Greek Christmas and the Nutcracker ballet in Athens
Since we started to travel the world, I have not been able to continue ballet class which I think I am trying to compensate, on a subconscious level, through an increased attendance at ballet performances.
Last Sunday we went to the National State Opera in Athens to see the Nutcracker. A classic to set you right into Christmas mode, which for Greece is not a big holiday.
CHRISTMAS IN GREECE – the Santa of Greece is Saint Basil (This is entertaining.)
In Greece 95% are members of the Greek Orthodox Church and Christmas only comes second to Easter. Christmas decorations are scarce in Athens and would admittedly look funny on orange trees. Santa is avoiding Greece all together. Not due to the possibility of reindeer protesting for snow and elves putting down work demanding aircon.
In Greece Santa gives room for SAINT BASIL. Presents are exchanged on the 1st of January on New Years Day, which is SAINT BASIL’S DAY here.
BASIL, as in the aromatic herb, also plays a major role and is wrapped around a cross and dipped in a bowl of holy water to sprinkle the rooms in Greek households, to make bad spirits go away. Those sprites are called KILLANTZAROI and cause a lot of havoc. They come through the chimney like Santa but appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany on January the 6th.
Killantzaroi engage in all sorts of mischief and make food go bad. The basil water and a lit fire for twelve days is meant to keep them away. On Saint Basil’s day the holy water bowl is refilled with new Saint Basil’s Water.
Christmas trees are a new trend in Greece. Tomek’s auntie and her Greek friend told us how people decorate big models of masted SAILING SHIPS instead.
In a country of historic seafaring ships are the main symbol during Christmas.
Christmas ships come in all colours and forms, are hand made and sold by street vendors.
Inspired by Greek traditions I made this Christmas present for a good old friend and hobby sailor from Denmark.
SAINT NICHOLAS is equally important, who does not bring presents but protection, as the patron saint of sailors. He is dressed in a red cloak and has a white beard but looks more like a bishop. According to Greek tradition, his clothes are drenched with brine, his beard drips with seawater, and his face is covered with sweat because he has been working hard against the waves to reach sinking ships and rescue them from the sea. A Saint Nicholas icon will always be on board on Greek ships but has nothing to do with Christmas.
Anyhow, on Christmas in Greece, ship models are adorned with lights and glitter and gold painted nuts.
And nuts bring us back to the Nutcracker.
You got to have read the synopsis of the crazy bed-time story ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ by German author E. T. A. Hoffman, in order to be able to follow the plot in the theatre.
The Nutcracker is the on stage projection of a dream world of a young girl who receives a wooden nutcracker soldier for Christmas. This wooden toy brought by a magician comes to live and takes the young girl on a journey through the kingdom of sweets and land of the mice king. That is the play in a nutshell, so to speak.
The opulence of 19th century decadent aristocracy celebrating Christmas Eve with grand presents by the lush Christmas tree, the dancing fantasy of the candy-presents from different countries, the fight between soldiers of the mice king and the toy soldiers of the nutcracker, the legendary world of dancing snowflakes and the beautiful sugar plum fairy…
…room for exquisite stage decorations or costume was little taken advantage of but nevertheless, considering the economic situation in Greece, the national theatre’s performance was not reduced to penury.
During the performance the prevalent anarchic element of Athens had found its way into the play. Formations allowing for greater freedom in movement and performance worked well for ‘chaotic’ scenes of aristocracy engaging in dance duets. In group formations demanding a high skill of precision and exact timing, movements were not in harmony and I thought sort of projected the (country’s) overall laid back atmosphere.
There were many comic moments, such as the repetitive scenes of drunken soldiers and the interestingly introduced Greek background of the Hadrian’s arch of historic Athens or a torero fight with a bull and matador (I have no idea what went through the choreographer’s mind).
The solos and pas de deux were very enjoyable, showing the individual skills of the leading ballet dancers.
The loudest bravos were given to the orchestra, which in essence reflects the soul of the play. The Nutcracker’s choreography, written by Marius Petipa in 1891 wouldn’t be such a success without the legendary music composed by Tchaikovsky. The second act also included famous tunes by Tchaikovsky from the Romeo and Juliet ballet.
In large parts sitting at the auditorium of the National State Opera was like, well… at a taverna, with people chatting throughout the play and children perceiving the opera as a big playground during intermission, running, climbing, screaming, exploring…
The Olympia theatre was build in 1958 and architecture is accordingly not as breathtaking as the 19th century Budapest Opera House.
(And big and bulky lads should book back seat tickets and not be seated in front of small people, like me. And there was an oversized lady sitting behind me, not being able to fit into the seat, she sat on the very edge with her knees against my seat. Obesity is freaky.)
But there was a Christmas tree and I could buy a Christmas CD for granny. Shh, don’t tell granny.
All souvenirs at the opera focused on the most famous American-born Greek soprano, Maria Callas.
I am already excited to see another Nutcracker version in Vilnius, as we splashed out reserving first row tickets. Ballet stands for highest achievements in athletic skills and state of the art classic music performed by a live orchestra which seems to be largely undervalued, when comparing ticket rates to the out of hand price-performance-ratio of soccer games, such as the fortune we spent for ‘El Clásico’.
My expectations of Lithuanian ballet, regarding dancer’s quality and technical skills are high. I shall report soon.