'Les Nuits': Theater Review

Jean-Claude Carbonne
An unfocused, erotically charged telling of 1001 Nights by France’s premier outré modern ballet company. 

The performance, presented by dance company Ballet Preljocaj, focused on subjugation and stereotypes.

In the Arabic epic One Thousand and One Nights, King Shahryar discovers his queen has been unfaithful to him and has her executed. So that he may never suffer the same indignity again, he decides to marry only virgins and have them executed the morning after. Scheherazade, the resourceful and inventive storyteller, avoids execution by conjuring a new story every night, withholding the ending till the next night. So enthralled is Shahryar he spares her in order to learn each new story’s outcome. From Scheherazade we get tales of demons, genies and most famously Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, and Sinbad and his seven voyages.

From Ballet Preljocaj’s Les Nuits we get none of that. Instead we get subjugation and stereotypes in last weekend’s world premiere at downtown L.A.’s Music Center. Known for controversial works such as an Orwellian Romeo and Juliet and a gang-rapey Rite of Spring, subjugation seems to be a preoccupation for company founder and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. In Les Nuits, he chooses to ignore the wonderfully inventive Scheherazade and her empowering narrative gifts, and focus on subjugation, mainly of women by men, a motivating factor in the original stories but hardly the primary focus.

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The curtain comes up on a dimly lit mass enshrouded in mist at center stage. Crickets and water drops can be heard in the wings slowly as the shapeless form comes to life—women in a steam bath, lithe and languorous, an impressive ensemble piece danced entirely on the floor, arms and torsos writhing out of the mist and plunging back in.

A painter as well as a choreographer, Preljocaj says he turned to the works of Delacroix and Ingres for Les Nuits, both practitioners of romantic-era orientalism. Bearing little relation to authentic Arab culture, it’s an attractive but stylized esthetic which in its stereotyping might be in thematic compliance with Preljocaj’s greater theme of subjugation.

His choreography is often precise, jerky and angular, inadvertently draining most couplings of their erotic potential. Women smoke from hookahs springing from the groins of men, groups cavort on carpets where there is no shortage of crotch grabbing and hair pulling in a series of dances divided by ham-handed transitions and offering little or no narrative thread or characterization. Unfortunately, a repetitive reliance on the same steps calls into question the limits of Preljocaj’s imagination, which is not to cast aspersions on the 18 dancers who make up his exquisite ensemble.

Performances were outstanding, with each dancer moving in perfect synchronicity among their partners. Ballet Preljocaj is a disciplined, athletic and committed team, and their love for their craft was plainly on display, especially in a rendition of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” in which the women line up in heels and red mini skirts, snapping their fingers to the beat and flipping the bird in unison at the song’s sexist message.

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At its worst, Les Nuits veers perilously close to Cirque du Soleil, but at its best, it’s Cecilia Torres Morillo sitting with her back to the audience, arms in front of her, in an undulating performance using only her spine and shoulders. It’s the human back like you’ve never seen it, flexing and writhing in a way that ironically appears invertebrate.

Costumes by haute couturier Azzedine Alaia included high-heeled boots, halters and revealing skirts that seemed sprung from a dominatrix’s boudoir. The men wore black ninja-like outfits or form-fitting striped trousers while minimalist sets by Constance Guisset featured a backdrop of oriental arches, giant urns containing dancers and a series of cages with pliable elastic bars behind which steamy couples did what they’d been doing all night long.

An original score by singer Natacha Atlas accompanied by violinist Samy Bishai and new music group 79D is at times as ambient as the strains of Brian Eno, melodically void and occasionally as empty as crickets and water. In short, the score seems to be undanceable and yet it works divinely, although occasionally falling into Call-to-Prayer cliché.

For his latest dance, Preljocaj has surrounded himself not only with supremely talented tech people and designers but dancers who love what they do and do it with love, which means whatever failings Les Nuits suffers from can be placed squarely on its creator.

Venue: The Music Center (June 20-22)

Cast: Margaux Coucharriere, Lea De Natale, Caroline Jaubert, Emilie Lalande, Celine Marie, Aude Miyagi, Anais Pense, Wilma Puentes Linares, Charlotte Siepiora, Nagisa Shirai, Anna Tatarova, Cecilia Torres Morillo, Sergi Amoros Aparicio, Aurelien Charrier, Marius Delcourt, Carlos Ferreira Da Silva, Jean-Charles Jousni, Fran Sanchez

Choreographer: Angelin Preljocaj   

Set Design: Constance Guisset

Lighting Design: Cecile Giovansili-Vissiere

Original Music: Natacha Atlas & Samy Bishai, 79D

Costume Design: Azzedine Alaia

Producers: Ballet Preljocaj

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