Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Oversexed and unrefined

Amal Choucri Catta finds the Geneva Ballet's erotic interpretation of Umm Kulthoum and Stravinsky inappropriate

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No April fools were around last week, when the Swiss company, Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve performed three dances on 1 and 2 April on the main stage of Cairo's Opera House. They had a rather full house and lots of applause on both nights, though the applause was mainly in appreciation of the dancers, and not the dances: the latter were, unfortunately, not the happiest choice for local Egyptian audiences.

The first dance was as charming as it was unpretentious: 2 & 3 Part Inventions, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is a ballet sur pointes for four couples, on J S Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias, performed solo on the piano by Roberto Rega. Premiered by the School of American Ballet at the Juilliard Theatre in 1994, the dance -- an enchanting blend of classical ballet and Jazz -- was performed at Cairo Opera House by the eight young dancers with elegant, harmonious dreamlike movements under warm, bright lights. It received enthusiastic applause.

The mood changed, however, with the second dance, Lumières du desert (Desert Lights) which was performed on this its world premiere by a group of four main dancers in vermillion-red costumes: trousers and top for the women, trousers for the men, and a red atmosphere prevailing throughout the entire show. The dance was created around three play- back melodies of Umm Kulthoum, choreographed by Jerome Meyer, who surely intended to create a pleasant, successful dance, appreciated by local audiences. This was, regrettably, not the case.

Umm Kulthoum's songs have always been, and still are considered by all Egyptians as food for the soul and not the body. Lyrics of Umm Kulthoum's songs are often words of love, based on classical Arabic poetry, or on poems especially written for her songs. The great Egyptian Diva, furthermore, was extremely selective about the lyrics she finally decided to sing: her quarrels with many of her famous writers regarding a single word she wanted changed, have made history. She was a remarkably cautious performer, never leaving anything to chance, and always made sure that everything was executed according to her wishes.

No choreographer before Jerome Meyer, Egyptian or otherwise, has dared mingle Umm Kulthoum's songs with erotic dances. When Maurice Bejart presented Pyramid on Cairo Opera's Main Stage around 12 years ago, he based his dance on Umm Kulthoum, creating a masterpiece with soulful "Sufi" tendencies. A master-choreographer and a highly cultured personality, he had understood and appreciated the Diva's -- and the Egyptian public's -- mentality. Jerome Meyer's fascinating dance, his interesting, eloquent choreography, on the other hand, was, absolutely not in harmony with Umm Kulthoum. While the dance was oversexed, she was singing of Platonic love. Meyer named his dance Desert Lights, and the red-hot backdrop and costumes, reminiscent of sunrise and sunset, of sunburns and suntans, created an exotic, oriental atmosphere, in perfect harmony with the general choreographic conception, but absolutely out of line with Umm Kulthoum. Meyer would therefore have been well advised to turn to another kind of music for his sun-burnt choreography, or to create a better adapted choreography to the three songs of Umm Kulthoum.

Cairo Opera House audiences have, in past years, more than once witnessed dance-performances tinged with sensuality: they were, however, presented with finesse and refinement -- never as crudely as in the third and last dance of the Geneva Ballet Company. Le sacré was danced to a recording of Stravinsky's Le sacré du printemps. Premiered in Frankfurt by the Frankfurt Ballett on 25 November 1972, The Rites of Spring was composed by Igor Stravinsky for Serge de Diaghilev's Russian Ballet between 1911 and 1913, and created on 29 May 1913 at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, according to a choreography by Vaclav Nijinsky. The ballet was originally based on a libretto by Nicolas Roerich, presenting "pictures of Pagan Russia" in a series of sequences reminiscent of ancient rites of the earth, of the seasons and mainly of Spring.

The dance was created in two parts, starting with the "adoration of the earth" formed by an "introduction" describing nature's awakening to the new Spring, followed by "springtime augurs", the "adolescent's dance", the "game of rival cities", the "procession of the wise" and the "dance of the earth". The second part is that of "the sacrifice", with a "Nocturne" as introduction, followed by the "adolescents' mysterious circle", the "glorification of the chosen one", "ancestor's evocation and ritual" and finally the "sacred dance".

The "sacrifice" is that of a young maiden chosen to die at the end of the dance, to appease the earth's hidden deities. At the time, the ballet, with its provoking scenes artificially reminiscent of pagan customs, created a scandal and was not performed for an indefinite number of years. The music, however, won a number of eminent sympathisers, thus rapidly turning into a successful concert version.

Choreographed by John Neumeier, last week's Sacré opened with a maiden lying motionless on the floor, while the performers around her gradually grow in numbers and the music, preluding with a popular theme by the bassoon, slowly swells into sophisticated rhythms. From first to last, from his primitive Les noces to the sophisticated Rites of Spring, Stravinsky's overriding feature is rhythm in many wonderful forms. His place as a seminal figure in 20th century music, and individually as a great composer, has long since been established. Though it used to be said he "changes his skin every few years", and though he did alter his style more than once, superficially at any rate, he remained fundamentally himself throughout his life. He was a time-traveller, at home in centuries other than his own, of which fact his Rites of Spring is a vivid example.

Performed by 23 dancers of the Geneva corps-de- ballet, in tight skin-coloured shorts for men and women alike, with skin-coloured brassieres for the latter, the dance develops with the dawn of creation, while man was just awakening from his world of dreams. Night fears and night charms are dispelled by light and adolescents dance to the syncopated accents of repetitive violin chords. The dance goes on its primitive pagan adventures of war-games and love-games, of man discovering his female counterpart, or rather every bit of her, and woman enjoying her power in a matriarchal society: "I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all elements, the initial progeny of worlds, the great goddess of the universe." She is carried to her remote paradise, while the wise man wanders solemnly among the dancers to a laconic melody of the winds. In the end, the music swells to its climax, while the maiden's inanimate body lies at the dancer's feet and her soul symbolically flies to an unknown Valhalla.

If the dance created a scandal when it was first choreographed by Nijinsky in 1913, John Neumeier's choreography would have created a revolution: it was promiscuous, repetitive, largely concentrated on eroticism, with an overdose of acrobatics, entwining males and females in rather crudely provocative scenes. Harmony and beauty were rare. His were not the primitive rites of Pagan Russia, but the erotic visions of our 21st century's oversexed society. Neumeier's may be a realistic vision of today's society, but it is absolutely out of place on Cairo Opera's main stage. More refinement would have been advisable.

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