Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 -11 June 2003
Issue No. 641
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A broken promise

Amal Choucri Catta accepts the inevitable

Two one-act ballets, Cairo Opera Ballet Company, dir Abdel- Moneim Kamel; Cairo Opera Orchestra, dir Nader Abbasi; Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 28-30 May

Promises were broken at the Cairo Opera last week, when Cinderella, Prokofiev's ballet, was replaced by two one-act ballets: Gamal Abdel Rehim's Osiris and Renato Greco's Malgre tout. Both had graced the main hall with success, yet on this occasion they proved disappointing: the orchestra pit, for one thing, was empty; and the audience was served recorded music instead.

Gamal Abdel-Rehim, one of Egypt's best known classical music composers, wrote Osiris many years ago. The ballet was choreographed by Abdel- Moneim and Erminia Kamel and has been presented in an improved version since 1998. It starts with a pas-de-deux, which quickly turns into a pas-de-quatre: Osiris, king of Egypt, is enjoying peace and harmony with his wife-sister Isis; then they meet with Seth and Nephtys. Turquoise and blue, Nile colours, are the colours of Isis and Osiris; while yellow and orange, desert colours, are those of the other couple. Isis and Osiris dance marvelously, their movements filled with tenderness. And they don't realise the danger lurking behind the bold antagonism of Seth and Nephtys' dance, in which the movements, filled with brute sensuality, betray the malignant impulses of the characters.

The radiant tunes subside as strong percussions announce the inevitable: Seth's jealousy will overcome his brotherly love; another pas-de-deux expresses Seth and Nephtys' evil intent; the audience knows Osiris will die and Seth will rule in his stead. Following Osiris' murder in the temple, Isis mourns in a solo performance full of gloomy grief; recalling Osiris, he appears to her as in a dream. But before too long her son, the young Horus, has materialised; he has brought along an army to battle with his uncle. And while the people are being incited to take revenge, Seth, surrounded by his friends, forms his own army for the battle.

The happy ending notwithstanding, it was a pleasure to see Erminia Kamel, Egypt's prima ballerina, once again dancing the part of Isis -- so well that Isis seemed to penetrate her being. Ahmed Saleh and Ahmed Yehia, in the roles of Osiris and Horus-the- young respectively, were likewise brilliant, so was Hany Hassan and Serguey Bolonsky in the rather demanding role of Seth. Ira, Nadine and Tania as Nephtys conveyed that character's ambiguity and wickedness splendidly.

Italian choreographer Renato Greco's Malgre tout -- balletto Jazz was first presented at the Opera's Main Hall from 10 to 14 November 1990, with Greco and his own dance company. At the time, the sets were limited to an immense mirror suspended from the stage's ceiling, with its surface in a parallel position to the floor. Every movemet was thus seen twice: once on stage and once in reflection. This also symbolised the after- world, parallel universes and the repetition of human endeavours on earth. The stage itself remained empty, with the drama being expressed through continuous, extraordinary lighting effects. This time, the Cairo Opera Ballet having appreciated the choreography, decided to include it in its own repertoire, replacing the giant mirror with many small pieces stuck together, which cut up and distorted the reflections of the dancers on stage. The effect of this latter modification was disastrous, though it stayed in place every time the ballet was performed during the last ten years. Last week Malgre tout was finally presented without any kind of mirror. The absence of Renato Greco's giant mirror and its visual and symbolic effects was regrettable, no doubt, but the same cannot be said of the disappearance of the multitude of small mirrors.

Based on music by Gianni and Vittorio Nocenzzi, Rodolfo Maltese and Maurizio Fabrizio -- the music was originally entitled Banco di terra -- the dance created by Renato Greco focuses on a group of men and women who have miraculously survived a natural catastrophe. They suddenly rise to a new dawn, having lost all memory of past civilisation. They gradually realise the meaning of being alive and try to discover themselves, their power of speech, their senses, their feelings and their surroundings. They likewise discover heat and cold, rain and sunshine, hunger and thirst, love and hate, jealousy and violence and even the power to kill. As with every group of people, since time immemorial, there are the good and the bad ones, those who discover a flower and the water necessary for its growth, and those who destroy all plants and flowers, throwing them to their death. Alexandra Volkhovskaya, prima ballerina, and Ahmed Yehia were a touching couple as they discovered love, peace and happiness, while Vera Bolonsky and Hany Hassan, cast as the champions of evil, death and destruction, were memorably convincing as they tried to separate the lovers, leading them away from the path of righteousness and into dens of promiscuity. Then, suddenly, everyone, good and bad alike, is hit by another natural catastrophe. They will return again, starting from the very beginning, rediscovering life and all that it holds in terms of beauty and ugliness. But for as long as mankind is walking on earth there will be hope, there will be life and new beginnings: malgre tout, after all, means "inspite of everything," inspite even of catastrophes.

Unlike Osiris, which was a real ballet sur pointes, with lovely costumes and an entire palette of colours, this dance is performed in skin-coloured tights for male and female dancers alike, giving them freedom of motion. The elaborate choreography, for which any kind of costume would only represent a handicap, was marvelously executed by around 35 dancers; there would have been 70 with a giant mirror. Perfect music and excellent performances were much appreciated by the rather sparse audience, nonetheless. Everyone did regret the absence of a live orchestra, and kept asking why Cinderella was replaced by the two dances and why such last-minute changes took place.

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