Les Nuits: Sensual ballet conjures Arabia

For Les Nuits, French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj drew heavily on 19th century depictions of the myth and mystique of the Middle East in art. (Photographer: J C Carbonne)

For Les Nuits, French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj drew heavily on 19th century depictions of the myth and mystique of the Middle East in art. (Photographer: J C Carbonne)

With all the carnage going on in the Middle East, thanks to the radical-militant Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s grisly efforts to establish, mediaeval style, an Islamic caliphate throughout the world, it’s almost had to believe that once upon a distant time, the Arab world epitomised sensuality, languor, refinement and mystery. It was the cutting-edge civilisation of its day.

World-renowned French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj explores the splendour of that world with his new ballet, Les Nuits (The Nights), based on the classic tales of A Thousand and One Nights.

Created last year, Les Nuits makes its South African debut at the Joburg Theatre on September 2 and 3, as part of the Dance Umbrella at the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival.

Critics have raved about Les Nuits, calling the ballet “spellbinding”, “steamy”, “seductive” and “sensual”. And indeed, Preljocaj’s intention when he conceived the production was to express through dance the sensual aspects of Arabian culture.

“In 1988,” he said in a statement, “I created Liqueurs de chair, which focused on the notion of eroticism but permeated with aspects of surrealism.

“I wanted to return to this theme in a more flamboyant way and one that preserved all the mystery and fascination which the East still exerts on the collective unconscious.”

The character of Scheherazade, the Persian queen who narrates the tales, provides the prism through which Les Nuits unfolds. “With her words, culture and intelligence, she represents a bastion against barbarism and challenges us to question the role of women in society.” 

The tale of Scheherazade is well known. The sultan, infuriated by his wife’s infidelity, kills her and then resolves to take a new bride every day, only to kill the unfortunate woman the next morning to ensure that he is not cuckolded ever again.

When the Persian beauty became the sultan’s new queen, she decided, in order to escape almost certain death in the morning, to tell him a story every night and leave him hanging until the next instalment the following night. She kept this up for 1?001 nights, after which he decided to spare Scheherazade from the fate that had befallen her predecessors.

The multi-awarded Preljocaj, who studied classical ballet before turning to contemporary dance, working with such luminaries in the dance world as Zena Rommett and Merce Cunningham, formed his own company in 1984, now based in Aix-en-Provence.

His productions, which include collaborations with artists such as Jean-Paul Gaultier for Snow White (2008), Claude Lévêque for Siddharta (2010) and Enki Bilal for Romeo and Juliette (1990), have become part of the repertoire of many companies around the world. He has also been honoured with original production commissions from the likes of La Scala in Milan, the New York City Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet.

For Les Nuits, he drew heavily on 19th century depictions of the myth and mystique of the Middle East in art, such as The Barber of Suez by Léon Bonnat, The Nubian Woman by Charles Gleyre, The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugene Delacroix and The Turkish Bath by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

The Barber of Suez, for instance, is directly referenced in a scene in which men’s faces and torsos are shaved, and homosexual sex is also alluded to.

But, curiously, Preljocaj has described his approach as more impressionistic than figurative, based on his own reactions to reading A Thousand and One Nights.

Although the sets are austere and minimalist — the onion-shaped domes of Arabian palaces are conjured by repeating rows of arches that serve as both screen and cage — the ballet and its accompanying score are anything but.

Languorous and energetic, sensual and sinister, it features, depending on the scene, semi-nude, even topless female dancers, heads wrapped in white turbans and breasts bare; men dressed like ninjas, clad in black from head to toe, to represent the thieves; simulated copulation with one or several partners, as well as simulated rape, complete with orgasmic expressions on the dancers’ faces. The ululating, sometimes elegiac rhythms of Arabic music make an evocatively appropriate accompaniment to Preljocaj’s precise choreography.

Preljocaj created Les Nuits for the festival celebrating Marseille-Provence’s designation as the European capital of culture last year. The theme of the festival was the Mediterranean. A Thousand and One Nights, he felt, was the perfect starting point for his new ballet.

Speaking to KioSQ in France, he said that in turning to a monumental work of literature that is part of the world canon of classics, he discovered so many things about A Thousand and One Nights that he hadn’t known before. “There is sensuality and eroticism,” he said, “as well as violence, because not every­thing here was rosy … because, of course, we know all about the tales of, say, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves …

“But there are things that are much more ambiguous and complex, violent, as I said, and erotic.

“Above all there is the figure of Scheherazade, who for me was one of the first feminists of the Orient.”

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