The Cairo Opera’s real-life Romeo and Juliet: A talk with Egypt's renowned ballet pair

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 16 Apr 2016

Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia, are both first dancers of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. Partners in dance and life, they talk about their life on stage, passions and dreams

Romeo and Juliet
Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia in Romeo and Juliet, Cairo Opera House, 2014 (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Between 14 and 19 April, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company stages Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. For over four centuries this famed Shakespearean tragedy has inspired composers, painters and writers, resonating in the hearts of audiences of many cultural backgrounds.

Equally in Egypt, the Bard’s classic pair – joined by love, separated by family name (the Capulets and the Montagues) – holds a special place in the audience’s hearts, and the ballet is one of its main representations. However, above Prokofiev’s music and emotional choreography, Cairo Opera frequenters are also lured by the dancers in whom they find the perfect embodiment of the tragedy’s characters.

It is in this context that, for years now, two of the company’s first dancers, Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia, have made their mark on Egyptian and now international stages. And though Romeo and Juliet remains one of their most remarkable works, they also danced together leading roles in numerous ballets: Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Don Quixote, Cinderella, Coppelia, among others.

Romeo and Juliet is very special to me as a dancer,” Ahcin explains, pointing out that it was her first main role on the stage of the Cairo Opera House, back in 2006. Her partner in dance and life, Ahmed Yehia, sees a deep artistic wealth in Romeo and Juliet. “I love when a work has rich drama, when it requires more than just the technical skills of ballet,” he comments, adding that he finds a similarly rewarding depth in Swan Lake, Le Corsaire and Spartacus.

Both take the time to explain how their work on stage is complemented with research into the text. With each re-staging and each re-reading, they find new values in the work presented – and it is this profound dedication to their art that makes Romeo and Juliet among their most remarkable works, one in which they fuse skill and ballet beauty, with a highly emotional performance.

Ahmed Yehia in Cinderella. Cairo Opera House, 2015. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

No wonder they performed a segment of Romeo and Juliet last March during the closing gala of the International Ballet and Contemporary Dance Competition Domenico Modugno in Bari, Italy – to the audience’s and critics’ acclaim.

That was but one of the several international commitments. They are to perform Coppelia at the International Dance Gala in Livorno, Italy in May. Such growing popularity brings them a lot of joy, but they agree it also entails a heavy responsibility.

“At first I was very hesitant. I kept asking myself what if I wasn’t good enough, what if I let my colleagues, my trainers, all the people who believe in me down,” Ahcin comments, displaying the strong self-criticism that seems to be the driving force behind her development and success. Yehia adds however that despite the pressure that recognition places on a dancer, “it is a very rewarding feeling to know that the audience reacts to the dancer’s name, not only to a ballet.”

It took much passion and talent to achieve such recognition. Both dancers’ profiles give evidence of both determination and limitless hard work, whether as ballet dancers, artists or creative spirits. Though coming from two different worlds, Ahcin from Serbia and Yehia from Egypt, they were both born into families that encouraged ballet and the arts.

As a very young dancer, Ahcin won third place at Italy’s prestigious Premio Roma ballet competition (2006). It was around the same time that she completed ballet training in her home country Serbia, briefly joining the Belgrade National Theatre.

“At the time, there was no ballet academy in Belgrade and all secondary ballet school graduates could either continue their dance education outside Serbia or join the troupe at the National Theatre.” Though Ahcin was accepted in the theatre, where she stayed for a few months and received a scholarship to continue her studies in Germany – to the surprise of many – she decided to join the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, finding in it an opportunity for practical experience on a large stage.

Anja Ahcin in Bolero. Cairo Opera House, 2013 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Ahcin first joined the corps de ballet, within a few months she started taking solo parts and soon after, in 2007, she was given her first big role — that of Juliet.

Ahcin stresses however that, with her passion for performing, she still wanted to complete a university degree. She enrolled in the Faculty of Management at Alfa Univerzitet, Belgrade to study creative industries, going back to Belgrade to take her exams and doing a lot of work online. She finally graduated only a few weeks ago.

Being “an extremely well organised person,” as Yehia describes her, Ahcin believes that any ballet dancer should have “an alternative educational backup. You never know when you will have to stop dancing and start another career”.

In his turn, Yehia started his ballet education at the age of eight at Egypt’s Ballet Institute (Academy of Arts). He became the Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s principal dancer at the age of 16 and, in 2000, he won First Prize as the best Egyptian dancer in a local ballet competition. Among other early achievements, he was also one of the finalists at a ballet competition organised in Russia.

