National Ballet of Panama
Panama, National Theatre
17-22nd September 2013
Panama’s National Theatre lies in the heart of the old town near the seafront of the Pacific Ocean. To get to it, you must drive up and down streets so narrow that there’s an intake of breath as the taxi driver squeezes between parked cars. Mangy dogs, oblivious of oncoming traffic, sit in the centre of the road having a good scratch, and skinny, one-eyed cats skitter in and out of the passing cars. Two-storey town houses, with balconies that overhang the street, range from the beautifully renovated, with shiny painted iron balustrades and decorated with greenery, to contrasting dilapidated and overcrowded buildings just blocks away. Tucked down one barricaded and heavily-policed street is the luxurious white home of President Martinelli, with its enviable view across the bay to the extraordinary high-rise sky-scrapers which show off Panama’s new prosperity.
The 850-seat gem of a theatre inaugurated in 1908 has welcomed Anna Pavlova, The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, various dancers such as Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova, and on occasions, Margot Fonteyn, to its stage. Now in a year of celebrations – 500 years since Vasco Nunez de Balboa discovered Panama; the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal (Jan 2014) and the 40th year for the National Ballet of Panama – the National Theatre became the venue for a spanking new production of Saint-Léon’s classic ballet, Coppelia. Re-staged by St Petersburg choreographer, Vasily Medvedev, with sumptuous costumes and sets by Pavol Juras, the production proved a triumph for the National Ballet of Panama (NBP). It is the first time in many years that the company has put on such a lavish professional full-length ballet, requiring not only classical technical skills but also character dancing and mime. And happily, the dancers rose to the occasion. The 35-strong company was augmented to 65 with pupils from various schools, some as young as ten. Clad in colourful costumes amid elegant detailed sets that would rival any top international company, the production looked splendid, and the audience, many of whom at the premiere were obviously participants in the country’s new prosperity, was delighted.
Trailer for National Ballet of Panama’s Coppelia – Espectacular!
Vasily Medvedev is a prolific choreographer in demand in many European countries. This Coppelia is based on the original Saint-Léon production but Medvedev has added several dances for the Panamanian company, including several for children, and a Pas de Huit in the wedding scene.
Czech-born Stanislav Feco has vast experience both in performing and teaching and has been Medvedev’s regisseur and repetiteur on many productions. In Panama he worked wonders with the company, instilling discipline and style, and pushing the dancers to fulfil their potential. The standard in the company is very mixed – very few, it seems, have completed the full school curriculum. Most of the boys have less than five years’ study, while many of the girls have been to other countries to study. Since the dancers normally work only half a day – after which, most go off to teach at schools – technique and line needed to be corrected, refined and developed. But Feco is a brilliant teacher with an eagle eye and demands the best. He gave an excellent class each morning, and also worked with the school as many children participated in the production.
The two men set the ballet in July, then had to return to Europe (Medvedev is staging The Nutcracker on Staatsballet Berlin with Yuri Burlaka for an October premiere, with Feco rehearsing the company.) They left a lot of technical tidying still to be done, and this job was put into the experienced hands of international danceur of the 50s and 60s, Jelko Yuresha who has also had a long connection with NBP. Yuresha was director of the company for a short while in the early ‘90s, and has retained his connections, so was invited to help with this production – and it was evident that he worked very hard. The combined efforts of all three men raised the standard of the company and instilled professionalism. Given the differences in work behaviour, the lack of a unified basic training and only seeing international ballet companies on YouTube or DVDs, it was truly admirable to see the progress and enthusiasm – and gratitude – the dancers expressed as the result of the hard work of their foreign visitors.
Czech-based Pavol Juras is a young man with a huge talent. His costumes rivalled those of the Ballets Russes for colour and detail impact, and his sets were charming, giving the feeling of a close–knit community. The first and third acts are set in the town square among pastel-shaded gingerbread houses, with the church as the focal point. House names, flowers, lights and garlands offer extra details. The acting between Swanilda (Alexa Gutiérrez) and Franz (Solieh Samudio) was realistic and comic, and her four friends made very loyal allies. The mazurka burst forth in bright red Hussar costumes and was a lively visual beginning to the evening. Medvedev created a children’s dance, which was charming, and Franz’s friends showed exuberant macho dancing, legs flying high and good turns. A twitter of excitement came from the rapt audience as Franz climbed up the ladder when the curtain fell, and the blessed short interval (there is no buffet in the theatre) had them back in their seats eager for more. And they weren’t to be disappointed.
