At a time when the world's attention is often focused on the countries of the Middle East, it's especially intriguing to dip into the Arabic folk tales of the region, which became the stories told by Scheherazade across a thousand and one nights. Festival Ballet Providence has brought in former Kirov dancer and renowned choreographer Eldar Aliev to re-create 1001 Nights, which he first staged in 1997, when he was artistic director at the former Ballet Internationale in Indianapolis.
Watching Aliev put Festival's troupe through their paces at a recent rehearsal was akin to seeing a sports coach analyze every move of his players: pushing them to their absolute physical limits, calling on them for precision in every gesture, keeping their minds alert to the next movement they must make. The physical stamina and strength that ballet dancers need for a performance were never more evident than in their work with Aliev.
Nonetheless, despite his emphasis on the dancers' technique and on difficult poses and lifts, what comes through in the ballet of 1001 Nights is the mesmerizing power of Scheherazade's stories and the emotional richness of these tales that has carried them down through the centuries. The framing story — and the one used by Michel Fokine in his 1910 ballet of Schûhûrazade — is that of the sultan Shakhriar and his wife Nurida. Shakhriar goes off on a hunting expedition only to return to find Nurida in the midst of an orgy with her slaves.
He orders her and all of the young women in the kingdom to be put to death. Suddenly Scheherazade appears and strikes a bargain with him: as long as she can keep him entertained with her stories, he will delay the executions of herself and the other women. After a thousand and one nights, the sultan falls in love with Scheherazade herself, since she has convinced him of women's beauty, love, and wisdom in her stories.
The three stories that are woven into Aliev's 1001 Nights are based upon the late composer Fikret Amirov's full-length ballet of the same name, which premiered in 1979. Both men hail from Azerbaijan, which shares a border and many cultural elements with Iran (i.e., Persia), where the saga of Scheherazade originated. The ballet chooses tales from the adventures of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba to illustrate the important role women played in saving these rascals.
Though there are alternating casts for Festival's performances, the rehearsal I attended focused on the "first cast" and references to specific dancers reflect that. The first scene that I saw being worked on is actually the last major scene of the ballet, a difficult pas de deux between Leticia Guerrero (as Scheherazade) and Mindaugas Bauzys (as Shakhriar) made more challenging by coming at the end, when the dancers' energy has run low.
Aliev is showing Bauzys exactly where to place his hand to hold Guerrero high in the air, as she carefully moves one leg from inside his arms to outside where she can stretch them out straight. Another lift that will cause audiences to hold their collective breath looks almost like a handstand by Guerrero, as Bauzys supports her hips with two hands and then takes one hand away, all the while walking in a circle!
Because Aliev's choreography is so athletic and acrobatic, it keeps the dancers stretching even more than usual during pauses in rehearsal: leg extensions into splits, a wide turn-out of knees while sitting or lying on the floor. It all comes into play, as Vilia Putrius (as Nurida) takes her turn in a duet with Bauzys, at one point holding onto her toe behind her head with her free leg bent parallel to the first — a human pretzel carried by Bauzys.
Eastern-style gestures of flat palms and angled elbows, air-punching arms, and twisting torsos enliven the large chorus of dancers who surround the principals in many scenes. Despite the non-stop leap-ing, twirling, balancing, and lifting, there's a strong emotional element in this ballet. It's not as much mimed as projected through the urgent pace and demands of the dance itself. Persian-influenced costumes and set (even a magic carpet!) will further entrance audiences and make this a memorable winter evening.