BAGHDAD — It’s showtime, folks — in Baghdad. Not that you’d know it, though, even if you lived in the war-ravaged city.
The cast of the National Folklore Ensemble is rehearsing in secret; they’re not saying when their next performance will be, no advertising posters will be going up and no advance tickets will be on sale.
But one afternoon soon — no one’s saying when — an audience will turn up at a secret location, the Ensemble will perform its lively song-and-dance routines, the theatergoers will cheer, the curtain will come down and everyone will slip quietly out again.
“It’s the only way we can do it,” says Hanaa Abdullah, deputy director of the troupe, sighing for the days when the ensemble would play before packed crowds at the Al-Shaab Hall in central Baghdad and be enthusiastically acclaimed on their numerous tours of the Arab world and Europe.
Abdullah is the first to admit that what the troupe is doing is risky — insurgent groups have killed entertainment in the Iraqi capital, and many entertainers as well.
Artists, poets, actors and intellectuals whose bodies haven’t been found floating in the Tigris River or in a Baghdad street have fled to Amman or Damascus, where they are regrouping and starting to perform again.
Or they’ve gone underground — like the cast of the National Folklore Ensemble, now down to 20 from the 40 they were.
Rehearsals are taking place at a small hall in Baghdad. The cast arrives one at a time, leaves one at a time. No one should notice any gathering.
“Yes, it is risky, but unless we take risks, the ensemble won’t survive,” says Abdullah, bemoaning that the past 10 years have cast “dark shadows” across the ensemble, which was founded as the Al-Rasheed Folklore Ensemble in the 1960s. Its name was changed in 1970 to the National Folklore Ensemble.
Haqqi al-Shibli, Iraq’s most famous theater personality, formed the troupe after studying theater in Egypt with the goal of preserving Iraqi original folklore through dancing, singing and theatrical sketches.
In its heyday — the 1970s and ’80s — the ensemble toured the world, staging shows in more than 60 European and Arabic countries. Difficult times began in the ’90s when the world slapped sanctions on the regime of a defiant Saddam Hussein after his troops invaded Kuwait. Fewer invitations arrived from abroad, and the ensemble found itself playing more and more to audiences at home.
The game plan changed again in 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam. Entertainment came to a halt, and sectarian killings began. The Al-Shaab Hall was burned down, including the adjoining warehouse where the cast stored its costumes.
The ensemble managed to keep performing, but erratically. It even managed to slip out of the country twice in the past four years to present shows in neighboring Muscat and Doha.
Abdullah says the cast tries to stage a production in Baghdad every three months or so, but secrecy is paramount.
The last time the troupe performed was in July before an audience of 300. As has become usual, those in the know were notified at the last minute of the time and venue.
The next performance will be “sometime before the end of the year,” says Abdullah. The ensemble is mainly self-financed and lives pretty much hand to mouth. There are not even box office takings to rely on — all its shows these days are free.