by Miriam Asmerom

On October 26 , 2013, Silk Road Dance Company will present Egypta – a dance drama inspired by ancient Egypt – at Baltimore’s Walters Museum. Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray created Egypta from a suite of six pieces she initially set on a German ensemble in 1995. Looking back however, Egypta has roots that go back to the pioneer of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis, one of the first American choreographers to introduce Eastern dance traditions into the American mainstream. Gray named her dance production after the famous work Egypta by St. Denis, both as a tribute to the original seed of Egypta’s current incarnation. After all, the dance which Silk Road Dance Company will perform at the Walters Museum is an even more progressive, open-ended take on Egypta.

Though today’s choreographers obviously don’t really know what Ancient Egyptian dance looked like, movements are usually performed as stiff and awkward. Gray bucked the traditional interpretation. Her logic? “This civilization was extremely sophisticated; these people performed brain surgery. We are still unable to explain precisely how the pyramids were built, let alone replicate the endeavor. Why do we think their dances were so simplistic?” Instead, Gray constructed a more rhythmic, fluid dance based on Alan Lomax’s theory of choreometrics. Lomax links certain styles of dance to levels of development in a civilization — for instance, a society with a centralized government will have a generally different style of dance than an agrarian one. Using this theory, Gray approached the famous tomb paintings that appear on the interior of pyramid walls as snapshots of Pharaonic dance. She also incorporated elements of East African dance into the performance, noting that “white male archeologists of the Victorian era tried to detach Egypt from the rest of Africa, even denying the obviously African appearance of many of the individuals depicted in paintings and statuary. It is time to put Egypt back into Africa.”

The German ensemble of Raqs Sharqi was first to work with Gray on her depiction of Ancient Egyptian dance. In fact, they were the test subjects for the six dances that would come to comprise the core of Egypta – Egypt is the Gift of the Nile, On the Land, Pyramids, Foreign Domination. Banquet Dance, and the Death of Egypt. Though the production went through a series of hiccups, Egypta was performed in Dusseldorf, Germany in February of 1997 where it premiered to great critical acclaim. It was then taken to Memmingen in April of that same year, with Gray traveling from the US to perform a new piece, Priestess of the Snake Goddess Reneutet and the celebration of Bastet. Seattle’s Delilah joined the production, performing the roles of the Goddess Hathor and Cleopatra.

The new costumes worn in Egypta also bear notice. Instead of the gold metallic fabric, stiff collars, and huge headdresses which normally characterize Hollywood depictions of Ancient Egypt, Gray moved to more patterned textiles to forge a deeper connection with Egypta’s African roots as well as ancient Egyptian fabrics. The large headdresses were reserved for gods and goddesses since they tended to curtail movement and contributed to stiffness normally associated with Ancient Egyptian dance. With significant costuming contributions by Elizabeth Barrett Groth, a designer who was then a student at George Washington University, the new choreographies by Gray got an excting new look that drew on historical traditions. By updating the costume choice and staying away from Hollywood sterotypes, along with the innovative choreography, Gray created one of the first truly revised portraits of ancient Egyptian dance.

Gray continued to refine her work on Egypta with a performance by Silk Road Dance Company in July of 1998 at Baltimore’s International Festival. Now, Egypta returns to Baltimore, almost twenty years after its first inception. With grants from the Kennedy Center in 2003 and many past performances, the production has bloomed into a full length dance concert. As the Washington Post wrote of a 2004 performance, “The evening was a visual treat of whirling, glittery costumes, fluid movement narrative, rich exotic music, and a dance troupe that was clearly having fun.”


Silk Road Dance Company is a 501(c)3 exempt tax non-profit organization.
Silk Road Dance Company ® is a Registered Trademark
The contents of this blogpost, including all text and images, are protected and may
not be used without the express written permission of Silk Road Dance Company®.
Copyright 2013, Silk Road Dance Company®. All rights reserved.