Friday 26 May 2006

35 Degrees East

It was the Italians who were responsible for fostering ballet in Russia. It was only when the Tsar’s son’s mistress, Mathilde Kchessinska, equalled the prima ballerina’s feat of doing the 32 fouetteé turns in Swan Lake, that importing Italian dancers became unnecessary. So, it should not be a cause for surprise that it was the English ballet who were responsible for introducing ballet into Turkey.

In the mid 1940’s the chaplain to the British Embassy in Turkey had previously been the incumbent at a church near the Old Vic and had become a keen ballet-lover. At the time Turkey had a thriving opera and theatre companies, but not ballet. Taxed by the British chaplain on this subject the Turkish Education Minister invited Dame Ninette de Valois (Madam) to Turkey. The result was a school, Turkey’s first ballet school, founded in 1947; this lead to the first native ballet performance, Coppelia, in 1953. The company was closely watched by Madam and fostered by British ballet masters, ballet mistresses and choreographers. From the first, Madam included Turkish folk dancing into the curriculum and choreographed 2 ballets for the company, using music by Turkish composers and including Turkish folk dance. By 1973 the company could put in a whole evening of dance by Turkish choreographers.

As part of the celebrations of the Royal Ballet’s 75th birthday, a group of dancers from the Turkish State Ballet companies in Istanbul and Ankara brought a programme of dance to the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House. The current director of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet is Meric Sümen Kanen who was herself a ballerina under Madam.

The evening opened with a short film which mixed archive photographs and movie footage with interviews with Madam (dating from 2001) and other British dancers involved with the company. It was a fascinating film and could have been far longer. Then 2 dancers gave us a charming pas de deux from At the Fountain Head, a ballet choreographed in 1963 by Dame Ninette de Valois. There then followed a programme of 5 ballets choreographed by 3 Turkish choreographers and 1 ballet choreographed by a German couple.The programme was a mixture of short ballets and extracts from longer works. Perhaps the most memorable was the excerpt ‘the storm… Dervishes dance’ from Beyhan Murphy’s Travelogue.

The first 5 works were all generally modernist in their outlook, though most used music by modern Turkish composers but one used Chopin. For the finale, Mehmet Balkan had choreographed 2 movements from Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony and these were danced in real classical style.

The choreographer’s response to the music seemed to be somehow different to what I would have expected, I can’t really describe it as I have no dance training to describe what I saw. The standard of the recorded music that they danced to was rather variable, particularly the Rachmaninoff. But the programme left us wishing that we could see more of the Turkish company.

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