Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1385, (15 - 21 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Ballet conscious

Ati Metwaly encounters St Petersburg in Cairo

Ballet conscious
Ballet conscious

In Egypt, the art of ballet always draws in a large audience. The Cairo Opera House offers a variety of events, some attracting specific groups of attendees, others sold out days prior to the event. The ballet is among the latter group with an audience representing a range of ages and social backgrounds flocking to the Opera’s main hall to experience one of humanity’s most enduring creative expressions, which remains among the primary interests of many communities that direct their broods to centres offering classical ballet classes mainly in Cairo and Alexandria but also in other corners of the country. 

In recent years the cultural players located in Egypt’s governorates began incorporating ballet into their activities, as is the case with Minya’s Alwanat cultural centre, 250 km south of Cairo, where ballet classes were introduced in June 2015, and Assiut’s Classical Ballet School (360 km south of Cairo), launched in mid-2015. In short, classical ballet not only has a strong following in Egypt but is also widely practised; it triggers the curiosity of many, moving many more beyond their comfort zones. Large numbers of people attend what live performances they can on local stages while others explore the art through internet channels; the more fortunate can enjoy performances abroad. All those practices feed a strong and constantly growing awareness of this art form, one which undeniably elevates the senses but also shapes collective knowledge of the classical music world while developing and intensifying the expectations set on ballet performances and the venues that embrace them.

In Egypt ballet is presented mainly by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, a troupe which despite going through many ups and downs its three-decade history offers a regular repertoire, staging many returning works and occasionally spoiling us with new productions. The Cairo Opera also invites guest choreographers and/or soloists to participate in the troupe’s development or hands over its platform to international troupes. 

It is no exaggeration to say that since the beginning of 2018, Egypt’s ballet lovers have been spoiled for choice. In 10-18 January, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company staged Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake based on the choreography by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and Abdel Moneim Kamel (I wrote about this performance in an article entitled “Swan Magic” published on these pages on 11 January, issue no. 1376). In 6-8 February, Italy’s Balletto del Sud brought to Cairo The Sleeping Beauty with captivating and unique choreography by Fredy Franzutti (“Sleeping with magic”, dated 15 February, issue no. 1381, discusses that evening). 

This ballet extravaganza has been followed by another staging of Swan Lake at the Cairo Opera, this time by a ballet troupe from St. Petersburg, Russia, between 7 and 9 March.

No need to repeat all that has been said about Swan Lake, its story and positioning in the history of both ballet and music. What can always be pointed out, however, is that due to its unprecedented popularity and artistic values, Swan Lake is one of the most sought after ballet works, beloved by audiences and cherished by dancers. Its renown is its burden. Whenever the name of Swan Lake appears on a poster, expectations immediately soar as audiences await perfection and originality, both very tough demands for any artist or troupe to meet. 

Such emotions had lingered in the air since the moment the Opera announced the Russian troupe’s arrival in mid-February, advertising it as “Imperial” – along with “Royal”, an increasingly fashionable if arbitrary promotional measure around the world, especially where Russian troupes are concerned. Naturally, the tickets were sold out days prior to the performances despite their slightly higher price compared other events at the Opera, and the audience came expecting magic feats.

Let us look more closely into the troupe itself, however, since a troupe from Russia – home to the world’s best-known ballet troupes – is a rare thing indeed. There were a few details in the Cairo Opera brochure, but Anastasia Lomachenkova, the manager of the troupe and one of its founders as well as its prima ballerina and dancer of the leading Odile/Odette role in Swan Lake also gave me a few minutes before the final day’s performance in Cairo.

“We are the St Petersburg Ballet Company, a very young troupe, established only one year ago,” Lomachenkova explained. “Together with my partner Anton Ploom [who dances the leading male role of Prince Siegfried], the cofounder of the troupe, I have been dancing for many years. Our long experience in the ballet helped us to create a project of our own and start building a company that though still very small consists of hand-picked, talented dancers from St Petersburg.”

Lomachenkova added that, as of now, the troupe does not have a stable home. “We have a stage where we can perform several ballets from our repertoire such as Swan Lake or Giselle, as well as a work for children. We also stage gala concerts, a few smaller works like the Chopiniana,” she referenced a short non-narrative ballet known as Les Sylphides and danced to the Chopin’s orchestral suite. Lomachenkova went on to stress the importance of incorporating international tours into the troupe’s activities alongside that of presenting artistically valuable performances and working on growth.

The troupe brought their own costumes to Cairo, adding to the classical ballet outfits a scent of fashion characteristic to Europe’s late medieval era as was obvious in some headdresses and Prince Siegfried’s mother’s outfit. The scenography, provided fully by the Cairo Opera, added to the warmth of the whole presentation. 

As to the performance itself, it is important to maintain a reasonable balance between our expectations of a Russian performance of Swan Lake and a young troupe trying to establish itself in a highly competitive world. The performance that followed the classical choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov did not lack captivating moments and touching tableaux. Taking into account that Swan Lake is a very challenging work for dancers, we always need to applaud the effort and the courage involved in performing it, raising our chapeaux before the many technical demands which in this case were duly met by the leading pair, Lomachenkova and Bloom. It is obvious that the renown of both soloists and their big portfolio of international achievements are not without a reason; their performance infused the work with much emotions and artistic prowess.  

For the rest of the cast, however, as much as it was a faithful depiction of the expected movements and the Swan Lake story, it was clear the troupe still needed time to find its synergy, a crucial component that will allow them to compete with more established ensembles. Occasional problems in lighting upstaged the power this company is capable of delivering, whether on the creative or the technical level. And, as usual, what we always long for is the live orchestra since unfortunately the St Petersburg Ballet Company performed to recorded music in Cairo, a fact that always takes away from the overall depth of a ballet experience.

It is important for Egyptian audiences to be exposed to different ballet troupes and to absorb the colours of those experiences. The staging of Swan Lake by the St Petersburg Ballet Company has definitely added to the reservoir of knowledge of the hundreds of attendees who came to the Cairo Opera House on three consecutive evenings. The audience needs to enrich its mind and senses, so they that they are able to make valid comparisons between the many presentations of the same or different works provided by many troupes. More importantly, however, it is through the dynamism of cultural players including institutions such as the Cairo Opera that the art continues to stay alive and to carve a place in collective consciousness.

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