Classical ballets from Russia kick off the annual showcase of international performing arts
Having four classical ballet productions by two award-winning Russian companies kick off Bangkok’s 19th International Festival of Dance and Music and celebrate the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations is an understandable strategy. After all, even before the festival’s organiser, International Cultural Promotions (ICP) started Southeast Asia’s most expensive international performing arts festival in the late 1990s, they were already leading the way in bringing world-renowned Russian ballet companies like the Bolshoi to the City of Angels.
On Monday night, the Ekaterinburg Ballet returned to the festival stage with “Katya and the Prince of Siam”. The ballet, now two years old, is based on the romantic relationship between Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath, King Chulalongkorn and Queen Sri Bajarindra’s fourth child, and Russian nurse Ekaterina “Katya” Desnitskaya whom he met and married in St Petersburg.
It was a fitting diplomatic choice, especially as the ballet finishes at the point where she was welcomed into the royal household rather than with their divorce some years later. It was also a reminder of why Thai nationals, unlike nationals of other countries, are not required to apply for a Russian visa, and vice versa.
In the title roles, respectively Nadezha Ivanova and Kirill Popov excelled in both their movement and characterisation. The audience could feel the true love, which transcended distance and many other obstacles. The pair was well supported throughout the two-act 100-minute performance by the energy of the company’s corps de ballet. But while composer Pavel Ovsyannikov’s music had a minimal flavour of classical Thai music, Vasiliy Medvedev’s choreography and Dmitriy Cherbadji’s set and costume designs were major setbacks to the piece.
Whenever Medvedev attempted to fuse classical Thai dance with classical western ballet, the result was such an Asian hodgepodge that a sense of “Orientalia” – the ever-exotic and unknown Orient – instead of Thai delicateness, filled the stage. The audience was reminded of Vaslav Nijinsky in “La danse Siamoise” and Jerome Robbins’s choreography for “The King and I” musical, both of which predated this age of information technology that so ably supports any artistic and cultural research. And with the close relationship that exists between the two countries, one has to wonder how this choreography could have been different had there been artistic contribution from Medvedev’s Thai counterparts. Two names immediately come to mind – Naraphong Charassri and Pichet Klunchun – and any Thai could have warned Medvedev that we do not wai our king and queen the same way we do others.
Likewise, more collaboration between the two nations’ artists would have changed Cherbadji’s mind about putting demon images in the Siamese court – the Russian designer probably hasn’t noticed that we moved them from the arrival lounge to the departure lounge of Suvarnabhumi Airport. Throughout history, Thai arts have been influenced by the cultures of neighbouring countries – as well as the West during the era in which the ballet was set – but they have also developed certain characteristics that are uniquely Thai. Had Cherbadji conducted indepth study and research and consulted Thai experts, his design would not have looked quite so pan-Asian.
The audience’s disappointment was wiped away two evenings later when the same company staged “Cinderella”, or another version of “The Prince and I” tale, with refreshingly new choreography and production design. Surprises were aplenty. In the opening scene, the audience saw Cinderella’s two sisters doing exercises in brightly coloured tights and wearing headphones in a modern condominium unit and later the prince made his first appearance in the TV news on a giant LED screen. We witnessed a fine blend of classical ballet and ballroom dance in the prince’s birthday ball and the use of Google Earth to find the woman whose foot would fit the shoe, notwithstanding the longer-than-necessary scene with the fairy and the slight clumsiness of the set and props movement.
Eclipsing even the chemistry of their counterparts in “Katya and the Prince of Siam”, Ekaterina Sapogova’s Cinderella was subtle and credible when she was forced to do all the housework and chic and elegant when she charmed the prince with eyeglasses – Ilia Borodulin who was always very likeable – with her dance at the ball.
A reminder to any producers that the Thai audience loves watching surprising adaptations of familiar tales, this “Cinderella” is definitely a highlight of this year’s festival.
That same afternoon, one of the festival’s sponsors, Bangkok Bank, hosted a charity performance of “Cinderella”, with different dancers in the principal roles as seen in the photos here, for underprivileged children and students from many institutions who otherwise would never be able to afford tickets, despite the festival’s current 30-percent student group discount.
I’m not the only audience member who wishes other sponsors would consider doing the same, not just as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities but also to support the festival’s audience development.
That said, there are also other ways to make student tickets really affordable. Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF), now in its 45th edition, offers 50-percent discount on all ticket prices of all shows, with sponsors and donors supporting the price differences. Plus, it has a year-round paid membership programme, also substantially supported by sponsors and donors, for high school and university students which prepares them, with lectures, workshops and other activities, for the main festival when they can also attend dress rehearsals of many works.
Opera, contemporary dance productions and jazz concerts are not in this year’s lineup, which is dominated by classical ballet, and we can assume that we won’t get to watch any imported western operas here this year, given that the festival is the sole importer. In addition, many of the productions and companies from previous festivals are on the programme. And this makes the 2017 edition look like a retrospective before the big 20th anniversary next year when we can expect more surprises.
And in comparison to festivals of the same scale elsewhere, our relatively young festival welcomes more repeat companies and productions than all of them, much like Bangkok itself, which is always welcoming repeat visitors.
On the other hand, if you missed them last time they were here, it’s a good opportunity to watch — or if you prefer, rewatch — “Flying Superkids” from Denmark, “Peter Marvey’s Magic Show” from Switzerland and “West Side Story” from the US, all of which are now touring in the region.
Otherwise, “Torero” and “Carmen” by Antonio Andrade Flamenco Company look promising as does the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra whose programme appears less predictable than that of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra.
Personally I am looking forward to the contemporary ballet “Beauty and the Beast” by Malandain Ballet Biarritz from France, which promises choreography that looks as exciting as its costume and mask designs. The festival’s closing act is also a must-see, as Stuttgart Ballet makes a much-anticipated return to Thailand with John Cranko’s classical ballet “Taming of the Shrew” on October 18 and 19.
And that will eventually fortify the label of this festival, in the city where there are scores of ballet schools and zero professional ballet companies.
The 19th Bangkok’s International Festival of Dance and Music is made possible through the support of Crown Property Bureau, Ministry of Culture, Bangkok Bank, Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, B Grimm Group, BMW, Dusit Thani Bangkok, Indorama Ventures, Nation Group, PTT Group, Singha Corporation, Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways International and Thai Union.
BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW
- "Bangkok's 19th International Festival of Dance and Music" continues to October 19 at Thailand Cultural Centre's Main Hall (10-minute walk from MRT: Thailand Cultural Centre).
- The celebration of the diplomatic relations between Thailand and Russia continues tonight 7.30pm with Bashkir State Ballet's "Spartacus" and at 2.30pm on Sunday, "Le Corsaire."
- Tickets for all performances are now available at ThaiTicketMajor outlets and online.
- Visit www.BangkokFestivals.com and on Facebook "Bangkok's International Festival of Dance and Music" for more details.