In 1910 Michel Fokine mined classic literature's Arabian Nights and came up with Scheherazade. That legendary one-act ballet reduced its literary inspiration to a single episode about harem women betraying their jealous protector and being slaughtered for their recklessness. Last year, Eldar Aliev, the ex-Kirov dancer who is now artistic director of indianapolis Ballet Theatre, turned to the same source that inspired Fokine.
A Thousand and One Nights, Eldar Aliev's two-act rendering, opens with a scene that follows the particulars of Fokine's ballet. Left on her own, Shakhriar's restless wife, Nurida, unleashes an orgy led by her favorite slave. Just as the free-for-all reaches its peak, the shah returns and, outraged, orders everyone slain. It's here, where Fokine's narrative climax occurs, that Eldar Aliev's ballet asserts its own point of view. Even as A Thousand and One Nights develops toward its satisfying conclusion, with three more Arabian tales along the way, Eldar Aliev focuses not on the face value of his narrative, but on its heart. His choreography stresses poetic evocation over dramatic enactment.
To be sure, no one could mistake Eldar Aliev's choreography for that of Fokine. Where the turn-of-the-century ballet innovator accentuated a certain expressive naturalism and built his narrative lines on character-acting pantomime, Eldar Aliev takes a more reductive, stylized route. A Thousand and One Nights owes much to the pantomime-free story ballets of Yuri Grigorovich, who dominated Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet in the former Soviet Union. Specifically, Aliev appears to have modeled the presentation of his Arabian tale on the way Grigorovich shaped a Persian myth in his 1961 Legend of Love. And though Simon Pastukh's unit set has its own "baubles, bangles, and beads" richness, it owes something to the schemes that Simon Virsaladze, Grigorovich's late artistic collaborator, designed for the soviet choreographer.
Like Grigorovich, Eldar Aliev eschews both pantomime and naturalistic gesture. His choreographic palette goes from what Soviet ballet technique classified as "big poses" to its impressively acrobatic lifts. Fikret Amirov's original score supports Eldar Aliev's broad strokes with a related musical range. it strikes the ear as variously reminiscent of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
Still, ifs not in the big and bold moments - though many of these stand out with eye-catching theatrical flair - that A Thousand and One Nights reaches its most artful depth. It's in select moment when an essence of narrative displace an illustration of plot action. At the moment of slaughter, for instance, instead of henchmen brandishing scimitars, Aliev offers his "Cry of Woman" a white-clad sisterhood whose members act as both mourners and specters. (Of all Galina Solovieva's successfully fanciful costumes, these prove especially effective.)
The haunting presence of these women frames the indelible entrance of Scheherazade, the storytelling heroine who will win her life while winning her implacable shah's heart. Created for the irrepressible Tatiana Pali, who danced delightfully in all these performances, Scheherazade becomes a beacon of art and goodness. Pali's light touch and derring-do manner gave her, every moment a shimmering sweetness, even in this or that insecure lift.
Most of the ballet's other leading parts had alternate casts, and all performed effectively. Most eagerly watched, alternating in both the role of slave and shah, was former Bolshoi biggie Alexander Vetrov. Lanky and a touch overeager, he gave Indianapolis a fair sampling of potent Moscow panache. Former New York City Ballet dancer Erlends Zieminch, in the same two roles, partnered beautifully, but danced with a generosity unmatched by full control.
As Aladdin, Oleg Gorboulev showed impressive ballon and beguiling personal warmth. Sara Viale made a tremulous Enchanted Bird and a headstrong Nurida. Zuri Goldman made elegant and vivid every character he danced, and Elena Borisova did wonders with the gyrations of Ali Baba's wily wife.