Magda Saleh, Influential Egyptian Ballerina, Is Dead at 79

Magda Saleh, a Bolshoi-trained Egyptian ballerina who was a star of the Cairo Ballet and played a major role in introducing ballet to wider audiences in her country, and who then served as director of the company’s ballet school and of a new opera house, died on June 11 in Cairo. She was 79.

Her death was confirmed by Diane Hakak, another former principal dancer in the Cairo Ballet. Ms. Hakak, who lives in New York, said that Tarek Saleh, Ms. Saleh’s brother in Cairo, had informed her of his sister’s death. No cause was specified.

Ms. Saleh, who had been living on Shelter Island, N.Y., moved back to Cairo in March, shortly after the death of her husband, Jack Josephson, to be with family.

Like the United States, Egypt did not have a permanent national-scale ballet company until the 1950s, although it had a grand opera house in Cairo. Americans, however, had seen ballet productions; major European ballet companies have performed in the United States since the 19th century. In Egypt, ballet recitals were mostly confined to private dance schools, often run by British teachers, where the students usually came from upper-middle-class families like Ms. Saleh’s.

Ms. Saleh trained with these teachers until the late 1950s, when teachers from the Soviet Union arrived to hold classes at a new government-subsidized school affiliated with the Cairo Ballet. She was then invited, along with four other teenagers, to study in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Ms. Saleh performing in “Don Quixote” with the Bolshoi Ballet in about 1971.Credit…via Magda Saleh

After training there rigorously from 1963 to 1965, the young Egyptian women returned to the Cairo Ballet. Ms. Saleh and Ms. Hakak became the best known; the others were Nadia Habib, Alia Abdel Razek and Wadoud Fayez.

In 1966, the company’s dancers spent the summer rehearsing a mammoth production of the 1934 Soviet ballet “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.” Based on a poem by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, the ballet tells the story of a Polish princess who is abducted by a Tatar chief and killed by the harem favorite in a jealous rage. Ms. Saleh was Maria, the pure princess, and Ms. Hakak was Zarema, the fiery favorite.

The production was a huge success and was seen as justifying the creation of the government-subsidized Cairo Ballet company and a ballet school by the culture minister, Tharwat Okasha, several years earlier.

Ms. Saleh was a guest artist with several Soviet ballet troupes, including the Kirov in Leningrad, the Bolshoi in Moscow’s Kremlin Palace of Congresses and companies in Novossibirsk and Tashkent.

Although she became a cultural celebrity — the Egyptian press called her Cairo’s first prima ballerina — Ms. Saleh often said that she was less interested in galas and glamour than in exposing people of all classes to ballet. She often recalled a performance by the Cairo Ballet in Aswan, a city on the Nile River. A worker on the dam there who had watched the performance came onstage afterward, she said, and told her that the performance was “a truly beautiful thing.”

Magda Saleh was born in Cairo on April 2, 1944. Her father, Ahmed Abdel Ghaffar Saleh, was Egyptian. Her mother, Gertrude Florence Edgar (Farmer) Saleh, who went by Florence, was Scottish. They met in Glasgow, where Mr. Saleh was studying agriculture, and married in 1937. Mr. Saleh, a distinguished academic, later became vice president of the American University in Cairo; his wife was a homemaker.

In 1993, Ms. Saleh married Mr. Josephson, an American businessman who later became an Egyptologist and an expert on Egyptian antiquities. In addition to her brother Tarek, she is survived by another brother, Sherif. A third brother, Amr, died in January.

After retiring from ballet because of an injury, Ms. Saleh earned a master’s degree in modern dance at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1979, she received a Ph.D. from New York University, for which she made “Egypt Dances,” a documentary about little-known traditional dances in Egyptian villages. She later warned that there would be “cultural loss” if changing lifestyles in rural areas led villagers to abandon these traditions because they might be considered evidence of backwardness.

Ms. Saleh in 2018. Late in life, she gave lectures and became active in helping to bring Egyptian performers to the United States.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

In 1983 she returned to Egypt, where she became dean of the Higher Institute of Ballet. In 1987, she was named founding director of a new opera house to be built with a $50 million grant from the Japanese government. It was built in 1988, but she was replaced shortly afterward, reportedly because of differences with a new culture minister.

In 1992, she moved to New York and became active in helping to bring Egyptian performers to the United States. She also delivered lectures about ballet and Egyptian dance, often at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and at the Smithsonian Institution.

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