Return of ballet Spartacus to the Cairo Opera House raises questions

Anja Ahcin as Phrygia and Ahmed Yehia as Spartacus in Spartacus ballet by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, February 2014. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Anja Ahcin as Phrygia and Ahmed Yehia as Spartacus in Spartacus ballet by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, February 2014. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

The decision to cut parts of Spartacus showed a lack of understanding of what audiences appreciate in the ballet

Published in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly

Between 21 and 28 February, the Cairo Opera House Main Hall was given to the ballet Spartacus. Performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company to music by Aram Khachaturian and choreography by Valentin Yelizariev, this was the second time that the Cairo audience was treated to this work.

Yelizariev’s Spartacus premiered in Egypt in 2010, when the choreographer and his team worked with the Egyptian dancers to recreate the work that Yelizariev has already performed with the National Academic Bolshoi Ballet Theatre of Belarus. The 2010 production of Spartacus by the Cairo Opera Ballet company was a great success and the ballet was repeated in the same year.

Taking into account the theme of the work – the slave revolt led by Spartacus against the tyranny of the Roman Empire – it made sense that the ballet company should bring this artistic interpretation of revolution to the stage of the Cairo Opera House once again, this time after three years of revolution in the Arab world.

Yet, according to Erminia Kamel, the artistic director of the troupe, in order to ensure the continuous versatility of the repertoire, plans set for 2011 formed even prior to the revolution already they did not include Spartacus. Though Kamel hoped to have the ballet staged in the 2012-2013 season, she points to the period of rule by the Muslim Brotherhood as the main obstacle in the way of the ballet being performed. Yelizariev’s work includes many scenes which, though performed with the aesthetic beauty of classic ballet, carry erotic character. The removal of the relevant scenes would have affected the dramatic line while leaving them would have definitely added fuel to an already burning debate on ballet as art that emerged among the Islamist figures in power during the Morsi’s reign.

Kamel had to wait for the winds of change before attempting to perform Spartacus. Finally, in 2014, the performance is back. Though this year’s Spartacus included all main components of the dramaturgical skeleton and the splendour of the work was obvious in several scenes, the performance was trimmed.

The ballet had a number of scenes removed from the third act and the remaining ones fused into the second act, creating a performance consisting of two acts (instead of the original three) and approximately 30-40 minutes shorter. According to Kamel, this procedure was aimed at audiences that prefer shorter pieces. Though the reasons for such a procedure sound understandable, a deeper look into the history of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, its positioning in Egypt and the repertoire it offers, the whole concept of cuts results in more drawbacks than improvements.

The first and foremost thought that comes to my mind is the audience appreciation with which the Cairo Opera Ballet Company has been pampered with for many years. It is almost impossible to point to a single ballet that wasn’t performed to a full house (or at least large audience), regardless of its length or thematic content. The Egyptian audience likes attending ballet, and it would make sense to capitalise on this trend, inviting the audiences to even bigger and better works, as this would only help develop tastes and ingrain the opera-going habit.

Even though the dramatic line of Spartacus was respected, with the cuts restricted to repetitions in the music, it still affects the conceptual depth of the work, which forms part of its soul. Such depth is attained through a variety of elements, including repetition.

The performing arts are about far more than a faithful retelling of a story. In Spartacus, the scenes depicting the lavish entertainment of Roman patricians celebrating victory — presented more than once in the second and third acts — place important stress on the specific character of the Roman Empire: its vanity, pompousness and excessive love of spectacle. It also makes the contrast between the tyrants and the slaves represented by Spartacus much sharper and more harrowing. The removal of one such scene takes away from the weight of the original concept.

What is more, it is through repetition that Yelizariev’s original choreography introduces artistically fulfilling images, wonderful tableaus that shape the characters and underscore their emotional involvement in the story. Group scenes in the third act, many of which were removed, portray Spartacus as the hero of the slave rebellion. For Yelizariev Spartacus is not simply a popular gladiator and the leader of a revolt in the course of the Servile Wars; he is also a character with whom we sympathise. By the end of the ballet, Yelizariev creates large scenes that carry a lot of figurative work expressed through bodily and group symmetries.

This kaleidoscopic harmony, whether repetitive or not, whether monotonous to some viewers or not, represents a significant part of the show’s artistic vocabulary, underlining unity in pain and unconditional solidarity. When those images are removed, the conceptual side of the ballet is undermined; the meaning becomes somewhat more superficial, and the viewer is asked to rely too much on the storyline.

Having said that, while Khachaturian’s melodies might be catchy, orchestration is definitely not his strong point. The grand music he hopes to create in some of Spartacus’ scenes becomes very challenging material that the orchestra must break up to save the music from being too dense and heavy on the listeners.

In this regard the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui did a very good job, moving across the orchestral sections with ease and underscoring the many captivating musical meanings while covering up the structural pitfalls.

The cuts definitely rendered the work much easier for the orchestra, and the dancers of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company likewise benefited from a more concise ballet. The job of the orchestra and the dancers was easier with less room for potential glitches. Many captivating tableaus were created out of scenes like the confrontations between Spartacus and the Roman consul Crassus, the aesthetic dance with concubines or the touching adagio between Spartacus and Phrygia. The final scene portraying slaves looking up to Spartacus after his death infuses the work with a real emotional charge.

But the nagging question remains: is this really about a collection of individual scenes that are not repetitive? Are the artists themselves satisfied with this rendition of the ballet? Even more importantly, was the audience satisfied with this Spartacus?

Maybe the company would be surprised to find out that, apart from several satisfactory remarks, some audience members who are not opera regulars pointed to “lack of depth”. Although they were not always able to explain what generated this sensation, it is an important observation.

The 2014 Spartacus was definitely an interesting presentation of this iconic work, yet the cuts raise wide-ranging questions about the entirety of a given artistic work. Whether the Cairo Opera Ballet Company garners positive or negative criticism throughout dozens of its works over the past decades, it is this specific company that represents a wonderful tool for the Cairo Opera House to actually attract a large audience to the main hall — and how on earth cutting helps with that is beyond me.

Indeed it is hard not to notice the Cairo Opera’s tendency to reach to a wider audience, particularly since the 2011 revolution. This philosophy bears fruit, especially in the context of concerts by the independent musicians. Yet choices like the abridged Spartacus, while not necessarily serving that purpose, fail to stress the kind of artistic depth represented by the Opera’s core companies.

The Cairo Symphony Orchestra for instance began introducing an increasing number of lighter programming elements through gala concerts and evenings that incorporate musical and jazz repertoires, but this is happening at the expense of its core mission which is presenting symphonic works. Operating without any clear management, today the orchestra is losing vision and its programming has become random.

In its turn, the Cairo Opera Company’s repetitive repertoire, with the same names appearing in the same roles, can no longer sustain the splendour of even the most beloved operatic programming elements.

It is probably the Cairo Opera Ballet Company that continuously aims at adjusting to the many challenges coming its way, be it political changes (for example, Mohamed Morsi’s presidency), budget cuts or the loss of many good dancers.

Having the constant attention of the audience, today it is the Cairo Opera Ballet Company in particular that holds the key to bringing to the listeners the values of classical ballet and classical music. As such, it is the Cairo Opera Ballet Company that stands at the threshold of audience potential. It is hard to accept that instead of capitalising on its remarkable positioning and gains, in Spartacus the company chose to step back.

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