Passion on the Nile

Every so often, ancient Egyptian culture becomes inexplicably trendy, says Asheville Ballet Guild Artistic Director Ann Dunn.

It was happening in 1871 when Verdi wrote Aida — an exotic version of Romeo and Juliet centered around ill-fated lovers Aida and Radames. And it’s happening now, she believes, pointing to the blockbuster animated film Prince of Egypt as proof.

Dunn is hardly a trend-hopper, though. By her own account, a script must stimulate her exacting imagination to warrant interpretation by her dance company.

“It makes it interesting for me to be exploring the sensibilities of [a foreign] culture through dance, [setting] the lyricism and passion to music and movement,” she explains. “And it has to be interesting to me [for me to do it]. There are great melodies in Aida … [and] it’s a magnificent love story. But it also struck me as an extremely relevant opera, one with politically interesting issues that would resonate in any time.

“One job of art,” she asserts, “is to keep issues raised in ways that force you to rethink them. [In Aida] there are issues of race, class and war that are certainly pertinent right now.”

Aida is an enslaved Ethiopian princess in love with Radames, the Egyptian army’s commander-in-chief. The passion is mutual, but the match is deterred by the Pharaoh’s imperious daughter Amneris — who covets the young officer as rightfully hers — as well as by Ramfis, the high priest, and Aida’s father, King Amonastro, by whose combined coercion Aida convinces her beloved to spill a crucial military secret. Despite the princess’ forced betrayal of Radames, the pair are restored to each other in a dramatic and tragic final scene.

Although Aida draws momentum from the splendor and melancholy of its love story, this is an ensemble piece in the deepest sense, stresses Dunn. Of course, she had practical reasons for choosing an opera with so many players (“There are a lot of operas I can’t do because there aren’t enough parts … I have a big company, and I have to make use of my dancers”), but beyond that, the sweeping chaos of a wartime environment — as well as the layered opulence of an ancient-Egyptian setting — made each of the opera’s 100 roles (filled by dancers ages 9 to 55) integral to the fullest expression of the piece.

In fact, Dunn had to assemble her own small army to facilitate the production. Scores of volunteers fashioned the more than 200 costumes required for the show. During a recent rehearsal at the Fletcher School of Dance, the director revealed an upstairs costume room overflowing with silky swatches of river green, gold and jewel hues.

“When I hear opera, I see movement,” is how Dunn defines her vision.

Though she had to cut the three-hour score down to an hour-and-a-half, none of the more beautiful passages are lost, she promises. She selected the most moving sections of Verdi’s masterpiece and elucidated them with a pulse-stirring union of classical ballet and contemporary dance.

The emotional and social struggles in Aida are timeless, Dunn feels — as natural and predestined as the instinct to marry divergent types of movement: “Modern dance and classical ballet should have never been separated in the first place,” she declares. “Modern dance brings in weight, earthiness, breath and movement, and classical ballet brings in idealism [and] a yearning for something higher. Well, idealism without reality is useless. And reality without idealism is pedantic. … Bringing them closer together allows them to give each other the best each has to offer.”

Aida, she insists, is for everybody: “[I've] seen opera since I was a very little person, and without it, my life would not have been as rich as it is. This show has a pageantry and energy that all kids can enjoy, and it’s full of emotions that will resonate in adults.”

Regardless of your age or familiarity with the opera, she portends, “You will know more when you leave than when you came.”

@boxtext:The Asheville Ballet Guild presents The Asheville Civic Ballet in Verdi’s Aida. The cast includes Asheville High junior Corey Sinyai as Aida, North Buncombe High senior Heather Hawkins as Amneris, longtime Asheville dancer Bud Crawford playing both Ramfis the Priest and King Amonastro, and professional dancer Anthony Gongora as Radames. The Diana Wortham Theater will become a resplendent Egyptian city for four glorious shows: Friday, May 7 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 8 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 9 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $8 for children and students to $12-$15 for adults. For tickets and further info., call the box office at 257-4530.

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