The Greek revisited

Since 2001, the ballet Zorba has been performed at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall stage almost every year. The relevant Al Ahram Weekly reviews (issues 628, 678, 710, 839) discuss the same names in the cast, choir and the mezzo soprano, point to the same choreography by Lorca Massine, the same costume and set design by Richard Kaja; they praise Mikis Theodorakis’s music as played by the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted several times by Nader Abbassi, as well as Giorgio Croci from Italy and Ivan Filev from Bulgaria. This year, Zorba was conducted by Nayer Nagui.

Published on 8 July 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

One can wonder why this ballet is performed over and over again, even question the point of a new review. But even though the previous reviews say more than enough about the plot and characters, the dancers and musicians, there still remain points which can be explored around the ballet production itself as well as this year’s changes and challenges.

Theodorakis’s music reaches out to folk Greek elements, it is filled with lovely light motifs. Sirtaki dance, performed at the end of the ballet, is one of the most vital elements of the whole work. Choreography, simplicity and repetitive tableaux take on their own charm when accompanied by lyrically touching musical elements and folk colorisation. In ballet, simplified dramaturgical elements allow direct human experience to emerge and captivate hearts of the audiences over and over.

Ryszard (or Richard, as the programme has it) Kaja is a Polish set designer, graphic designer and painter. Born in 1962, he graduated from the painting department the of High School of Fine Arts in Poznañ in 1984. His father, Zbigniew Kaja, is one of the biggest names in Polish set and poster design.

Ryszard Kaja’s career includes work as scenograph in the most renowned Polish theatres, such as th Grand Theatre in ¨ódÉ, the Opera of Szczecin and the Grand Theatre of Poznañ. Kaja created costumes and sets for dozens of plays and operas. Likewise, his artistic vision is sought out by well-known ballet directors and choreographers. Over 150 productions with Kaja’s scenography were performed in Poland, France, Germany, Brazil, and Argentina — among other countries.

Ballet Zorba performed at the Cairo Opera House benefited from Kaja’s costumes and set. Zorba premiered in Egypt in 2001. Kaja took the set design from his previous work created for the Grand Theatre in Poznañ, where Zorba premiered on 23 September 1995. The ballet poster created for the Polish theatre includes the same elements presented on the scene, the panorama of a traditional Greek village, but sketched with a few black pencil lines.

In the same way, Kaja’s scenography reflects the artist’s clear visual concepts, not influenced by any commercial demands and free, as it were, from advertising. Clarity and simplicity of design complement the work on stage and hence become an integral part of the whole production. Some 15 years after Kaja created his tableau for Zorba, the audience is still captivated by its warm relation — through simplicity — with dramaturgical elements. The panoramic background representing a Greek village is dominated by beige shades. The same palette, with colours from cream to beige to brown, are used in costumes, especially the women’s long plain dresses, along with contrasting black trousers and white shirts for men. When the whole tableau is about to fall into monotony, Madame Hortense, a widow played by Zeinab Mohamed, appears on stage. Her dress contrasts with the rest of the design, and her fluffy bright purple boa scarf — a reminder of her cabaret past — adds flair to her character.

In Zorba, the Hortense character has a special flavour. In previous years it was performed by Erminia Kamel, and this year Zeinab Mohamed captured the role with an astounding maturity. Disconnected from Zorba ‘s reality — as if visiting from another drama set — the image of Hortense is underlined by beautiful choreography. Scenes with the sad widow are very expressive, highlighting her natural need for love in which she revises her true feminine longings.

This year Zorba had three casts, different on each performance day. Zorba was played by Ahmed Yehia, Rinat Shamukov, and Hany Hassan. In fact, Yehia danced two roles: Zorba’s on the first day, and John’s on the third. Choosing one dancer for two contrasting roles is mean feat and a brave step from the director. I attended the third day, with Hany Hassan.

Hany Hassan was picked for the role by the choreographer himself, back in 2001, and ever since the role became his signature. His approach to the character is filled with confident energy. Strength and technical power seem to emerge from the character’s soul; one no longer watches a performer but Zorba, the free spirit whose presence overwhelms the audience.

Yehia’s sensitivity was a perfect fit for the role of John. His pas-de-deux with Anja Ahcin, playing Marina, was neat and deeply moving; once again it stressed the clear harmony radiating from the pair (it is well known that they have danced together in other ballet productions).

The reason behind three casts lies in the ballet’s preparation for a long tour. “The tour includes 20 performances in various cities in Spain, during the month of October,” Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the ballet, told Al Ahram Weekly.

In spite of obvious deviations from the original book, there are three reasons why the audience loves the ballet version of Zorba the Greek : its optimistic character, light yet beautiful music by Mikis Theodorakis, and Lorca Massine’s clear choreography.

Nagui stressed many fine musical elements. He also played a big role in artistically coordinating between the orchestra, the A Cappella Choir and the dancers, starting with Zorba and John in the first act, a connection that infuses the whole ballet. The A Cappella Choir blended well with the music and their preparation by Maya Gvineria should not pass unnoticed. Musical harmony has been topped with Hanan El-Guindy (mezzo soprano) in the second act, as a black figure and destiny narrator. Due to El-Guindy’s positioning at the back of the stage — on an elevated segment of the set — she had to use a clip microphone. But her tender timbre and the way it integrated with music helped me overcome my reservations about technological support in concerts or performances with live orchestra.

Ballet Zorba, Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Cairo Opera Orchestra, A Cappella Choir, music: Mikis Theodorakis, choreography: Lorca Massine, Artistic Director: Erminia Kamel, Conductor: Nayer Nagui, Costume and Set Designer: Richard Kaja, Choir Master: Maya Gvineria, mezzo soprano: Hanan El Guindy, Artistic Supervisor and Director: Abdel Moneim Kamel; Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 1-3 July

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