And just like Ahcin’s, Yehia’s path was not without self-doubt. “As a boy, there was a moment when I wanted to quit ballet altogether. This is when my father, an artist working at the Al-Thaqafa Al-Jamahiria [the Cultural Palaces Authority], told me to make more of an effort before giving up for good. In the same year, a new teacher, Mohamed Mostafa, took care of my development. He saw something in me. He told me, ‘If you like ballet you will grow. You have a talent and you can have a brilliant future.’ Those few words made a great impact on me. I worked on myself and in a short time I became first in my year,” he says.

Romeo and Juliet
Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia in Romeo and Juliet, Cairo Opera House, 2014 (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

As he matured, dancing, Yehia also got involved in cinema, acting in films such as Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria-New York (2004), a movie that was featured at Cannes Film Festival and for which Yehia received an award at a local film festival, Emad El-Bahat’s Ostoghomaya (2006) and El-Belyatcho (2007) as well as Chahine’s This is Chaos (2007). He was also part of Saad Hendawy’s TV series Zay El-Ward (2012).

Even though, as Ahcin puts it, “Ahmed is fascinated with cinema,” at the moment he focuses on ballet. He says, “Maybe when I have to stop dancing, I will turn to acting more. It is a wonderful field right now, but I can’t really predict what my future holds.”

Preoccupied with their current performances, international exposure, both Ahcin and Yehia, believe their careers are at their peak and hope to utilise those years to the fullest. Their professional support of one another has been strengthened by marriage since they tied a knot in 2012.

“It is not unusual that a ballet pair finds this unique chemistry which can lead to a deeper relationship, feeding the performance itself,” Ahcin explains. “We always find a perfect way to work together, to create art together and overcome artistic challenges. Ahmed knows me very well and I know him too. I also feel very secure dancing with him.”

But an artistic marriage can also be a challenge. Ahmed explains that “when dancing with a colleague, you tend to encourage your partner more and criticise less.” Both Ahcin and Yehia say that, with a life partner, it is criticism that comes to the fore, at times leading to harsh confrontations in the studio or rehearsal hall.

In this context, Ahcin recalls Coppelia, a ballet that was performed in Cairo in October 2015. In it, Swanhilde keeps giving her beloved Franz a hard time and, in his turn, Franz does not refrain from driving the seemingly sweet girl mad. “During the rehearsals of Coppelia, our trainers and choreographer kept teasing us, saying the two roles perfectly depict our real-life relationship,” she giggles.

Anja Ahcin (Swanhilde) and Ahmed Yehia (Franz) perform on the first night of Coppélia ballet, on 20 October 2015. (Photo: courtesy of the Cairo Opera House)

Yet, despite artistic skirmishes in the rehearsal halls, the creative bond between Ahcin and Yehia is filled with human warmth. As they dance in front of the audience, the “real artists” as some international critics call them have a unique and distinctive charisma, one that is deeply-rooted in their skills, their understanding of the material and their emotional connection. At the peak of their careers, not only do their performances testify to talent and skill, they also create convincing characters who tell a story through dance.

Ahcin recalls the words of the legendary French ballerina Violette Verdy [1933-2016], head of the jury who approached her after her award-winning performance in Rome: “Verdy told me, ‘Today, ballet has become gymnastics and art is lost. Please cherish and keep the charisma you have as this is what will make you a successful dancer.’ At that time I was still perfecting my jumps and turns, and I did not understand what she really meant. It took years to realise that ballet is much more than just technical abilities.”

Yehia agrees with Ahcin, underlining that what he believes makes a perfect dancer is talent and intelligence; by the latter he also means an ability to look deeply into the character and the text. He reveals that he would never go on stage without first understanding all the details and nuances of his role and those of the other characters, the setting and the cultural components embedded in the ballet’s historical background.

“There comes a moment in a ballet career when one has already mastered many technical elements. This is when, as we continue perfecting our skills, we also start searching for more,” Yehia comments on stepping beyond pure gymnastics and finding art. Ahcin adds that it is only then that the dancers, mature, can work on their intellectual and emotional development, enhancing the performance creating a unique creative beauty.

As Ahcin and Yehia continue dancing and developing, each success urges them to exert even more effort. Having garnered recognition from Egyptian and international audiences, they are now also teaching, hoping to pass their skill and experience to enthusiastic ballet students.

“I see a lot of potential in Egyptian children wanting to learn ballet. Many have obvious predispositions to this art. We try to give them technical direction, explain to them the many aspects of ballet as an art form and motivate them,” Ahcin concludes. Together with Yehia, she says, she hopes to bring up a new generation of Egyptian dancers.  

Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia in Cinderella. Cairo Opera House, 2015 (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Anja Ahcin and Ahmed Yehia dance Romeo and Juliet on 14, 17 and 19 April at the Cairo Opera House.
Check other days and all details about the ballet production here


This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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