The images, if not the stories, of 1001 Nights are legendary. We can imagine the grand court of the clever Scheherazade and the disillusioned King Shahryar; Ali Baba coincidentally stepping into a treasure trove; and the charming Aladdin summoning his genie.
With such high expectations and our familiarity with the tales, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s Friday performance of “One Thousand and One Nights was mostly disappointing.
The storyline itself is indistinguishable. Naturally, ballet is not theater but one still expects to grasp a narrative through the motions, expressions, music, and flow of the performance. In this case however, it would have been very difficult to figure out what was going on, let alone maintain interest in the show, without the help of the brochure.
The second problem was that Egyptian audiences are accustomed to watching belly dance performances. The artistic ballet version of belly dancing then, for all its merit, appears like a watered-down, slower version of the more expressive and entertaining dance we are used to.
That is not to say there were not exceptions. The ballerina playing Ali Baba’s loyal wife Morgana was particularly seductive in her attempt to stave off the thieves from killing her husband. Scheherazade was also graceful and fluid.
The ensemble scenes were more entertaining than the solos. The thieves from the above scene provided some comic relief – perhaps it was the ultra-reflective swords the dancers waved around – but regardless of the reasons, they were the highlight of the show.
The bustling Aladdin market scene is also pleasant to watch, with its colorful array of costumes and dances. And to counter the mood, the “sea scene, though quite simple, was peaceful and came together quite well.
Aladdin himself though was dressed up in a particularly odd costume that made it difficult to see him as charming, or even manly, no matter how well he performed. Instead of the typical turban, he donned a tight-fitting head cap with a feather to boot. His tight-fitting effeminate vest only made it worse.
In general the ladies performed better than the men. But that’s no accident, considering that the ballerina leads are predominantly Russian, while their male counterparts are mostly Egyptian, depending on which night you go.
Some of the choreography in the duet scenes was splendid, but still failed to live up to its potential due to the clumsy and strained performance of the men. The end result was that the scenes appeared more like a series of moves than a fluid romantic courting between lovers.
The most suggestive it got was during awkward positions where faces and hands ended up in rather intimate spots, as well as during the orgiastic scene in the beginning of the show.
The music, composed by Azerbaijani Fikret Amirov and conducted by Bulgarian Ivan Filev followed suit. This probably explains why the program described it as “truly modern, rather than “lascivious and fanciful.
Artistic Director Ermina Kamel also opted for a modern, simple, stage set rather than more elaborate “fanciful decor.
Overall, it was not an unpleasant evening, but certainly not the best the Cairo Opera Ballet has to offer. Be forewarned though, reading the program makes a big difference.
Tonight’s 6th performance is the final showing of One Thousand and One Nights.