Ballet and Nyama Choma

Last May, I was quite delighted when I learnt that there would be a Russian ballet company touring Kenya, if not a little puzzled by the fact that it was going to be staged at the Nyama Choma Ranch of the Safari Park Hotel.

Khasan Usmanov and Natalia Kungurtseva performing a pas-de-deux from the ballet Don Quixote

Though it was the third year that the Crown of Russian Ballet was in Kenya, it was my first time seeing them and what was even more unfortunate for me was that I only made it to the show of Saturday 23rd May 2009, which unlike the previous night’s show, had only excerpts from various ballets. It was none-the-less a nice evening out- a different sort of experience for Nairobi theatregoers.

Like I had expected, without the live orchestra and the stage machinery that creates the dream-like illusion in ballets like The Nutcracker, the performance was stripped to its basic element, which is the choreography.

I suppose the most distinguishing feature of choreography in ballet is dancing on pointe, or rather, dancing on tiptoes. Gauging from the oohs and aahs in the audience, this was quite a spectacle.

In Russian ballet, the dancer rises on pointe with a small hop, unlike other dancers like the French who first rise to a half-pointe. This is because Russians developed hard ballet shoes that made it difficult to rise to a half-pointe.

In the excerpt from Swan Lake, ballerina Natalia Kungurtseva did the requisite fouetté en tournant. I say requisite because it is now considered a requirement for every ballerina to perform the fouetté, which is a spin that is done with the supporting foot on pointe while the other foot is turned in to touch the supporting knee. The ability to do thirty-two consecutive fouettés is the measure of a ballerina’s skill. I did not manage to count how many Kungurtseva did in all, but they were enough to earn her a very hearty applause.

Though it has its roots in Renaissance Italy, it was in France that ballet was formalised, which is why most of its terms are in French. It was adopted in other parts of Europe and in Russia it thrived, especially through the remarkable contribution of choreographer Marius Petipa, to whom both Minkus’s Don Quixote and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker are attributed. These two ballets were performed on the Friday night.

Ballet has a heritage that spans centuries and this may make it alienating or difficult to understand, for people from different cultures.  But it is precisely this historical context that makes it so fascinating.

Don Quixote, for instance, is inspired by a book of the same title, which was written by a Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes in the 16th century. This book is one of those works of art that have inspired numerous other artists over the centuries, to create other masterpieces like Gustave Doré’s paintings and drawings and Charles Dicken’s Pickwick Papers.

The appreciation of art is a culture in itself and sharing and understanding each other’s heritage makes art even more beautiful, which is why the efforts of the Russian embassy to host this annual ballet tour are commendable.

I am looking forward to this year’s ballet. If only this time it could be staged in one of Nairobi’s better equipped theatres, like the Oshwal Auditorium. That would really be something.

© Anne W. Manyara 2009

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