Ballet among the bullets: Iraqi arts school dances on

The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet has long provided young talents with a chance to shine

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Bullets scarred and wounded, Iraq has yet another victim in its clutches – the fading art of ballet.

The Baghdad School of Music and Ballet has long provided young virtuosos with a chance to shine; to dance, strum and play their hearts out under the expert eye of school principal Ahmed Salim Ghani, himself a player of the contrabass and the oud, an Arab instrument resembling the lute.

AP IRaq ballet
AP IRaq ballet

”The second you walk through the gate, you find yourself in a different world, one of art and culture,” Ghani told the Associated Press. This is not least because the school isn’t segregated by sex like almost all Iraqi schools. Male and female students take classes together from kindergarten to high school.

The school has managed to survive decades of turmoil, a feat that speaks to the resilience of Baghdad’s residents through war after war. The Iraqi capital’s past as a Middle East center of culture is a distant memory, but the school has carved out a tiny island of creativity amid the violence that is an inescapable part of daily life and the religious conservatism that now defines public life.

Grainy footage of a 1977 school production of The Nutcracker shows a relatively high level of discipline, with the children dancing in professional-level costumes, the Associated Press reported. In class photos from the time, schoolgirls and female teachers wear miniskirts and the boys wear blazers and bow ties.

AP IRaq ballet
AP IRaq ballet

However, things rapidly worsened for Baghdad and the school with Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. International sanctions devastated the economy and ruptured the nation’s social fabric, forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes in rural areas and travel to urban areas for work.

The city plunged deeper into chaos after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the school was looted days after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Later, it was partially burned during a rampage by disgruntled Saddam-era officers.

Amid the violence, religious extremism rose, nurturing the notion that ballet - and to a lesser extent music - is immoral.

AP IRaq ballet
AP IRaq ballet

The school removed its large street sign to escape attention and some children hid their musical instruments when out in public or left them at school.

Daily bombings, assassinations and kidnappings in the city forced parents to keep their children at home. The school’s best Iraqi ballet and music teachers fled, seeking employment abroad. During the height of the violence, in the mid-2000s, the number of students plunged to an all-time low of 100-120, according to Ghani.

Now, security in the city has improved, but the bombings continue.

“We hope it is just a phase that will eventually go away,” said Salam Arab, whose 16-year-old son Maysara is considered one of the school’s best male dancers. “It’s a rare school in the Arab world, and it is very important that it continues to carry out its mission.”

AP IRaq ballet
AP IRaq ballet

The school now has around 500 students. But many parents now pull their daughters out of ballet when they are 12 or 13 because they object on religious grounds to the girls being lifted and embraced by boys their age while performing, according to Zeina Akram Fayzy, a 40-year-old ballet instructor who spoke to the Associated Press.

“Years of our hard work go to waste,” lamented Fayzy, an alumna of the school. “The school needs talented children who stay the course.”

Leezan Salam, who graduated this year, surmised: “The future of ballet in Iraq is dismal. No one really cares.”

(With the Associated Press)

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