Egypt's Firebird premiere: Risky experiment

Ati Metwaly, Saturday 8 Nov 2014

Between 28 and 30 October, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company staged Danses qu’on croise and Egypt's premiere of Stravinsky’s Firebird. The latter ballet did not stand up to the high expectations created by the heavy promotion

Firebird dress rehearsal (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

The Cairo Opera Ballet Company recently performed Brahms’ Danses qu’on croise, with choreography by Thierry Malandain, followed by Stravinsky’s Firebird, with new choreography by Walid Aouni. The performances opened on 28 October and continued for three consecutive evenings.

For weeks prior to the performance, the event was heavily promoted on Facebook (one of the main channels used by the Cairo Opera House to advertise events), with the focus on Firebird. The implication was that the Brahms portion of the show, Hungarian dances, would be secondary, a mere ornament to the core that is Firebird.

Even the flyers printed by the Cairo Opera House placed Stravinsky in the foreground. Such heavy promotion of the Stravinsky ballet made the audience curious and raised its expectations. They were persuaded that Firebird was not to be missed, even if that meant giving less attention to Malandain’s masterpiece which, though a returning ballet, is interesting enough at the level of both music and choreography to merit attention.

That said, a Stravinsky ballet is certainly an event. For the Egyptian audience, Stravinsky is after all hardly a regular programme feature, whether in symphonic or ballet form. Stravinsky’s compositions rarely make it onto the schedule of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s weekly concerts. The last Cairo performance of the Rite of the Spring, with Joseph Russillo’s choreography, was back in 2006.

Walid Aouni’s take on Firebird -- and premiering it in Egypt -- marks an important event in the history of the Cairo Opera. It also underlines the return of the Lebanese artist to the scene, since Firebird is Aouni’s first significant work since 2011.

Aouni is best known for his work over two decades with the Egyptian Modern Dance Theatre Company, during which time he served as its choreographer and artistic director. Since its founding in the early 1990s, the company has staged 26 performances designed by Aouni.

After he stepped down from management of the troupe and the January 2011 Revolution, we lost track of Aouni’s major artistic whereabouts. There was, however, his contribution to the “100 Years of Egyptian Art” celebration in June 2011, an event that filled the Cairo Opera’s main hall with a range of shows, including Aouni’s “Egyptian Arts Centennial” show.

Firebird dress rehearsal (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

A Russian fable

But let’s first look at the thematic content of Firebird. The story draws on Slavic folk traditions, with the namesake representing a difficult search for a mythical animal: a peacock whose feathers burn like fire. The bird has parallels across many cultures: Armenian folk tales, the Brothers Grimm’s The Golden Bird, Iranian legends, and The Bird of the Golden Feather, a folktale from what we know today as Syria.

In classical antiquity, the Phoenix was a magic bird associated with the sun. It is found in Persian, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Chinese mythology. The bird, depicted in various forms, is part of humankind’s cultural history. Its popularity guarantees an artist the approval of history, regardless of that artist’s particular creative interpretation.

Stravinsky based Firebird on old Russian fables, where magic is an important component in the struggle between good and evil. Michel Fokine’s 1910 choreography remains a dominant classical interpretation of the ballet yet a number of the contemporary choreographers have tried to break with the traditional dance concepts of that original work.

Fokine’s choreography is often accompanied by scenography marked by mystical elements, soaked in dark colours and mist. The story follows Ivan Tsarevich, who captures the firebird. In exchange for its freedom, Tsarevich is offered one of the bird’s magical feathers.

The story then shifts to the empire of the immortal sorcerer Kashchei who has imprisoned many maidens in his castle, one of whom captures Tsarevich’s heart. With the help of magical powers, Tsarevich frees the maidens and destroys Kashchei’s supernatural empire.

Aouni’s interpretation of the iconic tale departs from the original story. “The real traditional story no longer exists,” we read in the programme notes. “The bird sees itself in a colourless age.”

Responding to the progressive character of Stravinsky’s score, Aouni aimed to go beyond the classical limitations and breathe new life into the ballet. He created a stage surrounded by large white screens, with projection panels enclosing the stage on three sides. The white walls give the scene a claustrophobic feeling, as if the action were taking place inside a box.

Within this closed box, a collection of numbers are performed by dancers dressed in colourful corsets with short chiffon tails. There are continuous projections of seasons and emotion-stirring images, a lot of floor movement, and an abundance of colours, including a length of red fabric suspended from the ceiling which vanishes as fast as it appears, and a few props.

In the final scene, male dancers with wings enter the stage: their green costumes and boots can be read as the camouflage outfits of hunters or military units. Taking into account that the winged characters have come to rescue the maidens from the evil Kashchei, one remains confused as to how to interpret Aouni’s choice of camouflage clothing.

