When in the 1930s Sergei Prokofiev decided to approach William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, he was already an experienced composer with half a dozen ballets, several operas, and a few symphonies to his name. Yet it was the Romeo and Juliet ballet that positioned him in the major league, alongside Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Stravinsky.
Shakespeare's dramatic genius has inspired writers, painters and composers. Romeo and Juliet is, no doubt, one of the Bard's most illustrious works.
The upcoming performances of the famed ballet coincide with the world's celebrations of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. The ballet returns to the Cairo Opera House Main Hall after four years of absence and will be performed on five evenings: 30 May, followed by 1, 2, 3 and 4 June.
Directed by the late Abdel-Moneim Kamel, the ballet's choreography is based on Lavrosky, Cranco and MacMillan and is now revived by artistic director Erminia Kamel.
"The version of Romeo and Juliet that the Cairo Opera Ballet Company presents manages to combine the many classical ballet elements with a profound human touch," Anja Ahcin, first dancer and Juliet on three evenings, comments to Ahram Online. "Dr Abdel-Moneim Kamel managed to fuse what is the best from all the choreographers and embraced it in his own vision."
Ahcin explains that the first act carries a lot of classical Russian ballet elements. In the second and third acts, the movements become softer and as such support the profound emotions emerging from the work and the music. She goes on to describe Prokofiev's music as a painting that helps the choreographer in creating living images.
Ahcin, who underwent her training in Serbia, came to Egypt in 2006. Though at this time she was already an award winning ballet dancer in her home country, placed third in an important Rome ballet competition and recipient of a scholarship to continue her ballet studies in Germany, she preferred to step on the stage and "get some practical experience."
"I always wanted to live on the stage, not just in the rehearsal rooms. I don’t regret my decision. I gained a different kind of knowledge and experience. The rehearsal hall creates technically perfect dancers; the stage requires some charisma," Ahcin explains.
Ahcin recalls how in 2006 she joined the Cairo Opera Ballet Company's corps de ballet and within a few months she started taking solo parts. Soon after, in 2007, she was given her first big role — that of Juliet.
"Juliet holds a special place in my heart, of course partially because it was my first big role. I was lucky that Erminia Kamel gave me this opportunity many years back."
Enchanted by music and choreography, every time Ahcin dances Juliet, she relives the experience. She tells how she keeps reading and re-reading Shakespeare's text, going deeper into the character until she becomes Juliet on the stage, acting like her and thinking with her words. Ahcin finds a lot of depth in every verse of the Shakespearean play; she follows the many transformations of the protagonist and looks into her internal struggles.
After her debut as Juliet, Ahcin became the Cairo Opera Ballet Company's first dancer and settled in Egypt. Over the past few years, she danced Kitri in Don Quixote, Odette in Swan Lake, Phrygia in Spartacus, among dozens of other leading roles.
Since 2008, Ahcin's only partner is Ahmed Yehia, also first dancer in the same company and Romeo in Prokofiev's ballet. On a professional level, it didn’t take them long to turn into one of the iconic pairs sought after by many ballet aficionados. In time, the dreamy Shakespearean lovers took their affair beyond the stage: the couple tied the knot in 2012.
"Dancing with a life partner benefits from the profound link between one another, but also sets challenges," Ahcin comments on her experience of working with her now husband. "While rehearsing with a colleague, one usually tends to choose words or behave carefully when commenting on mistakes. This is why it happens that during the rehearsals clashes erupt between married couples. On the stage, however, it is all compensated by the matchless degree of understanding."
With each duet, the audience is breathtaken by the obvious artistic synergy between Ahcin and Yehia. The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, adagio from The Nutcracker, the love duet between Odette and Siegfried, the powerful union of Phrygia and Spartacus, or another grand pas de deux from Don Quixote are among their most powerful dance scenes. On many occasions the pair also managed to cross the fourth wall and touch the audience with their emotions. Don't they say that good ballet dancers are expected to be perfect technically and project good acting skills, while great dancers are those who manage to connect with the audience?
"Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful opportunity for the dancers to express their emotions. Like many ballets based on great plays, this specific tragedy has a complex story with characters that are very well drawn. As artists, we must understand the role and each detail we perform very well. If I don't know what the movement means, the audience will never understand me."
Ahcin adds that for a ballet dancer it is never enough to be technically perfect. "Experience and general culture improve the performance in a tremendous way," she comments.
"Each time I dance I learn something new. For a young girl it might be difficult to relate to the many meanings that any given ballet work carries. One needs to go through the natural course of life and personal developments to fully understand the character's structure and be able to transfer those emotions to dance."
Ahcin, however, does not stop at perfecting her technique and drawing from life experience. Naturally curious and constantly seeking knowledge, she enjoys reading behind every work, embarking onto explorations of literature and history at large.
"The element of general education is extremely important, not only for the ballet dancer but for any artist and any human being. Education is not only a certificate we receive from a university. It is also — or maybe mostly — reading books, deepening knowledge, learning about the world ... This is where we build our true intellectual wealth. Culture makes one rich and it is this accumulated knowledge that allows one to touch on the many emotions, and explore many issues, and gives us the ability to transfer all this capital into art. Only then the artist and his art become truthful and convincing."
Taking the main roles on her shoulders does not stop Ahcin from engaging several other activities. She deepens her academic development and is currently studying creative industries in the Faculty of Management at Alfa Univerzitet, Belgrade, Serbia. At the same time, Ahcin teaches ballet at the Easy Talent Academy in Maadi, an experience that she talks about tenderly, pointing to the many young girls she introduces into the world of art.
Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet ballet
Cairo Opera Ballet Company
Direction: Abdel-Moneim Kamel; Artistic director: Erminia Kamel
Choreography: Lavrosky, Cranco, MacMillan and Abdel-Moneim Kamel
Cairo Opera Orchestra; Conductor: Hisham Gabr
Friday, 30 May, Monday, 2 June and Wednesday, 4 June
Ahmed Yehia as Romeo and Anja Ahcin as Juliet
Sunday, 1 June and Tuesday, 3 June
Mamdouh Hassan as Romeo and Katia Ivanova as Juliet
Cairo Opera House, Main Hall, 8pm