Swan Lake and AKM

This week we went to the Zurich Opera House to see The Swan Lake. Elena Vostrotina danced as Odile/Odette and Alexander Jones was Prince Siegfried. The principals had good technique. The orchestra (Philharmonia Zurich) and the corps de ballet (Ballet Zurich Company) were very good, the costumes were very well designed and the lighting was truly masterful. The “swanness” of the four ballerinas and the other swan dancers was quite convincing. Yet, the magic of the Swan Lake did not come through. There was a lot of “acting” and miming but not enough conveying of emotion. The gesturing (miming drinking, pointing to the ring finger as a sign of marriage, the drunk old teacher) was an unnecessary addition to the choreography. The principals lacked passion for their roles and for each other in their respective roles.

A few words about going to the ballet at the Opera House. The building is very ornate, with a beautiful exterior and an even prettier interior. On the other hand, the hall is very small, as is the stage, which does not have enough room for a grandiose production that requires space (such as The Swan Lake with many crowded scenes). The scene for the duet between Siegfried and Odile could definitely have used more space. The pas de deux had to be performed framed by the other dancers and hence was not a private moment between Siegfried and Odile.  Also, Siegfried was not able to leap through the stage in his grand jetes and could make only so many turns in that cramped space.

I am but a chemical engineer, with no training whatsoever on music; how can I even begin to comment on a performance? Maybe, I am completely off base in this review, but I trust myself because I had a very good education watching incredible performances on the grand stage of AKM. This was the third or fourth time I saw the Swan Lake; the others were all at Ataturk Cultural Center, lovingly known as AKM for Istanbul’lu (Istanbul resident) music and art enthusiasts. I wish I could give you a link for its website but alas it is left to rot since 2008. (For a Turkish article about the current condition of AKM, please click here.) AKM is my childhood and my youth. This is where my parents and my friends’ parents took us for our first concert, our first opera, our first play. The repertoire for the regular Friday night and the Saturday morning concerts was always amazingly complex week after week. One of my mom’s friends took me to the Saturday morning concerts for a few years. Tickets were hard to find, you had to wait in line to get good seats. I listened to great Turkish virtuosos as well as world renowned musicians and conductors at those concerts. The acoustics in the grand hall are said to be inferior but that’s where I and many other Istanbullus first listened to many important pieces and our ears learned to hear and love that beautiful music in that sound atmosphere. As is appropriate for a culture that thrives on meeting and having food together, AKM had very spacious foyer areas, too. You would run into friends and have profiteroles during intermissions. AKM was a true congregation point for the arts; there we waited in line to get tickets for the Film Festival or the Music Festival or the Jazz Festival. (Well, you could not get the tickets straightaway, you first had to fill out a paper form to sign up to get the tickets.) AKM was a meeting point for us in my teenage years. In that age before cell phones, that was an easy meeting place. Whoever showed up would just wait in front of the ticket office. It was Ataturk Cultural Center and it was a center that attracted the Istanbul resident both for culture and for being “central”.

Then, in 2008 AKM was closed to be refurbished. Since then, every few years, one government official or another talks about plans for renovation. Latest photos tell a different story; only the pole remains of the steel staircase that once was elegance and modernism at the same time. AKM took center stage one last time during the Gezi protests. The glass panel exterior was decorated with flags and banners. One protest was that of the “standing man“, who stood for several hours looking at AKM. Others joined his silent protest. As they stood, the glass panel silently reflected back the image of the Taksim square and the protesters.

My favorite Siegfried remains as Oktay Keresteci and my favorite Odile/Odette is still Hulya Aksular. This duo was all emotion. Oktay Keresteci would soar across the grand stage turning and turning and Hulya Aksular with her slender body was both graceful and powerful. There was no hesitation in their steps and their command over their motions as well as their trust in each other were clear. I watched them at AKM. Where else?

I know, I am romanticizing a time gone by. In the 1990s, Istanbul had a lively arts and music scene. Istanbul is still “happening” with many events, but the absence of a grand opera house is hurting the cultural scene. Now you have to seek out new venues. Back then, you could always count on finding a performance at AKM. If you were a student, you could listen to an incredible concert or watch a world class ballet for less than 10 dollars. The AKM was a point of entry for all income levels to begin to love and appreciate music and the arts. Now, I cannot take my children to AKM for their first concert. Now, AKM is in ruins, and that time has passed and that Istanbul is gone.