Angelin Preljocaj’s “Les Nuits” (2013) begins and ends with arresting images. But what is strung in between often proves to be a wandering affair of facile tableaux and scenic diversions which never add up to much more than glosses on the work’s touchstone, “One Thousand and One Nights”. In the opening tableau, a pile up of bodies seen through the steam at the bathhouse gradually rise and take shape as symmetrical patterns, like those from Islamic decorative and calligraphic art. It is beautiful for its minimalism and slowly emerging shapes. In the final scene, silhouetted harem girls seen through patterned screens of iron grillwork walk languidly toward a deep blue backdrop. The metaphor is clear: women are prisoners. It’s a recurring point of view that Preljocaj exposes by showing us the full variety of sexual unions. By one’s, two’s, and three’s we get the full story of an often dystopic world of sexual domination, indulgence, and misogyny.
“Les Nuits” is set to the music of Natacha Atlas and Samy Bishai with additional electronica by 79D. The soundscore fares better when it is more Bishai, who is an accomplished instrumentalist and composer. Atlas, a pop phenomenon and vocalist, has made her name with an ingratiating brand of Middle Eastern music, heavily processed, and laden with electronic dance beats. Bishai’s instrumental interludes are by far the more appealing contribution, especially his music for an expressive, erotic pas de deux midway through “Les Nuits”. But the music also veers off course with cringeworthy covers of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World”, and the title song from the Bond film “You Only Live Twice”. Not unexpectedly, the choreography doesn’t fare well for these diversions either. Atlas has always been keen on making crossover hits, but saturating the music in her anodyne melismatic arabesques only obscures what these songs have to offer.
Dressing the action are the imaginative costumes (and plenty of them) by the fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa. The spare but evocative sets are by Constance Guisset. Preljocaj and his dancers have evolved a movement vocabulary that blends gesture, theatrical mannerism, and fragmented borrowings from the world of contemporary and classical dance. The eighteen dancers,each with a distinctive personality, move with appealing veracity and authority.
“Les Nuits”, which runs as a single 90 minute act, casts its spell mostly through visual appeal and its hypnotic flow of movement. The nudity which was given its full measure in other venues had been pared back for the Los Angeles performances. But in spite of accomplished dancing, “Les Nuits” never really takes you anywhere beyond garden variety voyeurism. It remains exotic but inert like a cabinet of curiosities.
(The reviewed performance took place on June 20, 2014. “Les Nuits” is a coproduction with The Music Center of Los Angeles and other European sponsors. All the choreography is by Angelin Preljocaj. You can watch a beautifully filmed version of “Les Nuits” on You Tube)