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A mesmerising affair

Filed on April 7, 2012

It’s been memorable. With the Abu Dhabi Classics – the eight-month season of classical music - quietly gone, with WOMAD – the world music festival – cut from the shrinking cultural agenda and with Sounds of Arabia – the festival of Arabic classical music – long forgotten, there has been a lot of pressure on Abu Dhabi Festival to deliver this year. And, for what it did deliver, hats off to its organiser, Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.

From March 11 until April 6 Abu Dhabi was wonderfully spoiled with some of the best from the world of performing arts. We had the magical Shakespearean story of Midsummer’s Night Dream, told by Shakespeare’s Globe, the London theatre company that carries the name and performs in the exact replica on the exact location of Shakespeare’s original theatre house. We had the revered Anoushka Shankar playing flamenco on sitar. We had the oud master Naseer Shamma sharing his Arab Spring tunes with world musicians. We had the monks of 800 years old Shaolin Temple dancing Kung Fu. We had La Bayadère!

Set long ago in royal India, La Bayadère is a story of eternal love, mystery, fate, vengeance, and justice. Choreographed by Marius Petipa and composed by Ludwig Minkus in 1877, this is a ballet inspired by ancient Indian temple dancers, young virgin women, bound by religion never to marry, viewed by Romantic Europe as unattainable and desirable in the same time.

“The ballet was created for the Russian tsar, when North India was part of Russia, and it was made to say ‘look how beautiful your empire is’,” said Francine Watson Coleman, the production’s co-creator.

Not many ballet companies attempt La Bayadère, as it is a difficult ballet to create, but the Semperoper Ballet from Dresden, one of the world’s best, and the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hanover, did a radical, yet brilliant job. The storyline was cut to the point, the costumes were more accurate to the period and even the music was re-arranged by David Coleman to better suite the mood of the storyline.

“It is a 3D experience of sight, sound and emotions,” explained Aaron Watkin, the production choreographer.

Looking back at the festival, nothing perhaps stood apart as much as Royal Opera House’s “Beloved Friend”. A performance of music, acting and ballet, the concept was entirely unique. To start with, only 200 tickets were made available and that’s because the entire audience had to share the stage with the artists.

“This is as surprising for me as it is for you, the audience, because I never sat in such close proximity to ballet dancers before,” said Alex Jennings, the narrator of Beloved Friend.

He was the one telling the true story, on stage, of Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck. She was a 46 years old widow with 12 children. He was an unheard of musician, 10 years younger. The year was 1876. Nadezhda loved music with the greatest of passions and was a generous patron of the arts and so, through Yosif Kotek, one of the musicians in her employment, she found out about Tchaikovsky, a very talented musicians with little financial means. She wrote and commissioned a composition for him. This was the first of thousands of letters that was to be exchanged between them in the next 15 years. Their relationship grew more intimate, but Nadezhda asked him never to meet, so she would be less intimidated to express her feelings towards him and his music. Tchaikovsky agreed, saying that to be personally acquainted with him would only lead to disappointment and he would be pleased to remain an idealised figure in her imagination.

Over the years, their long letters grew more passionate, not just about each other, but about music too. They discussed philosophy and religion too. Tchaikovsky became the timeless composer, but was always in debt. Nadezhda helped him financially and eventually set a monthly allowance for him.

When he briefly attempted marriage, she wished him happiness, but, when he divorced three months later, Nadezhda couldn’t hide her relief. She was upset that the new wife could not make him happy, but would have been even more upset if she did.

Gradually, Nadezhad’s wealth and health began to dissipate. In 1890, pressured by her children who were afraid to be left with no inheritance, she cut off Tchaikovsky’s allowance. In the same time, she stopped writing to him. Although he was not bothered about the money, he could not understand why she stopped writing. He desperately kept writing assuring her of his love, but Nadezhda never replied. Tchaikovsky felt humiliated that she did not want his friendship now that she no longer was his patron. On November 6, 1893, he died of cholera. Two months later Nadezhda followed. He never knew that she was dying of tuberculosis and was too weak to write.

“When asked how Nadezhda endured these last three years, her granddaughter replied that she never did endure,” Jennings concluded the storytelling.

In between his narration, letters of Nadezhda and Tchaikovsky were read by the brilliant Simon Russell Beale and Dame Harriet Walter. Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s music were performed throughout the evening by a Royal Opera House quintet, including a Swan Lake pas de deux, gracefully danced by Royal Ballet duo Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov. Baritone Vasily Ladyuk and soprano Hibla Gerzmava performed some of Tchaikovsky’s most moving songs from Six Romances and Eugene Onegin.

A love story full of passion, enlightenment and torment like love stories usually are, but this one was different. A love story told, sang and danced by a stellar cast of actors, musicians and ballet dancer. Needless to say, it was a standing ovation.

Silvia Radan

I'm a senior journalist with 22 years experience in all forms of mass media. Originally from Romania, I lived and work in Bosnia, Uzbekistan, England and, for the past 10 years, in UAE. I specialize in art, culture, traditions, heritage, but also environment and the hospitality industry. I'm passionate about jazz and world music, cinema, mythology and offroading - I'm a marshal with one of UAE's offroading clubs!


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