Return of the Swan Lake

Cairo Opera Ballet Company is in the last days of preparation for the Swan Lake, one of the most beloved ballet works of all times, and one of the Tchaikovsky’s signature compositions.

Published on 31 March 2011 in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

Rehearsal room is filled with a group of dancers adding the final touches to the ballet which will be performed between 6 and 13 April (except 9 April) at the Cairo Opera House Main Hall and on 16 and 17 April at the Alexandria Opera House (Sayed Darwish Theatre).

The first performance of Swan Lake by the Cairo Ballet Company took place back in 1991. Since then, the ballet was re-performed several times with the last one in 2003.

This year’s Swan Lake involves building the whole work from scratch. “Practically all of the dancers in the company are different to those who were with us in year 2003.” Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, stresses on the enormous effort the whole company makes. “All of the company’s 85 dancers are involved in this ballet.” Abdel-Moneim Kamel is the ballet’s choreographer.

Choreographers base the ballet’s four acts on Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, as this is the version considered to have reached the absolute perfection and beauty. They are, however, invited to add their touches to acts 1 and 3 where there is room for variations. As follows in those acts in particular Abdel-Moneim Kamel’s choreography is the most obvious.

Moreover, Abdel-Moneim Kamel introduces new elements to the ballet. There is a bridge created between acts 3 and 4. “It is like a flashback of the whole story the duration of which is five minutes. We call it a dream. This is a completely new part which has never been done in the ballet,” Erminia Kamel explains.

The bridge is based on two pieces of music drawn from other parts of the ballet. Understandably this section is fully choreographed by Abdel-Moneim Kamel.

At Petipa’s time, the performance was almost four hours long. Further stagings tended to remove some parts to make the ballet more concise. Today’s version is just two and a half hours.

Swan Lake performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company includes three casts. Two sets of soloists as well as many other dancers are trained by Erminia Kamel while other trainers — Lamia Zaied, Alexandra Volkoskaia, Alla Shivoliova, Irina Prokopienko — work on other elements. “We are a team. Each trainer has his/her own responsibility. Once all elements are finalised, we bring them together.”

Cairo Opera Ballet Company started working on Swan Lake in December 2010. “Everyone worked very hard as preliminarily we were planning to perform the ballet in February. Rehearsals continued until 27 February, when the 25 January Revolution has already started.”

Kamel recalls how she had to cancel many rehearsals between 25 and 27 January as on the one hand many of the young dancers were involved in the revolution, while on the other hand, it was important to make sure they can return home during safe hours. “In the following days, many of the young people from the ballet company were spending days and nights at Tahrir Square.”

After 11 February, cultural institutions started resuming their work. Rehearsals for Swan Lake resumed on 1 March. “We had to go back to rehearsals and recapture all the weeks of work we have had behind us, targeting April as the month for the premiere.” Kamel adds that to her surprise the whole process went easier than expected.

Revolution has affected all aspects of life, it has also reflected on the young dancers’ social life. “I was a little worried that the rehearsals would not pick up well but to our surprise the dancers managed to disconnect from their involvement in the pro-democratic movements and they all gave their best to the artistic work.” Kamel is positive about the ballet output as she finds that all the team exerted an enormous effort to make this production see the light.

During the 18 days of the January Revolution many foreign dancers in the Cairo Opera Ballet Company left to their home countries. “They all returned before 1 March, except for one Japanese dancer,” Kamel affirmed.

“It is almost miraculous that we pulled it off at this difficult time. Ballet is an art which once again shows its power to transport artists into another world — a parallel to their involvement in social changes. Dancers were joining pro- democratic events while on stage they become professional artists. They become swans, princes and princesses. I am very grateful to all the young artists for what they managed to create on stage.” Kamel underlines the beauty of duality which is within each artist and how they can contribute to two parallel worlds.

There is a stark contrast between Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale and the revolutionary energy. Taking into consideration long weeks of Swan Lake preparation prior to the revolution, it would be very hard for the Cairo Opera Ballet Company now to work on another production from scratch. “The performance was almost finalised prior to the revolution. Work on costumes and scenography was already in process. It would have been a great loss hadn’t we used that capital,” Kamel added.

At the beginning of the 2010/2011 season, it was planned that the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus would perform Swan Lake at the stage of the Cairo Opera House in April. But the company’s visit to Egypt has been postponed and they might eventually come with another work.

Swan Lake rehearsals by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company are in their final hours… Soon we will be able to attend the ballet which has not been performed by the company for the past eight years. Performances will be accompanied by the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui. Set design and costumes: Mohamed El-Gharabawy.

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