'Le Corsaire is a very special work': Cairo Ballet Company artistic director on new season opening

Amina Abdel Halim, Wednesday 30 Aug 2017

Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, spoke to Ahram Online about the opening show of the season as well as the company’s future plans

Le Corsaire ballet in Cairo
Le Corsaire ballet in Cairo (photo: Sherif Sonbol)

As the beginning of a new season approaches, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company is preparing for its opening show, a performance of Marius Petipa’s iconic work, Le Corsaire, which is set to open 29 September.

Le Corsaire was originally choreographed by French dancer and Ballet Master Joseph Mazilier, to the music of Alphonse Adam, and performed in 1856 by the ballet company of the Theatre Imperial de l’Opera, in Paris. However, all modern productions are based on the revivals created by legendary French and Russian Ballet Master Marius Petipa, to the music of Riccardo Drigo, for the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburgh.

The story, which is loosely based on Lord Byron’s poem, The Corsair, follows the adventures of a pirate named Conrad, who travels across seas to save the beautiful Medora from the slave trader, Lakendem. Le Corsaire is a stirring tale of passion, romance, love and betrayal.

“Le Corsaire is a very special ballet. Its originality partly lies in its score, which was reworked and arranged by multiple composers, among them Adam and Drigo, followed by many others throughout the ages,” explained Erminia Kamel.

The ballet was first brought to Egypt in 1994 by the former chairman of the Cairo Opera House, Abdel Moneim Kamel.

“Abdel Moneim Kamel always wanted to bring new additions to the Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s repertoire, like the Nutcracker, Swan Lake or Don Quichotte. Le Corsaire is one of the great names in the classical ballet repertoire, and my husband thus felt that it must be performed by our company. With the help of some great Russian choreographers, he was the first to stage it here, in Cairo,” Erminia recalls.

She adds that she was the first to dance the lead role of Medora in Egypt, and this year’s edition will feature Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia in the roles of the couple, and Ahmed Nabil as the villain, Lakendem.

The version of Le Corsaire presented at the Cairo Opera House is very similar to Petipa’s original choreography. However, when it was first introduced in Cairo by Abdel Moneim Kamel, some edits had to be made, mainly due to the length of the show.

The version of the ballet presented in the 19th century was four and a half hours long which, as Erminia Kamel points out, would no longer be suited to modern audiences.

“Ballets like Le Corsaire were first staged centuries ago. At the time, people would talk, dine and drink during the performance. Nowadays, people watch the ballet in silence and focus all their attention on the dancing. Asking them to do so for four continuous hours would be extravagant, which is why our shows, including the entracte, seldom exceed an hour and a half,” she explains.

She also expressed her desire to attract a young audience to the company’s shows: “I want young people to be able to enjoy our shows, as much as people my age and older. Let me tell you, I attended a performance of Le Corsaire at the Bolshoi Theatre in Italy. It was the full, uncut version — four acts, four and and a half hours. I must say, even I could not watch a ballet for that long, even though I work in the field. It was too much, there were too many repetitions, the steps are the same."

"So it is not just a matter of age or experience,” she commented, laughing.

As for her choice to open the season with Le Corsaire, Erminia noted that the ballet has not been performed in three years, and that it is important to preserve the Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s rich repertoire.

“Every year, I am asked to bring a new addition to the repertoire, while also preserving our older works. This is why I chose Le Corsaire as our opening piece, because it is a beautiful ballet that we have not performed for quite some time.”

This year’s new addition is another of Petipa’s iconic works, La Bayadere, on which Erminia will be collaborating with prominent Romanian dancer and choreographer Valentin Bartes.

“I insisted on having our company perform La Bayadere this year: it is a classic, and a beautiful ballet which has never been performed by our company. However, it has been performed in Cairo by some foreign companies,” said Erminia, adding: “While I do know La Bayadere, staging it requires a great amount of work, too much for a single person to take on, which is why I solicited the help of Valentin Bartes.”

Another artist who will be assisting in the production of La Bayadere is Italian costume designer Gianluca Saitto.

“For this ballet, there is an enormous amount of costume-making at hand. [Saitto] designed the costumes for last year’s new addition to the repertoire, Coppelia, so I am certain that he will do some great work this year, too,” she said, adding that the costumes would be of Indian and Oriental inspiration.

“We chose this style because the story of La Bayadere is a fantasy, and it is not specified where the action takes place, but you can tell from the storyline that it is situated somewhere in an Eastern country. If you look at other companies’ productions, you will notice that the costumes for the first act appear very Oriental, while in the second act, they are very classic; so overall, there is a mix of styles,” she said.

Erminia went on to speak of the challenges of navigating a tight budget. While the arts, like all sectors, suffered from the economic state of the country, Erminia Kamel believes that the Cairo Opera House artists’ dedication to this exceptional institution allowed them to stay strong and united under difficult circumstances.

The Cairo Opera House is, in fact, one of a kind on the African continent.

“We had to restrict the budget for the costumes and, at times, put some work on hold due to late payments. But we are, after all, part of the Cairo Opera House, the only opera house in all Africa. Such financial difficulties affect the institution as a whole, not just our company. When problems arose, we were all angry and frustrated. However, the knowledge that we are part of something so special, that we were only suffering to protect this unique entity, was what kept us going,” she said.

Le Corsaire will be performed in Cairo 29 and 30 September, and on 1 and 2 October. May 2018 will mark the debut of La Bayadere at the Cairo Opera House.

Cairene audiences can also look forward to some of the Ballet Company’s classic productions, namely Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, as well as a new version of Carmina Burana.

Dancers of the Cairo Opera House Ballet Company are set to travel to Alexandria in June, to present another of their classic productions, Zorba.

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