'Spartacus' back at Cairo Opera House after 4-year absence

Ati Metwaly, Wednesday 19 Feb 2014

Artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company Erminia Kamel talks with Ahram Online about the re-staging of the ballet 'Spartacus' this month, and why this year's performance can't be missed

Abdel Moneim Kamel
Abdel Moneim Kamel, director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and former chairman of the Cairo Opera House with dancers during 'Spartacus' rehearsals in April 2010. (Photo: courtesy of the Cairo Opera House)

The ballet Spartacus with Valentin Yelizariev's choreography will be staged at the Cairo Opera House from 21 to 28 February, by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company accompanied by the Cairo Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nayer Nagui.

The event marks the company's second performance of the ballet after its 2010 premiere, and coincides with a special tribute to the late Abdel-Moneim Kamel, former chairman of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and a crucial figure behind the realisation of Spartacus. Opening night, 21 February, is Kamel's birthday; the anniversary of his death, 25 February 2013, will include a special tribute before the opening of the curtain.

The story of Spartacus takes the audience back to first-century BC, when slaves revolted against the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Led by the Thracian slave and gladiator Spartacus, the uprising involved up to 100,000 revolutionaries at one point. In 71 BC, Spartacus was defeated by Marcus Licinius Crassus, the powerful commander of the Roman Empire. Spartacus' story was first recorded by the historians Plutarch and Appian, with mythic elements woven into the story over the following centuries. The story of brave Spartacus, an iconic revolutionary hero, has attracted many writers, composers and filmmakers. The music for Spartacus the ballet was composed in 1954 by Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.

In April 2009, choreographer Yelizariev brought Spartacus to Egypt, as performed by the National Academic Bolshoi Ballet Theatre from Belarus, of which Yelizariev has been artistic director and chief choreographer since 1992. Only a year later he and his team recreated the choreography with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company.

Erminia Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, explains that Spartacus remains one of the company's most important repertoire elements.

"Many Russian choreographers prefer to work with Russian companies. It was due to the great efforts of Abdel-Moneim Kamel and his positioning in Russian ballet history [Kamel performed in Bolshoi in the 1980s], along with values that the Egyptian ballet company represents, that convinced Yelizariev to come with his team and work with the dancers," Erminia Kamel tells Ahram Online.

The ballet's premiere in February 2010 was a great success and the company gave additional performances in April of the same year. At the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, Kamel had included Spartacus in the company's programming. However, faced with an increasingly hostile political situation in Egypt by the time of the performance date in early 2013, she decided to replace Spartacus with Swan Lake.

"The first months of 2013 were at the peak of the presidency of Mohamed Morsi [30 June 2012 - 3 July 2013], and the situation regarding culture and the whole country was getting worse by the day. This was topped by discontent towards ballet as an art form by some Islamists," Kamel recalls.

Kamel explains also that some parts of the ballet have a rather erotic character -- for example, the scenes with two courtesans or Crassus' violent approach to Phrygia, Spartacus' wife. Though they are presented with classical ballet beauty and highly artistic taste, she was still afraid that conservative viewers and the watchful eye of an Islamist government would read the erotic scenes in the wrong way, and to such effect that the future of the whole company could be at stake.

"It was ridiculous to cut those scenes as the whole dramatic line would have been lost. Replacing the whole ballet with a 'safer' work was definitely a better option," Kamel said adding that this is when she decided to stage Swan Lake.

This year's take of Spartacus will be slightly different from 2010's staging. 

"Original Spartacus ballet consists of three long acts based on over 2.5 hours of music. Today Egyptian (as well as international) audiences prefer to watch more compact performances. We have removed some scenes from the third act and added the remaining part to the second act creating the ballet with duration of little over 1.5 hours and one entr'acte," says Kamel.

Together with conductor Nayer Nagui, Kamel decided to remove parts which are repetitive in music. For instance act 2 begins with the same theme as the opening of act 3, where in both cases Crassus celebrates his victory.

"What we have now are all the melodic themes and a more compact performance that respects the story line and dramatic development. No one will feel that anything is missing while the result is more logic."

The other difference is a higher number of male dancers in the ballet company than in years past. Following the 2011 revolution, many foreign dancers – particularly women – left the company. Other dancers were unable to continue due to the company's budget limitations.

"Having a larger number of boys in the ballet is very comfortable when it comes to Spartacus, a ballet that is based on male dancers, but it is very challenging in works such as Swan Lake for instance. Hopefully this situation will change soon," Kamel says.

Spartacus ballet will be performed on six evenings between 21 and 28 February with the below cast:

21, 24 February
Ahmed Yehia (Spartacus), Anja Ahcin (Phrygia), Mamdouh Hassan (Crassus)

23, 25 February
Hany Hassan (Spartacus), Katia Ivanova (Phrygia), Amr Farouk (Crassus)
* Tuesday 25 February performance will be preceded by a short tribute for late Abdel-Moneim Kamel, including a screening of photos of Kamel working with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company during the 2010 rehearsals of Spartacus.

26 February
Ahmed Yehia (Spartacus), Anja Ahcin (Phrygia), Ahmed Saleh (Crassus) - this will be the first time for Saleh to perform Crassus

28 February
Hany Hassan (Spartacus), Katerina Zaberezhnaya (Phrygia), Amr Farouk (Crassus) – this will be the first time for Zaberezhnaya to perform Phrygia

Cairo Opera House, main hall at 8pm


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