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The tales handed down from A Thousand and One Nights (aka the Arabian Nights) have spawned countless legendary figures from Scheherazade to Aladdin and Sinbad to Ali Baba. The artistic works derived from the fables range from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade to Disney’s cartoon and musical adaptations of Aladdin. A new rendition of the tales that is currently touring the world is Ballet Preljocaj’s seductive – but ultimately uneven – Les Nuits (The Nights), which held its North American premiere in Los Angeles this weekend.
The work by French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, combines the allure, sexuality, and violence of the legendary tales with some disturbingly superficial elements, two beautiful pas des deux numbers, hookah-smoking dancers and some strange musical choices.
His signature choreographic style has made his Aix-en-Provence-based French company his country’s leading contemporary ballet company, but that was not obvious on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage this weekend.
Ultimately, Preljocaj’s 85-minute balletic but strange (or is that strained?) West-meets-East vision has a saving grace in its 18 excellent dancers. They are given many thankless tasks to perform but the numbers are danced well; the energetic troupe was consistently engaging, even if the choreography was not.
The show, which had no intermission, opened with a group of lightly clad women languorously rolling, kneeling, and stretching in a simulated bathhouse on a barely lit stage blanketed with strange electronic sounds. Then, six black-clad men enter and interact with the women with mixed arousal and violence before four dancers enact elaborate movements displaying attraction and then conquest. This whole tableau sets the stage, so to speak, for a series of interspersed dance numbers that alternate between simulated sex scenes, modern chorus girl revue elements, and interesting lighting in set pieces typical of a cheesy Indian restaurant décor. If all of this is hard to picture, it was also confusing and hard to enjoy.
There were two pieces that were notable for different reasons. In one, a chorus line of women dancers in contemporary short red dresses set to a female cover of the James Brown classic, This is a Man’s World. The song and attire seem so anachronistic in comparison to what had come before that it was jarring and actually made the point more than some of the sexist choreography. In the other, there were lines of dancers holding Persian carpets like screens that cover their heads and torsos, but displayed their legs engaged in intricate movements.
In one scene, three female dancers make balletic and rather suggestive moves atop giant pieces of pottery. They are seen in striking silhouette with a beautiful cerulean background above a golden sunset or sunrise. Then the women are each joined by two males each who preen and come onto them before ultimately seemingly putting them in the vases and rolling them off stage. In the last bit, the female dancers are in cages, like a mix of Chicago meets Moorish architecture. It seems to convey – as if all the negative treatment of women up till then did not – that the women in Les Nuits are prisoners and subservient.
Les Nuits definitely had its cultural and feministic problems. However, the attraction of attending a ballet performance is the dancing. While some of it was quirky at best, banal at worst, there were some good elements in the works. However, the successful elements would have been better served as short divertissements that stood on their own between works from other choreographers or at least better ones from Preljocaj, who does have some well known ones. Preljocaj’s Nuits was a seductive, but uneven ballet outing that could have been a lot better.
Opinion by Dyanne Weiss
Performance June 22, 2014, in Los Angeles