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Angelin Preljocaj’s Oriental Nights

In his new ballet, Les Nuits (The Nights), presents a fantasised erotic vision of the Orient. Inspired by the One Thousand and One Nights, this show is a commission from Marseille–Provence 2013, the European Capital of Culture. It was premiered on May 29 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix, and it has come for the first time to Paris, which is the first stop on a world tour that is to be over a year long.

For this big new project, the choreographer gathered around him an eclectic team made up of both old stalwarts and greenhorns. Designer Clémence Guisset’s décor of domes and delicate mashrabiyas (traditional Arab latticework windows) is stylized and very delicate. Her design is underlined with subtlety by Cécile Giovansili-Vissière’s lighting and Azzedine Alaïa’s costumes. The music includes hits by Natacha Atlas and some electronic music by 79D—a welcome breath of fresh air.

The piece includes many references, from the opening hammam scene, reminiscent of Ingres’s The Turkish Bath to the Asian shadow puppets effects dear to the animation filmmaker Michel Ocelot. The scenes alternate quickly between dynamic group dances and intimate duos. Among the most beautiful parts are a dance for the lower legs, with the rest of the dancers’ bodies hidden by Oriental rugs, and a jar dance, in which three dancers assume the poses of pole dancers. There was also a delicate dance using hookah pipes. Some other scenes are too obviously erotic, which sometimes confused the feminist message that Preljocaj was trying to convey.

In such flashy cabaret-ish Orientalism, modesty and sensitivity are eclipsed, and femininity and virility become two poles that attract each other. On one hand, there are imposing images of outspoken and combative femininity, with f#%*-you gestures and stilettos. On the other hand, virility dominates the work, from the character of the cutthroat Sardanapalus to naked men, with torsos as heavily muscled as gogo dancers’. Caught between those two poles, Preljocaj does not manage to express a view of a pacified relationship between male and female. Perhaps if the plot had been more explicit, we would have been led on a bewitching journey, just like Scheherazade, the heroine of the One Thousand and One Nights, who held the sultan spellbound by her tales.

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