The second act was great fun. Swirling spotlights from above created a diaphanous dusty ‘curtain’ effect of Coppelius’ darkened workroom. Lying around in this mystical set were Juras’ wonderful creations: The ‘Spring’ (Jack-in-the-Box) in geometric black and white collapsible circles; Balinese warriors in ‘leather’ belted high corsets, baggy trousers and pointed headwear; the wine-pourer, with a Star Wars C-3PO mask and sequined jacket ended up helping himself to the drugged potion; a huge giant with his head tucked underneath his arm, and the Scottish dancer, dressed in tweed socks, purple velvet jacket and hat and a red and black tartan kilt which twirled out in his turns to reveal flesh coloured underpants – perhaps suggesting a real Scotsman!
Swanilda and her friends convinced with their initial trepidation and timidity, gradually becoming bold when they realized that the forms were all dolls. And they had fun winding them up. The Spanish doll (Ana Carolina Olarte) danced with mechanical stiffness combined with classical technique, showing a good jump and strong turns. Yosvani Cortellan as the Scotsman showed off fast turns a la seconde and lilted in the national steps. The two warriors, performing to the music usually danced by Chinese dolls, moved sharply and stiffly, slicing the air with their scimitars. As Swanilda-cum-Coppelia, Gutierrez hammed up the transformation with clear-cut mime and ballet master Juan Carlos Costoya made a comic unsuspecting Dr Coppelius.
After all the jollities of the dolls, it was time to take serious note of classical technique once more in Act 3. The celebration bell was raised to the heights and the bridal couple prepared for their wedding. Then, in front of only the Bürgermeister and his wife, the dancing began, starting with ‘Night’ which saw 18 dancers – students of varying sizes with company members – in sparkling black tarlatans and star-studded tiaras. Medvedev’s choreography creates waves of graceful movement and the young students performed with zeal and accuracy. As the dance ended, so four ‘Clouds’ rolled back to reveal Aurora in a golden tutu, danced by ballerina Manuelita Navarro who is now working in Cuba. She evidences that country’s signature style – more flamboyant, larger gestures, looser arms – though she danced here with authority and accuracy. The long-limbed Carla Barsallo, gracefully coped with the challenging balances and poses of her solo, ’Prayer’. Four students joined Ana Carolina Olarte in ‘Work’ and danced in unison, with cheery faces. Olarte, who had been the Spanish doll, showed once more her sharp neat pirouettes and concise technique. This was followed by another children’s dance in which five small and young ‘couples’, girls in dirndls and bonnets or, as ‘boys’ in hats and jackets, danced a perky folk dance showing off style and presentation with true professionalism. The green and white costumed Czardas, (usually seen in Act 1) was danced with zest and presence – if perhaps somewhat ragged around the edges – before Swanilda and Franz’s final pas de deux.
Alexa Gutierrez, at 34, is the oldest member of the company and a graduate from the school, who also had some training in Russia. She is the prima ballerina of the company and has a natural ease in her style. Here, in Coppelia, she showed herself a good actress with comical timing, but she became somewhat solemn in her solos, especially in the final pas de deux, where she didn’t radiate the happiness required. (Perhaps she still hadn’t forgiven Franz his initial infidelities?) However her steps were composed and secure, showing a pleasing line and strong footwork, though she is no longer a risk taker. Her Franz, Mexican born 21-year-old Solieh Samudio, was the opposite in temperament. Energetic and exuberant, he bounded across the stage in high leaps and turns, totally confident in himself and his ability to wow the audience. He has neat landings, is soft in his jumps with good deep plies and can turn on the spot with aplomb. All this is even more surprising in that he has only danced for less than four years, having been a champion junior tennis player, before planning a career as a mechanical engineer. His inspiration to dance came only in the past two years – with the polish to his style in the recent five weeks, thanks to Juresha. He has the makings of an excellent dancer when refinement and taste come into his vocabulary. Cortellan performed Franz at the second performance with somewhat less vigour than his Scottish dance, but with plenty of self-confidence, and Navarro made his animated and spritely Swanhilda, acting out the mime with great clarity and crossing the stage in long high leaps.
The production got much publicity in the press and all declared that it was the best thing that had been produced by NBP. Certainly it was a glorious and entertaining production to observe and much credit goes to Medvedev, Feco and Yuresha plus the NBP coaches, for all their work in creating it, drilling the dancers and bringing up the standard of technique. Hopefully the company will build on the lessons learned.