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Alissar Caracalla Biography and Career


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Alissar Caracalla Biography and Career
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Alissar Caracalla (Extracts from the "Book Creative Lives")

Original Roots

The wonder of dance has always lifted Alissar Caracalla up, but in the winter of 1996, it threw her down in what must have seemed a cruel joke. While performing with her family's dance troupe, the Caracalla Dance Theatre, she fell and popped a ligament during the production of Alissar: Queen of Carthage (An homage to her namesake). That meant eight months in a cast, and it put an imminent audition for graduate school in limbo.
“So I started to cry and said, ‘That’s it, I can't go to UCLA.' But, my dad said, ‘Just go on your crutches, Alissar recalls. She choreographed a – “probably pathetic” – one-legged routine and danced for about five minutes before a jury of seven people. They gaped.

“If I wasn't on crutches, I probably wouldn't have gotten in”, Alissar confides with happy relief. I probably was not up to the technical, perfect level that you would need to get into that department, but showing up from Lebanon on crutches and a green cast all the way up to the knee, I think I blew the jury's mind away.”

Still billed in programs as Caracalla's “new choreographer,” Alissar has been collaborating with her father, the company's founder and artistic director, since that fateful 1996 production, but has danced small roles in shows since she was a child. When she talks about the company and her father, Abdel-Halim Caracalla, the natural drama of her diction amplifies and she speaks with a reverence that would seem pretentious were she not also warm and down to earth.

Like many choreographers, Alissar radiates self-control, but in telling her story, she betrays a private vulnerability that makes one thing clear: her self-assurance is hard-won, not inborn, no matter her pedigree.

As her father's likely successor (in concert with her elder brother, Ivan, who has directed many shows and transformed the company technically), Alissar is deeply aware of both the joy and responsibility that she stands to inherit, and that awareness has given rise to two distinct personas.
She's Alissar, of course, ever the “girly girl” with the immaculate manicure, the obsessive yoga practice, and the fondness for cold espresso. But she's also Caracalla – that is, one of the newer public faces of a 41-year-old legacy that employs more than 100 people and touches thousands across the world.

“The company no longer belongs to us; the company is an expression of art that belongs to the people. So, if you're going to get to work here, you better know what you're doing, because it has a history, she says gravely. Alissar clearly loves talking about that history, all of it her history – even the acts that unfolded when, in a manner of speaking, she waited in the wings.

As a young man, Alissar's father had studied at the Graham school in the United Kingdom, and he founded his traditional folkloric company in 1968, six years before Alissar's birth.

What began as a band of 12 has transformed into a theatrical extravaganza: an assortment of dazzlingly costumed dancers, actors, and singers crisscrossing spectacular sets in mass choreographies enlivened by original music or classic compositions imagined for Oriental instruments.

The company spends two years preparing each ballet, such as Oriental Taming of the Shrew (1982), Andalusia, The Lost Glory (1997), and Zayed the Dream (2008). It's very much like an opera that moves, but moves very gracefully and beautifully, Alissar says.

According to Alissar, Caracalla is a company made for Lebanon, whose people harbor a fondness for dabke - the Levant's traditional folkloric dance - but who have typically lacked the wider appreciation for professional dance that is common to other regions.

She and her brother grew up in a rarefied environment, surrounded by poets, musicians, costume designers, and, of course, dancers. “When you create a show, it's not like you take it to the office and then leave it there, she points out. It goes home with you.”

Or it follows you on the road. When Alissar turned two, her mother took the children to live in London, but her dad stopped in every month and they often flew to meet the company wherever it was performing. At age 13, the family spent Christmas and the New Year living in tents with the nomadic Tuaregs in the Algerian desert, while her father researched a new production.

Caracalla had became so well known and so well loved that, throughout the Lebanese Civil War, its dancers were allowed to pass back and forth across the Green Line regardless of their various religious sects.

In London, Alissar spent evenings and weekends in Covent Garden attending dance classes, but she didn't intend to dance professionally. “You also need a very specific physique to be a professional dancer, which I never really had”, she says. “So… I was just getting into it because I loved it so much.”

After earning Bachelor's degrees in international communication and dance from Los Angeles's Loyola Marymount University in 1995, she returned to Lebanon to take a break before continuing her studies. She decided to revive a dance school that the war had forced her father to close, drawing on her experience attending classes at Hollywood studios.

Alissar wanted to create a space where Lebanese could train to become professional dancers, but she didn't want to cater only to those with the perfect turnout, bone length, and body image. The Ashrafieh-based school now counts about 2,000 students, about half of whom study style Caracalla, an amalgam of folk and modern dance.

Alissar decided only after graduate school that she wanted to work with the company. “There's nothing better than to show your tradition and your roots”, she says. A few years after she returned to Caracalla, she also made a name for herself in 2002 as the choreographer for the popular Lebanese reality television show, Star Academy. The professional dancers of her own Orientalist Dance Company perform on the show and participate in her other commercial work.

Choreographing for television differs substantially from its theater counterpart. “Camera is all ‘show me the money’, and ‘very wow’, Alissar says. “Whereas theater” – dramatic pause – “is life, as Shakespeare said.”

Alissar hasn't had time to perform since 2002, but she now choreographs most of each company show. “When you choreograph, it's like giving birth to something, and your dancers become you and you become them,” she says.

Alissar's father generally takes care of the broad strokes, while she composes all the dancers' individual movements. Sometimes they divide the choreography, but that can be confusing for the dancers and it can pit two strong personalities against one another.

“I do what I do, he does what he does. We clash a lot, but we kind of do a u-turn and meet in the middle,” Alissar says. “He's pushier now, because he knows I can be more specific. But at the beginning, he kind of let me express myself, and also it was a test to see how far we can go together, and it was a great success.”

For Alissar and the many members of the Caracalla dance tribe, the Caracalla Theatre in Sin el-Fil is home and headquarters. Set pieces and posters from old shows make up a family photo album of sorts. The space feels grand, familiar, and timeless.

One evening, the pair glides arm in arm across the entryway, gripped by a warm camaraderie in the midst of swirling activity. To glimpse them is to doubt that there could be any other outcome.
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