After watching Sylvia for the first time, one dancer took my attention, and he was Mehmet Nuri Arkan. Although I did not know the names of the dancers, I checked the board on which the cast was presented. The reason why he caught my attention was I always thought ballet as a disciplined dance with very strict rules in which you have to maintain your balance, your strength and technique. However, watching him on stage I realized that ballet is not all about techniques. Watching Sylvia for the second time, I confirmed myself, and also had the chance to interview with Arkan.
Can you inform us about yourself, your education and career?
After finishing 5th grade of primary school, I started Istanbul University State Conservatory. My mother wanted me to be a ballet, and my father wanted me to be a musician. However, during the music auditions, we were picked up from the hall. “There are not enough ballets in Turkey, children. Would you like to consider ballet instead of music?” said our present professor, Oral Yazıcı. We were ten back then, we said we had to ask our parents. We could not pass the music auditions, which we think that our professors might have done something with it. Maybe it was because they liked our physics or it was because the need of male dancers… We did not pass the music audition but passed ballet audition. My junior high school and university days were good. I stopped doing ballet for a while. I wanted to become a dancer. It was like, if there was a pot, I wanted to mix everything together. I wanted to put the tomatoes, peppers, and sauces all together. Slowly, I wanted to cook them all. I wanted to learn folklore. I danced in Sultans of Dance for three or four years, from halay to zeybek, from zeybek to Karadeniz folklore, I learned them all. We travelled the world. At first my teachers were very mad at me, they told me that I should dance in abroad. I had the possibility to go to France once, nowadays youth leave, but we couldn’t. We had this devotion to our fathers and mothers. I travelled the world with Sultans of Dance, and yet I didn’t have the strength to go somewhere and dance for 10 or 15 years. I really love my family and friends.
Do you think technique is as important as emotions in ballet?
You have the head start when you love what you do, even if you drink water… There is trouble, there is pain there on the stage. Those are things that hardens you. You ought to leave all the troubles, sufferings at the backstage, and be “zero” be “nothing”. Because that’s all we can do. There are lots of dancers who flee abroad, but creating your own style, your soul, your love, your passions… The way you are, no one else can be like you. You shouldn’t compete with anyone. You steal, that’s alright, I grasped lots of moves from my dancer friends, and I identified myself with the moves, that’s different. The matter is your own soul. Your own passion is something so unique. You have to be one with the audience. There is no other way. You cannot do it by the books, nor with a white-collar mentality. Without love, it simply doesn’t happen. Then you have the head start, love is the head start. Of Course you have the technique, it is in the pocket. We have been doing this job for over twenty years, but as our twenties passed by, our uncontrollable energy has gone. We used to say “Whoa! My jump is so big in this move! Look at my turns they are awesome! I am even better than the lead role!” so on and so forth. Ego. But life is nothing like that, as we age we learn that experience is more important, a smile, a tiny expression on stage, or a laughter… We learn that not everything is business. There are lots of things for us to learn, every moment is an experience.
Do you practice daily?
Yes, we have lessons every day. Nearly for 20 years, we do that plie and tendu every morning. Even we huff and puff, we must. At evenings, we have lessons before the show. You do a little barre, after that a little stretch. You shouldn’t eat much before show, to not get bloated. Sometimes we use creams on our legs for relief… But it also about, you know, the day. Sometimes you say “I pump the amino acid, I ate my chocolate drank my Red bull, I am so energetic!” You go on stage. Nothing! Sometimes you tremble, you panic, and you learn not to panic the more you panic. When we were on stage for the first time, our hands were shaking. My first time as a lead role I thought about escaping before the curtain opens. “Should I escape to abroad? What would happen, would they end my service, would they end my salary?” You see, lots of thinking in just two seconds. But these are nice things. Nice things to talk about in future. “S/he was a good dancer” or whatsoever, this is something different. But, being remembered well is amazing. Doing your job with peace, leaving this door with congratulations. Of Course there are times we have negative feedbacks. There are times you drop the girl, or there are times you slip and fall. Important thing is to stand up, not to look back. When there are three curtains ahead of you, you cannot, should not care no matter what happens. You should always look ahead, you always look ahead, because there is a curtain ahead of you, audience, and the girl ahead of you. You cannot hamper her. The audience really understand the mood. Sometimes you do a very simple move, you smile or you get terrified, they understand this. Ballet audience understands the technique, by ballet audience I mean choreographers, and professors. Thus the rehearsals are the hardest for us. Audience want to feel the soul, choreographers want to see the technique, which tenses me the most. But when you are on the stage, you are alone with the audience now, they really do understand your tiniest move. After Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, I always say it is like using a helicopter in a telephone box, the stage is too small, and we constantly alter our step while we dance. For instance one time, while i was about to do a turn, I was headed towards the lights and forth. We are not the ones who suffer, the decorator workers, and opera artists suffer too. Backstage of AKM was two times bigger than AKM itself. As soon as opera’s presentment is over the decor of it goes to the backstage, and ballet’s presentment decor come. This changed. Now after ballet presentment decorator workers die arranging them.
Do you come across with any prejudices about your profession?
Of Course, although I was never embarrassed, it happens. Back then when I was around 12 or 14, we moved to a new neighborhood. “What do you study?” “What do you do?” I never said that I was a ballet, because they would make fun of me asking that “Oh, do you wear tights?” Our lead dancer’s, Melih’s, father was the same, he was an officer, he opposed. But now he is proud of his son. He danced in abroad, achieved amazing things. My father, also didn’t want me to become a dancer. He wanted me to be a musician. He was also an artist. He was on stage, on TRT. He wanted me to study at Kuleli, to be a soldier. Being a ballet in Turkey is hard. You get used to it though, you lose the sensitivity in time. You say “Let them talk.”
Do you think there is an attempt to make male dancers’ move more “macho”?
Audience love dynamic dances. For instance Act III of Gökkuşağı, “Troy Game”. It is also same in Europe and America, dynamic dances are loved more, and they love contemporary dances, such as neoclassical ballet. Stage in Süreyya is small but we have done amazing things on that stage. Sometimes we had very high expectations of a play, which we certainly thought to be liked, didn’t. Sometimes you cannot predict what audience would like or wouldn’t. We might have been separated from AKM in our golden age, but we played amazing plays.
You seem to be very sad about it.
Of Course, seeing it as a worksite, seeing the police. It was like stabbing us in the heart in our golden age. AKM was one of the biggest stages in Europe. Ballet is performed on a big stage, imagine Sylvia being performed in AKM. How Swan Lake would be performed there, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote… With such love we’d play it. We still do it through, but with limiting ourselves, steps. We get rusty. In tours we feel graveled on a big stage, but we get used to it.
19th-century Parisian critic Jules Janin, thinks that the Romantic ballet stage should be graced only by women. What do you think about it?
There is always a woman, always a lover, and a prince who loves her. There is also a peasant who loves her. However she always prefers the prince. Without a woman it doesn’t happen. The girl makes us dance. She makes us move. For instance, Sylvia. I don’t do anything, she makes me dance. In Black Swan, the prince who is bewitched, astonished with Black Swan’s fire, dance. Also audience feel amazed. You feel as if you are in another dimension. You are one with the stage. You enter the palace, prince is there, and king is there. Or in Şımarık Kız, you are the farmer, you are in the farm. Without a woman it doesn’t happen. She gives you some kind of energy. For example if you do pas de deux with her, or after her solo, if she did well she makes you feel energetic.