The curtain opened to partially reveal the women of Angelin Preljocaj’s Les Nuits (The Nights) at the Music Center, but a mixture of white smoke and darkness–and the fact that they were tangled in a carefully-placed mass on the stage’s floor–left much, at that moment, concealed. Before the show began, I had wandered into a pre-performance talk as Mr. Preljocaj was being asked about a certain concept, the details of which I’d missed, described as “beyond black.” He explained that solid black paint could possess differentiation, varied textures, and even lightness. Now I was reminded of chiaroscuro, of deep charcoals drawn and smudged onstage.
The smoke gradually cleared as the music rose in volume. Like the piece itself, it was inspired by Arabic and Persian motifs gleaned from the text of One Thousand And One Nights. Meanwhile, the women were dressed in the first of many costumes we would see by designer Azzedine Alaïa, and they began to organize themselves into a formation that was a mirror image of itself, resembling a hazy skyline dotted with minarets. The twelve dancers became two symmetrical halves that moved in unbroken synchronicity. They didn’t rise from the floor.
The languid mood changed drastically when six men, who comprised the rest of the cast, marched onstage to a percussive shift in sound. Their faces were masked, and they wore black long-sleeved shirts and pants; the movement took on unquestionable power and masculinity in quick moving, yet rigid formations.
These qualities were again sharply contrasted by a pas de deux performed by two women in the company. One was tall and long-limbed with dark hair spilling down her back. Her partner was shorter and blonde, with a muscular way of moving. For the next few minutes, I remained nearly motionless, impressed not only by the technicality of the partnering–they beautifully executed presses and lifts you’d typically see performed by a man or men–but by the erotic quality of the ballet. As the two gyrated together and flowed narrowly through one another’s negative space, the work began to assert itself sexually–not in a gimmicky way, but rather realistically. Indeed, Preljocaj had written in the program notes for Les Nuits, “These tales contain some very sensual aspects, which I wished to represent through dance…” Having explored eroticism and surrealism in a previous work, he hoped to bring to this piece a flamboyant quality, while “preserving all the mystery and fascination” he had witnessed in the text and in the East.
The work progressed in this way, composed of intriguing transitions marked by new costumes and new music which ranged from a cappella singing to contemporary Middle Eastern pop. Shifts in lighting (by Cécile Giovansili-Vissière) and scenery (designed by Constance Guisset) accompanied these transitions; the sets capitalized on typical Arabic architecture and often appeared in silhouette thanks to Giovansili-Vissière. The duet ended downstage right with the two dancers on the floor; one supine, one prone, both occupying the same area. Other dancers flooded in, extricated the two from one another manually, and dissolved into a new movement. The distinct sections each possessed a certain narrative or thematic intention, reflecting the inspirational volume of varied stories.
In one section, a trio of male-male duets mimicked a barbershop shave with the dancers’ thumbs employed as blades; the image of one person’s thumb against another’s neck brought us close to the latter’s mortality. In another vignette, an all-female chorus line entered wearing red high heels. They lined up, snapped, and stepped, as their red dresses slunk along, with twelve deadpan stares to the lyric “This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing, nothing without a woman.” The frequent separation of the sexes did remind me of the cultural stipulations that popularly characterize the Middle East; the silver baubles that dripped from the red dresses’ hemlines was a tangible reminder of that area’s aesthetic. In another women’s section that looked and sounded fairly torturous, six dancers jumped forward and somersaulted backwards with bare thighs into abrupt seated positions, coming to awkward halts. Against silence, their skin squeaked on the marley, bringing to mind the mechanical and sometimes grotesque aspects of sex. Things turned toward the absurd when a large group entered holding large tapestries, for which the bazars of the mid-East are famous, that covered their torsos and heads but revealed their feet and legs. After some footwork detail here, four groups arranged themselves on the carpets as if at some kind of Rube Goldberg picnic of dogs, and then four very intricate, very fast, very strange quartets were performed in unison.
The piece was long in its entirety (with no intermission), but it entranced me. The beginning, like a first bite of rosewater ice cream, was tantalizing; after the half-way mark, though, certain sections excited me less. Alaïa’s costumes continued to surprise and tease the eye throughout, and looking back, they perfectly accentuated Preljocaj’s selections of both movement and mood. Eventually I felt that the choreographer relied too heavily on the device of having multiple duets performed in unison. This tool fills the space and gives the audience multiple distinct dancers to watch, but eventually it was overused and began to feel too stationary–and less intimate, less real, than the female duet that had captured me early on. Another critique, or rather question, for which I do not have the answer, would concern how authentic the French company’s use of certain Middle Eastern tropes was. Although the work was filled with universal themes relating to love and lust, I am wondering about the fine line between cultural, historical inspiration and appropriating a culture’s look and feel to please a crowd–and whether these are necessarily mutually exclusive.