Ballet: Dancing into history


by Sibel DORSAN



The world of dancer Fahrettin Güven is interwoven with the history of classical ballet in Turkey. The former chief choreographer of the Ankara State Ballet recently found time to talk to us about the trials and joys of his career, the contributions of Dame Ninette de Valois, the ballets of centuries past and the prospects for the next generation.




For a voyage into the history of Turkish ballet, Fahrettin Güven is your ideal travelling companion. As a senior dancer of the Ankara State Ballet – and until recently its chief choreographer – he has personally played many a part. He began his professional dancing career in 1977 with an appearance in ‘Hürrem Sultan’, composed by Nüvit Kodallı and choreographed by Oytun Turfanda, one of the first of the great Turkish ballets to be staged at Ankara Opera. His first solo role was as Paris in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and he went on to perform lead roles in nearly all the classic works including ‘Les Patineurs’, ‘Giselle’, ‘Swan Lake’, ‘A Love Fairy-Tale’, ‘The Nutcracker’ and ’The Fountain of Bakchisarai’…


On one memorable occasion, Güven was assigned to present the order of merit to Ninette de Valois on behalf of the State within the framework of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Ballet. It was, he stresses, a great honour. The legendary Dame, who had done so much to help the Turkish ballet stand on its own feet, was 101 years old at the time. A year later, she passed away.


Dame Ninette de Valois laid the foundations for the ballet in 1948 and in later years never hesitated to offer assistance for the training of dancers, teachers, choreographers and composers. Believing that Turkish ballet would develop further, she visited Turkey frequently, made recommendations and provided scholarships for dancers to be trained in foreign countries. “We owe a great deal to Ninette de Valois,” Güven says, “She exerted enormous efforts for the institutionalization of the ballet and its systematic administration.”


Italian celebrations


While the formal history of Turkish classical ballet goes back 58 years, the earliest ballet performances took place many centuries ago. All current ballet histories rank a performance of ‘Beaujoyeux’ by Catherine de Medicis staged by ‘Le Ballet Comique de la Reine’ in 1581 as the earliest significant show. However, as early as 1524, migrants from Venice, Florence and Genoa who had settled in Istanbul’s Galata district from the twelfth century onwards, organised a ballet performance together with their Turkish friends as part of the celebrations marking the defeat of the French King Francois I in Italy (Prof. Dr. Metin And: ‘Feste Date Da Toscani Veneziani in Constantinopoli nel Carnavale’, 1524).


The memoirs of Pietro Della Vale, an Italian traveller with an extensive knowledge of music, reveal that Turks participated in dance and other similar performances at the residence of the Venetian Ambassador in Istanbul in 1644 (‘Viaggi de Pietro Della Vale’, Rome 1650).


Later on, Guiseppe Donizetti (‘Donizetti Pasha’), who was invited to take part in the establishment of the ‘Muzika-i Humayun’ during the reigns of Mahmud II (1784-1839) and Abdülmecid (1823-1861), introduced opera, operetta and ballet in addition to the principles of western music to the Ottoman Palace. Thus, these presentations became popular in the country.


Ballet really started to take off in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. Theatres such as the Naoum Theater, which generally worked with Italian troupes, staged performances open to the public. The Güllü Agop, Concordia, Amphi, Variete, Tepebaşı and Verdi theatres also later brought Italian and French companies to Istanbul.


The Republican era


It was with the proclamation of the Republic that ballet became an academic subject and an institution. In 1921, two years before the Republic was proclaimed, Güven tells us, the Belarusian ballet teacher Lydia Krassa Arzumanova, had opened a ballet studio in Istanbul and trained many students. Arzumova had come to Turkey in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution. In 1931, she and her dancers made their first performance at the “Casa d’Italia” in the Tepebaşı district. Arzumanova staged a performance at Eminönü ‘Halkevi’ (Community Center) in 1942, and in 1944 she brought ballet to Ankara, presenting the ballet ‘A Forest Fairy Tale’ composed by Ahmet Adnan Saygun and choreographed by herself. This ballet was performed at Ankara Halkevi in 1944.


