Awkward Cultural Encounters at “Swan Lake”

Ahhhh, the theater….a sublime place of art and performance. A space separate from the daily grind of work, technology, and stress – a holy place to celebrate human creativity and ability. Often the physical place is a source of pride for the community, whether it be historical, modern, state-of-the-art, quirky….The Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater is beautifully historic with a hint of Gothic influence in its architecture, built in 1911, and well preserved.

Baku Theatre 1

It’s located in a nice plaza close to Fountain Square.

Baku Theatre 2Baku Theatre 3Baku Theatre 4

Baku Theater 4

Baku Theatre 5

Baku Theatre 6Baku Theatre 7

Last weekend Dana and I eagerly attended a showing of Swan Lake. Note the word “eager”: two dancers from the Belarus Academic Bolshoi Theatre were brought in to dance the main roles of Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile. Azerbaijan’s ballet is good – as one who danced classical ballet from childhood through high school, I can attest that there is some solid technique there. But is it special like Bolshoi, Paris Opera, Royal Ballet, or American Ballet Theater? Not quite. Gara Garayev’s Yeddi Gözəl (Seven Beauties), which we saw in September, was worth watching but the company, as it is, would have a hard time performing Swan Lake. So once we caught wind that two dancers with epically Russian names (Olga Gayko and Igor Onoshko) were dancing in Baku, we knew we had to attend.

Personally, this was a big deal: it was my first ballet seeing Bolshoi dancers live, my first live Swan Lake, my first time hearing Tchaikovsky’s music live, and I could hardly wait to watch the pas de deux from act II – the epitome of the classic pas de deux.

The performance was at 7pm, we arrived just after 6:30 to get tickets. We entered the ticket office and had our first strange encounter. Barely six feet in front of the booth was a man and a younger couple. I’m still unsure of what exactly they wanted, but it seemed awkwardly shady. After trying to communicate in a strange mix of Russian, Azeri, and English, we stepped past them to buy our tickets. Sir, I might be a foreigner, but I am not stupid. Seriously, if you’re going to sell contraband tickets, why do it in the actual ticket office?

Whatever. We got our tickets and made our way to the theater. We purchased cheap nose-bleed seats (13 manat each), but we were in the nose bleed section of the nose bleed seats. Luckily, it’s a small enough theater that it wasn’t too bad, but we had a hard time finding our seats. There were no row and seat numbers tidily tacked onto the chairs. We asked an usher for assistance. She semi-rambled in Russian (of which I know nothing) but her actions suggested this: “Don’t you see? It’s so obvious. You are row 10, start counting from the bottom of this balcony section – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Seats 17 and 18 – again, obvious. From here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc. until you reach 17. Then sit down, duh.” So we tried that. Of course, there was some kid sitting in my seat–if that even was my seat. Ugh, he probably doesn’t speak English so we’ll just plop down in this general area.

Down we sat, and watched with much amusement as other audience members struggled with this seat system too. We ate some Russian chocolate that we smuggled in, trying not to make faces while eating a weird fruit-gel-chocolate monstrosity.

At 7:20, it finally started. We shoved away the chocolate. Tchaikovsky’s genius bellowed throughout the space and thrilled my soul….so wonderful….but why are people still talking? Seriously, you had an extra 20 minutes to finish chatting with each other and on your phones. Enough.

About half way into act I, a bright light flashed over our right shoulders. Ohhh hell no…is that what I think it is? We looked in astonishment and, yes, some lady was recording the performance on her phone. Very blatantly. Lady, you are literally lighting up the entire theater with your phone – PUT IT AWAY. But to top it off, she replayed the video she had just made with the volume at full capacity. Whaaat – I have no words.

At another point during act I, the guy sitting next to Dana started to shift around a lot. Why are you antsy, dude? It’s Swan Lake, calm yourself. He got up and fumbled over our legs to leave. Fine, go! Stop moving! But he came back a few minutes later with his girlfriend. My lord, who let them in? Where’s the rambling Russian usher woman to stop them? More fumbling over our legs – sit doooowwwwnnnnnn!!!

So at this point, I was in a weird mood. In some ways, this was all hilarious and highly entertaining, but I didn’t want these people who obviously disrespected theater culture to completely ruin the experience. So I said a quick prayer (or a threatening curse, depending on how you look at it): In the name of all that is considered holy, if anyone disrupts my reverie while watching the pas de deux of act II, I will rip their heads off.

Lucky for everyone, I enjoyed that pas to my heart’s content. I don’t know if people did actually behave themselves for a full ten minutes or if I was able to drown out all distractions. But it was magical….

I was floating on air when intermission rolled around. Dana and I were equally awed by the visiting dancers and the theater culture we were witnessing. In the middle of our discussion, a loud baritone voice echoed through the nose bleeds, “You are being very, VERY rude!”

What is this, now? We peered over to see the drama unfolding on the other side. A tall, husky expat gentleman loomed over another man and was scolding him in English. He went on for a while, and I sorely wanted to be munching from a big container of popcorn. Fight, fight, fight! The lady companion of the husky man chimed in, “[indiscernible, angry comments]…AND YOU HATE CHILDREN [concluding indiscernible angry comments].” Haha, woah – what is going on?? After a few more seconds, they stormed out, leaving the objects of their anger dumbfounded and highly embarrassed. I wanted to give them a standing ovation – sir, thank you for standing up to rudeness, and for doing it so well. Not sure what children had to do with it, but job well done!

The ballet finally resumed and, at this point, we were just brimming over with anticipation. What other amazing feats of dancing will we see? What other examples of poor theater etiquette will we witness?

It did not take long. A bit into act III, during a jovial tune, the woman behind us loudly clicked her tongue along in tune to the music. Excuse me, ma’am, are you Tchaikovsky? No, you are not. Did the man himself explicitly give you permission to casually tongue-click along to his masterpiece? No, he did not. Am I enjoying your impromptu performance? No, I am not. I shot her a dirty look over my right shoulder. Don’t know if that worked, but she stopped.

We had a second intermission, which threw both Dana and I for a loop. “It is done?” I looked at the time, “I mean…we’ve been here forever – but there has to be death, they both die.” When it was finally over, the ballet had lasted over three hours. Three hours of strange and rude spectator behavior. Phew!

In conclusion, it was a weird night. It was bizarre to juxtapose the mastery and skill of the Bolshoi dancers to the careless etiquette of our fellow audience members. Do you know just how special that was? Do you realize how lucky you are to be so close to one of the prime cultural traditions of the world? And what were we supposed to learn or take away from having all of those awkward cultural encounters in one night?

But that’s Azerbaijan for you, and a part of me wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time….  ; )


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