it had been previously confined. This aim was triumphantly achieved, and the seminal influence of Suraya Hilal’s work as dancer, choreographer and teacher did much to transform the public perception of Raqs Sharqi in the UK and abroad, and continues to inspire women (and men!) who are drawn to this compelling art form in ever increasing numbers.
The musicians for the Ensemble were selected from the many players working in the lavish Arab nightclubs then still operating in London in the post oil boom of the 1980’s. Producer Jennifer Carmen had fallen in love with Egyptian music in Melbourne in her native Australia, and had been invited to dance with a small band there at weddings and parties. She relocated to London to learn from Suraya Hilal after meeting her in Oxford in 1980. Over four years of dancing as “Zizi” in the “little Cairo” that was the club circuit in London she identified the musicians with the talent and the temperament to form a band capable of producing music not only to the most refined of classical standards, but also to play baladi with the authentic earthly flavour of the Egyptian tradition.
The nightclubs were the only established venues for Raqs Sharqi that existed, and music played for dancers tended to be limited to a predictable showy formula. In her stage work in small arts centres, Suraya Hilal was working within very distinct forms, including classical Egyptian art songs, traditional baladi and sha’abi, and was creating innovative choreographies for classical music that required a theatre setting. Her extraordinary skills, sensitive musicality and mesmeric qualities as a performer had drawn attention from dance critics and won her a growing following, but the next stage, perform in larger venues with musicians, was a big and costly step!
In 1985, Arts Council funding provided the opportunity for Suraya Hilal’s first performance at the Place Theatre with the musicians who were to form the core of The Layali El Sharq Ensemble. After several years of hard work and occasional appearances with the Ensemble, more substantial funding and dedicated and enthusiastic audiences made it possible to create and tour a new show annually. The Company appeared at The Bloomsbury Theatre, The Purcell Rooms, The Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Royal Northern College of Music, The Almeida Theatre, and Sadlers Wells, amongst many others in the UK and in Europe and Scandinavia. Guest musicians expanded the range of work possible from time to time. Many of these unique collaborations have been recorded in both “The Layali El Sharq Ensemble Live” and “Egyptian Baladi Live”.
By 1992, despite extraordinary public and critical success, conditions were such that it became impossible to continue on such a scale. Regular work was drying up for the musicians and many returned to Egypt permanently. Suraya Hilal and Jennifer Carmen dissolved their partnership and the Ensemble disbanded. Suraya Hilal continued with her teaching work through the Hilal School of Raqs Sharqi, but withdrew from the school she had founded a few years later and began to develop her performing and teaching in other directions in Europe and the UK. Some of the teachers she had trained over many years formed the Raqs Sharqi Society which still exists. In 2000, Jennifer Carmen re-mastered many recordings made over those pioneering years and made them available to the public as a unique body of work which continues to give pleasure and inspiration to dancers and lovers of Middle Eastern music all over the world.