At this point the State took a hand. “In the young Turkish Republic,” Güven explains, “the State had taken steps towards the contemporary civilization pointed by Atatürk and major steps had been taken in the field of culture and art. As a result of efforts made in line with the interests and demands of the people, the Ankara State Conservatory was set up. For the ballet school to be established within the structure of this Conservatory, Dame Ninette de Valois, who was the founder of the British Royal Ballet and one of the most important names in contemporary ballet, was invited to Turkey in 1947 and the seeds of today’s national ballet were sown.”


Dame Ninette de Valois opened the first official ballet school in Istanbul (Yeşilköy) on January 6, 1948. Dame Ninette recognized the fact that it was important to develop the students academically as well as creatively and made sure that the students were also working hard in this area and not just at their dancing. The entrance examination for the school was competitive, as only the selected few could make it professionally.  Eleven male and 18 female students were taken to the school. Joy Newton and Audrey Knight of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet were brought to Turkey to train them.


The Ankara stage


The Yeşilköy Ballet School was moved to Ankara in 1950 and affiliated to the State Conservatory. This is how the ballet department of the Conservatory was established. The first performance to be given by the conservatory students trained under British teachers was ‘Keloğlan’, composed by Ulvi Cemal Erkin and choreographed by Ninette de Valois. This group of dancers graduated in 1957 and together with dancers from Arzumanova’s school formed the initial line-up of the Ballet Department of the State Theatre. The Department made its debut when it performed in the opera ‘Salome’ and the accompanying one-act play ‘El Amor Brujo’. The dancers went on to adorn various other stage shows until, in 1961, the first entire ballet, ‘Coppelia’, was performed. Another stride was taken in 1965 with the staging of the first indigenous full-scale ballet, ‘Çeşmebaşı’. The show, inspired by Turkish folklore, was created by Ninette de Valois and composed by Ferit Tüzün.


From that moment on, Turkish ballet matured rapidly. Star dancers such as Hüsnü Sunal, Ferit Akın, Binay Okurer, Sait Sökmen, Gülcan Tunççekiç, Ayla Önal, Meriç Sümen, Oytun Turfanda, Güloya Arıoba, Özkan Aslan and Mehmet Balhan won accolades at home and abroad. The ballet ‘Çark’, by Sait Sökmen, was the first work to be choreographed by a Turks. It was followed by performances choreographed by Duygu Aykal, Oytun Turfanda, Güloya Arıoba and others who combined local colours with international standards. And it was at this point that Fahrettin Güven took to the stage.


When he entered the conservatory with top marks, Güven can hardly have imagined that he would go on to train in Britain – between 1982 and 1988 – and later exchange his dancing career for a six-year stint as chief choreographer. In this post, Güven faced many challenges and difficulties, but he retained all of his contagious energy, self-confidence and enthusiasm. He managed to collaborate with 24 different sponsors. “You cannot produce good work without financial power,” he notes. The results included thirteen international tours to countries as diverse as the USA, Bulgaria, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany and Hungary, and nearly 100 tours within Turkey.


The next steps


During those Turkish tours, Güven was frequently moved to tears by the close interest of the Anatolian people. Meanwhile, he takes enormous pride in the accomplishments of the Turkish ballet at the international level: “This feeling cannot be expressed with words,” he asserts.


“The ballet is always developing further,” Güven adds. It improves because it builds on examples from the previous period. It is traditional from this standpoint. However, in academic, technical and artistic terms, it has sometimes been more British and sometimes more Russian. Now we have created a technique of our own through the amalgamation of these two. Despite its short history, I think Turkish ballet has something original both in its dancers and its choreography. It has taken its place in the international arena.”


The dancer is pleased with the amount of interest being shown in activities held jointly with the State Opera, Ballet of Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin and Antalya. He has full confidence in the new General Director of the Ankara State Opera and Ballet, the award-winning ballerina and state artist Meriç Sümen, who was appointed to the job last year. One of Turkey’s leading international dancers, Sümen was invited to the British Royal Ballet after she graduated from the conservatory, and became well known in Russia, Europe and the United States. She became the first foreigner to take the lead role at the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet, where she has performed “Giselle” on a number of occasions.


”Ballet is in safe hands,” Güven concludes. For his own part, he is now sharing his knowledge and experience at the ‘Art Academy’, the school of music and stage arts which he helped to establish after his mission as chief choreographer came to an end. “I feel very lucky because I love my job,” he declares, “I am so grateful to my family for introducing me to this profession.”



( DIPLOMAT  -  May 2006  -  Ankara )