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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Two performances of 'Swan Lake' show how Dubai's cultural scene has found its feet

The polarity of these two performances of the same ballet symbolises how far the city's cultural scene has come in the past five years

Houston Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ features Tchaikovsky’s entire three-hour score but keeps its audience riveted to the very end. Courtesy Dubai Opera
Houston Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ features Tchaikovsky’s entire three-hour score but keeps its audience riveted to the very end. Courtesy Dubai Opera

In May of 2013, I went to watch Swan Lake, performed by the Royal Moscow Ballet, at the Dubai World Trade Centre. I have been a fan of the ballet since I was a little girl (who dreamt, like many little girls, of becoming a prima ballerina), but I left that particular show feeling utterly underwhelmed.

The venue could not have been less befitting of a dance form that has long been practised in the grandest theatres and most historically important opera houses around the world. There’s the Vienna State Opera, or the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, or the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. And then there’s the Dubai World Trade Centre.

Makeshift seating better suited to an impromptu football match was haphazardly set up in the centre of one of the venue’s high-ceilinged, echoey halls. The seats themselves felt like they had been hastily carved from blocks of granite, so we spent most of the show trying to fend off pins and needles. Our views were almost entirely obstructed by the people sitting in front of us, so we spent the evening trying to peep through the cracks between their shoulders. And the venue was so frigidly cold that I worried the dancers’ muscles would seize up.

I might have been able to tell you more about the actual dancing, had I managed to see more of it. With its stunning choreography, which has become almost sacrosanct, its stirring score by Tchaikovsky, rousing pas de deux and (often) heart-rending ending, Swan Lake is one of the most evocative ballets ever made. Alongside The Nutcracker, it is one of my all-time favourites – but I couldn’t wait for this rendition to be over and done with.

At the time, it was a stark and uncomfortable reminder of how unskilled Dubai was at handling large-scale cultural events, and how desperately it needed a dedicated venue to host such spectacles. The fact that the place was absolutely packed, in spite of its obvious flaws, highlighted how much appetite there was for world-class performances.

The rendition of Swan Lake that unfolded at Dubai Opera last weekend could not have been more different. It was the white swan to the World Trade Centre’s black one. Performed by the Houston Ballet, with music by the orchestra of the National Opera of Ukraine and choreography by Stanton Welch, this version was an absolute delight. Welch’s touring version features Tchaikovsky’s entire three-hour score, but, nonetheless, it managed to keep its audience enraptured until the very end.

There were audible sighs as 24 “swans” took to the stage and the audience expressed its awe at their grace, fragility and synchronicity. Then there were bursts of applause as the mesmerising Odile performed a series of dizzying fouettes. Japanese dancer Yuriko Kajiya, who is a principal at the Houston Ballet, brought a heartbreaking vulnerability to her portrayal of Odile, which was offset by the self-assuredness of the stately Chun Wai Chan as Prince Siegfried. A fairy-tale set was marred only by the inexplicable appearance of a dragon in the final scene.

With its international, multiracial cast and dynamic choreography, the production stayed true to its 19th-century roots, yet still managed to feel modern and relevant. “Audiences today expect a lot from the story,” choreographer Welch has said and, last weekend, those expectation were met.

Most importantly, this time around, Dubai audiences were able to enjoy this timeless love story in a venue that’s just as impressive as any of those mentioned earlier. This time around, the temperature was just right, the seats were roomy and plush (even though I was sitting on the edge of mine like a little child for most of the show). The stage didn’t feel like it might collapse at any moment, the acoustics were spot on and I could actually see the dancers properly throughout. The audience, which was as diverse as the cast, finally got the Swan Lake that it deserved.

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Read more of Selina's thoughts:

From Dubai to Abu Dhabi: some lessons learnt on a long commute

Let’s not be blasé about the range of opportunities Dubai has to offer

Missing out on family milestone events. Is this the real expat tax?

Beach holidays: a major bore or the ultimate escape? I'm about to find out

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The polarity of these two performances of the same ballet symbolises how far Dubai’s cultural scene has come in the past five years. In 2013, such performances were few and far between. When they did occur, they often felt makeshift and unsatisfactory. Five years later, the diverse schedule at the plush, dhow-shaped Dubai Opera building feels full, well considered and polished.

It’s a transformation as dramatic and impressive as Odile’s.