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Bambina Olivares Wise
29 Aug 2014 00:00
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 indeed, Preljocaj’s intention when he conceived
the production was to express through dance the sensual aspects of Arabian
“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
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
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
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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