Cleopatra in rehearsal
Skopje, Macedonian Opera and Ballet Theatre
19 November 2016
How do you review a world premiere that you have spent seven hours flying to, and then find that it has been postponed until you are back home after another eight hours of travel? Can you write on having watched three dress rehearsals, hoping against hope that all the niggles – great and small – will be taken care of by the grand opening? Or should you just shrug your shoulders and say ‘nichivo’ (never mind) and put it down to experience?
Well, I have decided to write – but not the review I was planning. This production of Cleopatra, finally given its world premiere in Skopje on November 19th by Macedonian Ballet, is too huge and visually fulfilling to ignore and return home empty-handed. The accompanying photographs show what an eye-boggling mega-buster of a ballet it is with its packed story-line, glamorous Hollywood sets and costumes and a cornucopia of classical, national, acrobatic and even Bollywood choreography, danced by a ‘cast of thousands’ – at one point 300 people were involved. All that was needed on stage was the elephant from Aida!
This super-sized production of Cleopatra was commissioned by the Macedonian Opera and Ballet to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its prima ballerina Aleksandra Mijalkova and was created by the prolific Russian choreographer Vasily Medvedev. Trained at the Vaganova Academy, Medvedev also graduated from the choreographic institute in St Petersburg and has been creating ballets since 1989. Together with former Bolshoi Ballet director, Yuri Burlaka, he reproduced La Esmeralda for the Bolshoi in 2009. The ballet was also staged at Staatsoper Berlin and National Ballet of Mexico and their superb traditional The Nutcracker was created for the German company in 2013. Medvedev has also staged his Coppelia in Panama, Le Corsaire in Bratislava and, most recently, Don Quixote in Lithuania in 2016. Throughout all his work, he has been ably helped and abetted by his assistant choreographer and ballet master, Stanislav Feco. A former principal with Prague National Theatre, Feco brings his years of experience to the young dancers of today, coaching and teaching them the finer elements of classical ballet. And the results are always immediate. He has an eagle eye for every minute detail of the staging as well as an artistic one for getting the best out of the company, from the tiny tots to the leading dancers. His contribution to this, and other ballet productions, is incomparable.
Medvedev’s productions are always meticulously researched and presented – and this Cleopatra is no exception. In two acts, with 14 scenes and an epilogue, it closely follows the events of the Egyptian queen’s life, from an early discovery that she has seductive powers revealed to her in the tombs by animal-headed gods and the subtle Snake that will end her life; to hiding in a rolled-up carpet in order to come face to face with Caesar. He is utterly bewitched by her charms and falls in love. Finally, at the end of Act 1, she triumphantly arrives in Rome in great splendor.
Act 2 starts with murder as Caesar comes to his sticky ‘Ides of March’ end, and the grieving queen returns to Egypt to find it is now a Roman province with Mark Antony in control. Quickly he too falls under her spell, they become engaged and form an alliance to fight against Rome. But this ends in death for them both – his by Octavian’s troops and she from the infamous snake-bite. The choreography keeps the pace moving along, enriching this story. There are bustling market and harbour scenes, an orgy with dancing girls in chiffon skirts and bejeweled bras who shimmy and swirl with middle eastern exoticism, reminding me of Copacabana night-life and Bollywood, and of course the pièce de resistance, the vast entourage arriving in Rome with Cleopatra seated majestically on the huge Sphynx. There is an old-fashioned feel to the whole production – some of the dancing is often unsophisticated but enables many different ages and standards to fill the stage. The true classical extracts for the main characters show off their technique and abilities.
The sheer size of the ballet and the numerous set changes were the problems that set the premiere back by two days, resulting in me and other critics missing the world premiere. The cause – and nightmare for the creators – was a lack of stage time for technical rehearsals and practicing the moving the many large set pieces. That and the late arrival of costumes from Moscow. It proved frustrating for Medvedev and Feco, especially when crew didn’t turn up for rehearsals as planned and no one seemed to take responsibility for the normal running of a stage production. However, the delay didn’t seem to worry the company hierarchy much – the marketing director Goran Cvetkovitj said he was unflustered that the premiere had to be postponed by a couple of days! Those with tickets had other thoughts.
Czech designer Paval Juras has worked on many of Medvedev’s productions and always brings true professionalism, artistry and great creativity, as well as meticulous attention to detail. So here in Cleopatra, his artistry saw no bounds. The whole production bursts with colour, authentic action and personae: Egyptian soldiers with curved bows, Romans with pointed daggers; gods with animal heads; men in the briefest of briefs; ballet school students of all sizes in countless different costumes, that all combine to offer an evening of lavish entertainment. Juras brought the stage to life with his vast beautifully decorated sets and over 400 multi-coloured luxurious costumes of chiffons, silk, sequins, gold lame and Lurex that literally dripped with sparkle while Cleopatra had at least 14 costume changes – each one more dazzling than the former. Juras well deserved the cheers at the final curtain call.
For composer Neria Cepaite Goldberg from Lithuania, this was her first ballet. Her music is an eclectic combination of orchestra and digital – the latter used for the sounds of the east and played on original instruments. One moment Caesar and his army are conquering Egypt to a fanfare of trumpets and percussion. The next, it was the rhythms and reedy sounds of the Orient that had bellies twitching and bodies contorting, while the scene where Cleopatra arrives to conquer the Roman hearts, was pure movie music. This scene closely resembles the famous film starring Elizabeth Taylor, which was famed for its opulence. Goldberg’s score however, proved a challenge to musicians and conductor Alexander Anissimov alike, basically due to paltry rehearsal time and poor instruments, and many of the sections were too long – especially the various pas de deux – which resulted in repetition of steps. At times a choir sings above the orchestral strains, like the sand blowing across the Sahara. For the rehearsals, the music was all on one very loud level – even for the love scenes – and because the score is formed from two musical sources, the transitions were somewhat juddering and often ear-splitting. The best moment came for Cleopatra’s pas de deux with Mark Anthony which was danced to a gentle, even if still too loud, romantic strain.
Throughout this super-sized ballet, Aleksandra Mijalkova showed herself to be a ballerina of beautiful proportions, a strong technique and a stage presence that graced her wonderful (very quick change) costumes. And she has feet to die for – delicate, superbly pointed, extensions of slim, graceful legs. Caesar was danced by the Georgian dancer Vasil Chichiashvili who had a strong bold approach and travelled the stage in stretched leaps and taut turns reminding of Crassus in Spartacus. Mark Antony (Boban Kovachevski) was also strong yet with a romantic streak and his love duet with Cleopatra was tender and passionate, even if the music was too loud. The Snake was ably enacted by Mimi Pop Aleksova Atanasovska whose slinky body slithered and duped Cleopatra in subtle moves. The Macedonia Ballet looked fine in their different roles – with around fifty-five dancers, there are seven foreigners including Andrew Cook from Leeds, who joined this autumn. He trained and danced at Scotland’s Ballet West, and reports that he misses ‘Marmite and a proper cuppa’! A far cry from Egypt and the exotic Queen of the Nile.
It was a big disappointment to have missed the world premiere of Cleopatra. But from photos, reports and a DVD, it seems that the postponed event was a huge success and the production thankfully ran smoothly. There was a 15-minute standing ovation from the audience.