The thrilling thing about Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ draughtsmanship is its sense of utter luminosity. In looking at the work of this Neo-Classical painter, you can feel the texture of the skin with your eyes. His line work is so succinct yet tender that there’s nothing superfluous. It is like he is stroking his models’ bodies with his paintbrush or stylus. It is this level of sophistication and sheer skill that distinguishes the work of Angelin Preljocaj, one of the headlining choreographers of this year’s Dance Umbrella.
Indeed, Ingres’ work is cited amongst the stimuli for the piece, entitled Les Nuits (the Nights) which draws from and concatenates with the classic anthology known as The Arabian Nights – first published in English in 1706 – but this polished and awe-inspiring work is not just an extrapolation on Neo-Classical painting and storytelling from the East. There’s a sense of nuance, which slides insidiously into contemporary politics in a way that is alarming yet inescapably compelling.
Six male dancers all in black with black balaclavas intervene in the fleshy nuances of the first sequence, brought to bear by 12 scantily clad female dancers. They drag the women away, by a leg, an arm. There’s a level of sexual violence evoked here, which makes you think of the current atrocities happening in the Middle East under the hand of terrorist organisations like ISIS. There’s a cruelty to the choreography and a discomforting interplay of death images with sexual ones.
Call it the eros-thanatos discrepancy of classicism, if you must, but several elements to this work resound with references to Sharia law. Indeed, in one sequence it seems as though a beheading is about to occur. As the work unfolds, that level of almost intolerable grimness becomes a touchstone to it. In turn the piece becomes colourful and filled with shadow. There are beautiful sexual encounters between dancers and while the work is tightly balletic, it is deep and unabashed in its eroticism.
With all of these cross-hatched ideologies and triggers, this 90 minute long work is unspeakably polished in its articulation. This mix of horror with beauty is dangerously mesmerising: it’s almost hypnotic. The dancers are choreographed in a framework which forces you to look with great care at not only the individual performers, but the bigger picture and how the bodies interface, at times resembling a great fleshy insect; at times making you disbelieve your eyes, given the taut movement of bodies against the challenging light.
While the storytelling is often blurred, the hugeness of the visual impact of this work rocks your equilibrium. You leave the space shattered, yet smiling because political and violent associations aside, and overlooking the overweening emotional coldness of the piece, this is as perfect as choreography gets.
- Les Nuits by Angelin Preljocaj features design by Azzedine Alaïa (costumes), Natacha Atlas and Samy Bishai (music), Constance Guisset (set), Cécile Giovansili-Vissière (lighting) and Dany Lévêque (choreologist). It was performed by Sergi Amoros Aparicio, Virginie Caussin, Aurélien Charrier, Margaux Coucharrière, Léa De Natale, Marius Delcourt, Natacha Grimaud, Caroline Jaubert, Jean-Charles Jousni, Émilie Lalande, Céline Marié, Nuriya Nagimova, Fran Sanchez, Nagisa Shirai, Anna Tatarova, Cecilia Torres Morillo, Yurié Tsugawa and Nicolas Zemmour, on September 2 and 3, at The Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein. Programme 3 of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella 2014.