Last week at Totman Performance Lab, the UMass Amherst Dance Department presented “Scheherazade,” a 21st century remake of the classic 1910 ballet of the same name. The Ballets Russes premiered the original ballet in Paris as an adaptation of the collection of folktales “One Thousand and One Nights,” which is framed with the story of Scheherazade. As the murderous Sultan’s wife, Scheherazade tells him a story with a fabulous cliffhanger each night so he cannot kill her too, like he has done with his previous wives, for fear of missing the story’s end.
Choreographed and directed by UMass Professor and Dance Program Director Thomas Vacanti, this production of “Scheherazade,” which ran from Thursday, Nov. 3, through Saturday, Nov. 5, and featured dancers from the Five Colleges, reimagined the troubling parts of both the Ballets Russes version and its source material. In the director’s note, Vacanti details he was motivated to remake this ballet to address the original production’s “racist overtones and its overt sexualization of ‘the other.’” (The original risqué production of “Scheherazade” was not welcomed by many more conservative ballet companies.)
Vacanti’s 55-minute remake recounts one of Scheherazade’s stories about the King Yunan and the Sage Duban. When Duban miraculously heals Yunan’s illness, the King’s jealous vizier hatches a plan to pit the two against each other, and they both end up dead.
While Vacanti’s production certainly honored the exciting high drama and brilliance of Scheherazade’s stories without the racism, sexualization, or Orientalism prevalent in the 1910 production, my attention as an audience member was more drawn to Vacanti’s treatment of and commentary on gender and power through his casting choices, choreography, and interpretation of what it means to tell a story.
The performances were danced in a space doused in the intimacy of storytelling. The usually expansive dual performance lab/gym was rearranged to condense both the stage and the audience to roughly one third of the total space (scenic design by Vacanti). Flowing sheets of transparent plastic, rendered magical by multi-colored lighting (designed by Brenda Cortina), were lushly draped across the ceiling, creating a backstage area as they billowed down to the ground to separate the space. In addition to seats on bleachers, audience members also had the option to sit on cushions on the ground — an intentional thematic choice, or an emergency response to two of three performances selling out early that week? No matter, they enhanced the environment perfectly.
Scheherazade (Niamh Rollins Thu/Sat, Isabela Haskell Fri) opened the show, and spent the majority of her stage time with the Apparitions, the ghosts of the Sultan’s past wives. This stunning group of nine dancers exuded femininity dancing on pointe — an exciting rarity in the Five College Dance world! — in flowing blue tattered dresses (costumes designed by Kitty Ryan and Vacanti). They were united by a strong performance of captivating choreography until each dancer placed a skull beside the books lining the edge of the stage, reminding us of each of the former wives’ short lived power before the termination of their own life story.
Though Scheherazade then began to recount the story of the King and the Sage, her paramount presence in this opening section was unlike any other part of the ballet. I wonder, did Vacanti mean to associate her so strongly with the group of “the wives” and so little with her own story that makes up the bulk of this ballet’s narrative? Or perhaps it was an effort at solidarity that places Scheherazade in the company of the women who faced the Sultan? Needless to say, I longed for Scheherazade to reappear in some of the story’s most brilliant moments to remind the audience that it is her genius narrations that continues to entertain us.
The dynamics between the Sage, the King, and his vizier plainly comment on greed, jealousy and revenge. When the vizier convinces the King that the Sage has malicious intentions, the once amicable relationship between the two sours. The King orders the Sage to be killed, but not before the Sage gifts him a poisoned book. After the Sage dies, the King wets his fingers to flip each page, thus placing the poison in his body.
In the moment of the King’s death, the vizier (Natasha Toomey Thu/Sat, Laura Selberg Fri,) bathed in red light, was mounted atop the King’s throne. While the original story could be argued to be a commentary on masculine greed and domination, the portrayal of the vizier, king, and sage in Vacanti’s production distributed femininity, masculinity, and androgyny in a complex mix across the three roles, through costuming, choreography, and the gender presentation of the dancers.
The King (Cole Ellsworth Thu/Sat, Isabella Berenstein Fri) and the Sage (Alec Galavotti Thu/Sat, May Saito Fri) performed a duet together that included weight sharing, lifts, and movements traditionally reserved for a specific pairing of one male dancer to one female dancer, which was refreshingly not observed here. Vacanti’s interpretation of power had little to do with gender, political power, or expected balletic representations of domination, but rather ferocity of movement, billowing capes, and the surprisingly resonant sound of a wooden cane repeatedly hitting the stage in the absence of the otherwise permeating dramatic soundscape.
The piece ended with a powerful portrayal of the King’s death by book. The Apparitions flanked him, rustling sheets of paper in their hands as the King fell to the ground. Murder and revenge were palpable, but even more so the powerful lure of storytelling, which in triumphant meta fashion was the same force that drew in captivated audience members and propelled Vacanti’s creative process. Vacanti’s director’s note detailed the evolution of the piece: “Eight weeks ago, we started with a blank stage and a cast of twenty-seven people, with only a vision of how we could bring this story to life.”
The dancers echoed a similar appreciation for this construction of a story. Meghan MacBeath, a dancer from Mount Holyoke College, remarked that it was “interesting to see the overall process from the early rehearsals all the way up to the full production with costumes, lights, set, and props.” Given that “Scheherazade” is the first story ballet a Five College Dance Department has mounted in years, Vacanti’s reinterpretation thrilled audiences with bold statements, dramatic choreography, and a pioneering reclamation of a rich story.
Five College Dance works will continue to be presented this semester at Mount Holyoke College this weekend (Nov. 10-12) and at Smith College next weekend (Nov. 17-19).