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Ballet Preljocaj's 'Les Nuits (The Nights)' At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Toby.Brown |
June 24, 2014 | 9:22 a.m. PDT

Contributing Writer

Ballet Preljocaj's 'Les Nuits (The Nights)'. Photo by Jean-Claude Carbonne.
Ballet Preljocaj's 'Les Nuits (The Nights)'. Photo by Jean-Claude Carbonne.
Any American child can claim to be familiar with the classic Arabic text "1,001 Nights" (also known as "Arabian Nights" & "Scheherazade"), at least in that it was the vehicle that brought "Aladdin" and "Sinbad the Sailor" to the western world.  Angelin Preljocaj’s new Ballet "Les Nuits (The Nights)" is billed as being 'inspired' by the "1,001 Nights," and he uses this word wisely, as a purist may be confused to enter a non-narrative ballet where classical images are painted as only the broadest impressions. 

In truth, Preljocaj is only following in a long and complicated tradition of free reinterpretation of this classic.  Different versions of the story as far reaching as Persia, Egypt, and possibly even India have been written over the past thousand years.  Generally they follow the basic premise: a wise young woman escapes being beheaded by her vengeful king and husband by telling a series of stories each night and ending on a cliffhanger each morning.  The stories that she tells are really the main attraction, and change vastly from version to version. It turns out both Aladdin and Sinbad, while genuine Arabian folktales, were really added to "1,001 Nights" by European translators in the 18th and 19th centuries. "1,001 Nights" is and has always been a conversation, between lovers, cultures, and continents.  Preljocaj is just picking up the discussion and giving it a modern lens.  While the West is looking at the East, it may be secretly looking back at the itself.

A key to understanding this scheme of interpretation is in its influences. Preljocaj took a great deal of inspiration from Orientalism of the 19th century, a movement in which western academic artists depicted, borrowed, or simply invented a fantasy of eastern culture.  He was particularly moved by the sumptuous tableaus of the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who at the time was very controversial for depicting 'low' subjects: lust, violence, and foreigners.  Ingres’ "Turkish Baths," is a glimpse into the ladies room, a sea of conspicuously pale, classical beauties who supposedly have found themselves in Turkey.  This painting became the inspiration for the opening of "Les Nuits," in which a pool of reclining women seem to roll awake in slow-motion, steam wafting over them.  The play of the obscuring steam and a shadowy half-light, (the warm, bold lighting design is by Cécile Giovansili-Vissière,) creates a fascinating sensual scene, and this is first of several truly gorgeous motifs in the program. 

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was also an important part of the Orientalist movement, and the ballets that accompanied his classic symphonic suite "Scheherazade" are certainly what most dance lovers will be naturally comparing with "Les Nuits."  It is a good thing that Preljocaj opted for the neutral title "Les Nuits," rather than one of the classic titles, because this ballet is not attempting to tell that story, or really any story. Trying to find fidelity to a text, or for that matter any narrative through-line from dance to dance in "Les Nuits" would be wasting time.  This might be a disappointment to someone who saw the 2008 Preljocaj version of Snow White for instance, which employs narrative and consistent characters, though it should not come as surprise to those who are familiar with modern trends in dance.  This is a piece about impressions of the East and of the rest of the world, but it makes no effort to disguise the fact that it is a European production.

Photo by Jean-Claude Carbonne.
Photo by Jean-Claude Carbonne.
Preljocaj himself represents this conversation between East and West in that his ancestors were mountain-dwelling Albanian Catholics, (apparently, when the Ottomans invaded and converted most of the country to Islam, they didn’t bother to climb the mountains,) though he was born, raised and is very much French.  Of the Orientalists, he was interested in the fact that some of them actually traveled to the East, and plenty never left their Parisian grottoes, painting a fantastical vision of eastern life that they created entirely.  This concept is reflected in all of the aspects of "Les Nuits," from the music to the costumes and even in the specific movements of the dancers.  Preljocaj has been called a 'New Diaghilev' after the famous leader of the Ballet Russe in part for his practice of pulling in great talents from disparate disciplines to collaborate on a new project.

For the costumes, he recruited the influential Tunisian-born designer Azzedine Alaïa, whose recent works have been touring in a few small European art museums... and deservedly so.  Alaïa has the ability to push fashion into a realm of art through shape and concept: a dress has a zipper that instead of going up and down, spirals around from shoulder to hem.  And while he is influenced by his country of origin, it has been the West that has nurtured and welcomed his work.  The costumes for "Les Nuits" are inventive, though not stand-alone art pieces.  It makes sense in that Alaïa’s best work is constricting to the point of being almost impossible for any daily-function, let alone the physical demands of dance.  Some of the costumes border on caricature, resembling cheeleader outfits or a sort-of a cross between a ninja and a Westerner’s nightmare of a Jihadist.  Again, a vision across the Mediterranean, though it becomes hard to say whether it is the West looking at the East or something more complicated.
There are several wholly arresting images throughout "Les Nuits". Three men kneel on stage, each with a man behind them, and three tall windows behind them.  It resembles a televised beheading, but when the men’s heads are pulled back, we realize... no, they are being shaved.  Another time Preljocaj used an Orientalist painting as a jumping off point, he started with Leon Bonnat’s "Le Barbier Negre a Suez," and ran from there.  The piece is violent, cotedienne, and homoerotic; it is impossible to look away.
Later, women in heels and red dresses flip their middle fingers at the audience as a Natacha Atlas’s Middle Eastern inflected version of James Brown’s "Its a Mans World" plays.  In another section, four rugs appear on stage with four sets of starkly lit legs beneath each, and for a while the audience is completely mesmerized without seeing anything above a thigh.  There are a series of excellent pas-de-deux interspersed between them, and the diversity of the personalities in the company are beautifully showcased.  However, there are also a number of larger group pieces that lack specificity and feel almost like they were thrown in as filler.  If "Les Nuits" is a conversation, these are episodes of small-talk.  As the program develops, and more and more of the intricate sets by Constance Guisset are revealed, it becomes stronger as a cohesive piece. 

One of the highlights comes towards the end when only one dancer is left on stage (the striking Cecilia Torres Morillo), sitting facing upstage, her arms hidden in front of her.  Solely with the twisting articulation of her back, she hypnotizes the audience: a charmed snake who has taken the role of the charmer.  When Preljocaj keeps his aim specific and trusts his dancers, he creates truly thrilling dance.  This is reflexive art, a discourse that crosses cultures and ends up commenting on itself.  More often than not, Ballet Preljocaj proves itself to be a fascinating conversationalist.

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Ballet Preljocaj’s ’Les Nuits (The Nights)’ is playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion (135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles) through June 22nd. Tickets are $34-$125.  It contains nudity and sexual themes and is recommended for mature audiences. For more information visit www.MusicCenter.org




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