Inside the world première of The Ring Dove

The World Première of a new all-Arab ballet for children, ‘Al Hamama al Mutawwaqa’ was given at the Royal Opera House Muscat to a discerning public last Friday night, followed by a matinée on Saturday afternoon. In this ROHM production everything was new except the story. Inspired by the fabulous moralistic tales of an age-old book of fables, ‘Kalila and Dimna’, the ballet carried the message of ‘how genuine friendship can not only defeat danger but also enrich life with heartfelt, joyous feelings’.
The whole project was the brain-child of the renowned Armenian-Egyptian plastic artist, intellectual and serious music composer, Hrant Minas Keshishian who composed the entire score. The ballet was accompanied live from the pit by a diminished scratch orchestra of 39 Egyptian musicians rather than the intended 60, yet despite some dodgy brass moments, there was mostly excellent playing and fine acoustic balance.
The whole venture was coordinated by the young Arabic, ‘Dynamics Production Company’ which mixes classical and contemporary techniques of music, choreography, set and costume design. It was directed by the visionary and highly respected Alexandrian, Ahmed El Sayed Abou Moussa. Sally Ahmed is the chief choreographer for Dynamics, coming from the Cairo Opera Ballet and Modern Dance Company. The collaborative result was a delightful score for grown-ups with animal-based movement, totally accessible to children of all ages.
The performance began in front of closed curtains with Taha Khalifa as the old Narrator, telling the ancient fable of friendship and loyalty in ‘The Ring Dove’ with effective wind machine accompaniment. Curtains rose to reveal a versatile structure of forest canopies, illuminated by clever filmic projections, facilitating easy scene changes as the narrative progressed. The first characters were Kalila and Dilma themselves, appearing to hunting horns and timpani rolls as compère red and blue foxes, danced throughout by Amr Patric and Mohamed Zizo. Woodwind themes provided evocative forest accompaniment while some beautiful violin melodies, under leader, Khaled El Showeikh, drew arcs of animal life in Keshishian’s score. His music sometimes had overtones of Stravinsky in an atonal language of non-functional harmony, yet involved beautiful long, winding melodies or easily identified themes. He exploited all the colours of the orchestra available: his use of piano with xylophones produced an effective percussive world of forest creatures, syncopated rhythmic passages propelled the action, quirky repeated marimba patterns in dialogue with strings for excited doves, or dark bassoon sounds for turtle. The music created word-painting without being clichéd or over-childish.
The appearance of the protagonist Crow, danced superbly by Principal Reem Ahmed, was heralded by an oboe reed’s squawk, followed by some lyrical oboe and flute lines which unfurled as leitmotifs to further develop the characterisation of the wildlife. Most danced on flat pumps, while Mouse by Hossam Aly and later, Turtle by Mohamed Kamba, were more mime-artist than dancer. Conversely, the two Gazelles, accompanied by lyrical harp lines, appeared at poignant moments and were performed by two lithe principals with gymnastic qualities, the supple Sherli Ahmed and Baher Amgad. The Ring Dove Queen herself was danced impeccably by Japanese Prima Ballerina, Shiori Matsushima on points. With her the flock of eight corps de ballet doves, also on points, were ingeniously dressed by the successful Kuwaiti fashion designer, Asmaa Abdel Shaf, in white costumes which rustled like a flock of birds taking off as they moved.
When the hunter finally appeared to a dark Cor Anglais theme to snare the birds, he was surprisingly benign. More pathetic and wretched than evil, Hany Hassan cut a convincing figure in leopard skin costume, and gave a fine performance, spreading seeds as bait. Three mice were called upon by the Ring Dove to free the captives, observed by Crow who was so impressed by this show of love and loyalty, she asked Mouse to be her friend too. The pas de deux which followed was touchingly cute, with Crow trying to teach Mouse to fly and pulling his tail as their friendship developed. Turtle appeared predictably lumbering and slow on a stunning backdrop and floor of waterfalls, accompanied by lush strings and brass themes. Mouse and Crow entered and there followed an animated pas de trois.
The music suggested Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel transcribed to 21st century, as the gazelles joined to make a Quintet. A vibrant, coloured woodland bathed in purple lights set the scene for the tormented trapped gazelle – but she too was freed by her friends. Suddenly a flower and butterfly scene enveloped the whole stage with colour and subtle movement, danced by non-Arabic ballerinas to the whole orchestra’s slow chordal progression. With a nod to Prokovief’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ there was a lovely Finale scene as all the creatures paraded round the tree under fireworks in the joyous, ‘Dance of Friendship’ having defeated the now devastated Hunter.
It is a shame that the curtain call was not better choreographed after the final climactic chord and tableau on Friday night. While everyone from lighting, set and costume designers to the Director came dripping into the limelight in no particular order, members of the audience began to drift out before the house lights came up. It is customary for the Conductor, Choreographer and Director to take a bow, while other members of the creative team are listed in the programme booklet so can easily be identified. It was a momentous opportunity, however, to applaud the composer himself as he appeared somewhere in the middle, the driving force behind this successful, dynamic all-Arab ballet conception.