The cavernous interior of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes does not appear to be an ideal setting for the re-telling of the exotic and romantic stories of the Thousand and One Nights. For the annual film festival the Palais is adorned with metres of red carpet, ascending the twenty-four ‘Steps of Glory’ leading to the main entrance where the interior is decorated lavishly with heaps of fresh flowers and filled with the glitterati in expensive designer clothes and sparkling with jewels, often borrowed for the occasion. At other times of the year the building, which includes two auditoriums, extensive conference facilities, an immense underground car park, the tourist office and a gaudy casino, lives up to the local’s nickname of ‘Le Bunker’; it is solidly grey and a little gloomy. However, several dance performances are included in a varied annual programme, among which was a recent performance by Ballet Preljocaj presenting director Angelin Preljocaj’s Les Nuits, (or The Nights). Earlier in the season the biennial Cannes Dance Festival took place. This has fallen into the doldrums over the past few years but the recent news that Brigitte Lefèvre, the out-going director of the Paris Opera Ballet, is to take over the direction of the festival from 2015 is welcomed with high expectations.
Angelin Preljocaj’s latest work was created in 2013 as his company’s contribution to ‘Marseille-Provence, European Capital of Culture”. This proved to be a successful celebration packed with performances, concerts, exhibitions and several startling new buildings in the rather run-down port city of Marseille and the surrounding Provencal towns and villages. The Ballet Preljocaj is based in Aix-en-Provence, a few miles inland from Marseille, in a custom-built dance centre ‘Le Pavilion Noir’, housing a studio theatre, a number of studios, offices, workshops, etc. The company has outgrown its own theatre and now performs in the neighbouring Grand Théatre de Provence, as well as on tour in France and internationally. During the current season they will appear in the USA, including a season at the Lincoln Center in New York, and will visit Israel, Africa and half a dozen European countries. Born in France of Albanian parents, Preljocaj studied in New York with Merce Cunningham and other contemporary dance teachers before returning to France where he founded his own company in 1984. A prolific choreographer, he has created some 45 works for Ballet Preljocaj as well as working with New York City Ballet, the State Ballet of Berlin and the Paris Opera Ballet. The company visited the UK in 2012, presenting his Snow White at Sadler’s Wells with considerable success.
Les Nuits is inspired by the Thousand and One Nights, stories which have come together from Indian, Persian, Arabian and North African sources. Preljocaj is quoted as being influenced by the erotic content of the stories and wishing to translate this sensuality into dance and movement, but also by the plight of the Sultan’s favourite concubine, Scheherazade, who, in an attempt to forestall her threatened execution, invents stories with which she entertains the Sultan night after night. Preljocaj sees her as “an example of a woman caught between submission and domination, an example of a certain feminism which is born under oppressive situations”. Preljocaj has collected a team of creators with roots in Northern Africa, Azzedine Alaïa, the fashion designer, Natasha Atlas, singer and composer, and Samy Bishai, composer of vocals and electronic music, both known as ’cross-over’ musicians combining Arab and Western music.
The performance opens promisingly with a group of half-naked women in a pool of white light on an otherwise darkened stage, rolling, kneeling, stretching, stroking their limbs, enveloped in the steam of a Haman, or steam bath. It is a beautiful, peaceful image, soon to be broken by the crashes of electronic sound and the arrival on stage of a group of men, dressed totally in black and wearing balaclavas. The dancing which follows is robotic street dance and hip-hop to a raucous drum beat; the women return, this time in red dresses, inciting a scene of rough and violent duets. In another scene the women in their flashy red dresses and with red high heeled boots line up like the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall and dance a revue type number. Other scenes more suited to a music hall revue follow: a line of dancers holding screens to cover their bodies but leaving the legs and feet visible, execute a series of intricate leg movements; three couples come onstage carrying oversize smoking hookahs and settle down to smoke. This scene, like every other, develops into an orgy of simulated sex of every variety, performed to a sound track varying from ‘Arabian pop’, syrupy ‘crooning’ songs such as “This is a Man’s World”, and ear-shattering electronic sound. Preljocaj is not helped by the costume designs of Azzadine Alaïa, which are sometimes unflattering and mostly rather unimaginative. His previous choice of a fashion designer, Jean Paul Gautier, for Snow White was only partially successful, and both designers often choose materials which do not move well and do not look good under stage lighting. The set design by a regular collaborator, Constance Guisset, was, in contrast, inspired by the Orient, but unfortunately this resulted in scenery resembling a classy Indian restaurant.
Presumably Preljocaj’s intention is to show a stereotype image of a woman’s place as subservient, their role being to please, to titillate, but in the end, as the final scene of the ballet shows, to be discarded. Unfortunately the very superficial manner by which this serious theme is dealt with is matched by the repetitive and limited scope of the choreography. There are two good pas de deux in the work, and if the choreography of these is similar to the rest, with the dancers clambering over and wrestling with another, they are more interesting and extremely well executed. The company, on the whole, impress with their strength, their energy and total commitment. It seems a pity it was not put to better use. During the company’s recent season in Paris, which coincided with performances of an earlier work of Preljocaj, Le Parc, being performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, the dance critic of Le Figaro headlined the review of the two different performances “The best and the worst of Preljocaj”. It was made clear that Le Parc is considered his best. It is encouraging to know that Angelin Preljocaj is already working a new full-length production to be premiered in June at the Montpellier Dance Festival.