To make the ideological equation even harder to resolve, Aouni entwines the story with representations of the four seasons —spring, autumn, summer and winter —and the four elements — earth, water, air, and fire, images of which are projected on the screens throughout the ballet.

No doubt there are a whole lot of ideas behind this 35-minute show, but juggling such big universal symbols without creating links between the details, the vision becomes wobbly. The sheer accumulation of unrelated elements and the lack of a focal point kills what possible gains each idea might have brought to the performance.

Firebird dress rehearsal (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Devil is in the detail

At the level of how the dance was executed, it is obvious that Aouni aimed to explore the idea of unlimited time and space found in the original production. But he has broken with the classical ballet form, giving Firebird what he refers to as a neoclassical facelift.

Born at the beginning of the 20th century, neoclassical ballet is the offspring of classical ballet, a typical revolutionary child who challenges established forms and expressions. Yet, like any child hoping to change the world, notwithstanding the rupture he or she intended, neoclassicism has creatively enriched the classical elements.

Neoclassical ballet adds to the conventional classical dance vocabulary, offering greater flexibility of the body and more varied hand and foot work, sharper movements and defined angles, with a focus on expressive, even acrobatic, skills.

This so-called destruction of classical ballet expands creative meanings by using technique that emphasises the virtuosity of the movements used. Aouni, with his understanding of Stravinksy’s innovative score, decided to use this liberated dance form.

Aouni fills the neoclassical format with the components at hand, many of which turn out to be random rather than bound by a single unifying vision, even if they remain catchy. In the course of the action, however, as the classical ballet format breaks down, the virtuosity and artistic ideas required of the neoclassical technique lose their footing. The end result is technically somewhere in-between the classical and neoclassical ballet, failing to do justice to either style.

The Cairo Opera Ballet Company has an abundance of talent. Most of its dancers are masters of classical ballet who sometimes add other dance forms to their repertoire.

The evening opened on a classical note and a beautiful theatrical presentation of Malandain’s dance narrative, Danses qu’on croise.Aouni’s Firebird was expected to highlight the troupe’s artistry, transposing it into a neoclassical form.

In the first scene of the Firebird, we see a group of dancers lying on stage on their backs, performing prolonged legwork. In sharp movements, they draw sharp angles with their feet, hands, and raised legs. It looks not unlike synchronized swimming minus the swimming pool. No offence is intended in the comparison, but it is important to note that whatever Aouni hoped to achieve, it is this that he ends up with.

Firebird dress rehearsal (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Many of the dance numbers that follow likewise continue to fuse classical ballet with aerobics and fail to take the performance to a higher level, to create what might be recognised as neoclassical dance.

Maybe the troupe needed more rehearsal time, or maybe the choreographer’s vision did not fit this particular company. It is also possible that the vision failed because it lacked a thematic core, as well as remained deficient in the adornment or embroidery of such a core.

In many scenes, Aouni placed a large number of dancers on stage, giving the whole group occasional solos, pas de deux or pas de trois. Here, the different ballet formations needed the choreographer’s critical eye and probably a longer rehearsal time. A large number of dancers can create extremely powerful imagery. But once even a tiny element is less than perfect, the result is a sense of technical chaos.

Shortcomings in the choreography takes away from the artistic power that Stravinsky’s mighty score delivers. In this context, it is important to underline the commendable efforts of the Cairo Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nayer Nagui, who brought to the fore numerous important details, accentuating crucial stresses within the music.

What we often lacked, however, was an interaction between the music and the choreography. And the music is rich in captivating themes, supernatural accents, chromatic motifs and folkloric material. At times we are taken into the detailed instrumental contemplations, at other times we admire the large orchestration. Yet, in Aouni's Firebird, this profound and vibrant musical material, remained often distant from what was taking place on stage.

Even in Stravinsky’s finale, when all the magical evils have been conquered and the crescendo yearns for strong visual imagery, Aouni chose to give this power away to a group of previously seen male dancers, who are meant to be the heroes of the night. Dressed as hunters or soldiers, they move hastily across the stage.

What adds to the fiasco of the finale is the screening of a video showing Stravinsky conducting Firebird. It has no place in the ballet, and only adds to the sense of randomness in the work’s chosen elements.

Moreover, despite Nagui’s efforts to synchronise the Cairo Opera Orchestra with the images on the screen, it was due to the deficiency of technical tools that would make this procedure successful, that the final artistic delivery suffered.

There were high expectations for the performance, the first time the iconic work has been viewed by an Egyptian audience. But by challenging the work’s concepts and forms, Aouni opened up a Pandora’s box.

The new production relies on random visual effects, screens, projections, colours and, in the final scene, an irrelevant video.

It has little to do with the depth of the original work, misses the many values contained in Stravinsky’s score and ignores the pillars of neoclassical ballet. In the absence of a general vision, the devil lurks in far too many details.

Firebird dress rehearsal (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly


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