DANCE: Orgies and Tutus

Fin-de-siecle ballet shocked and inspired

Hal De Becker

Sergei Diaghilev was an inspired impresario whose Ballets Russes revolutionized 20th-century ballet by freeing dancers from strict classical movements and presenting daring depictions like the group sex in Scheherazade.

Scheherazade, along with Chopiniana, from the same era, and the contemporary Capriccio Italien, will be presented when the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre performs Russian Seasons at Ham Hall February 16.

Scheherazade, choreographed by Michel Fokine to music of Rimsky-Korsakov, is a tale influenced by stories from The Arabian Nights. The scene is a shah's harem where his wives, first seen luxuriating on large pillows, rise and perform a seductive, undulating dance. But when the shah leaves, expected to be away overnight, the wives become bored and bribe the head eunuch to unlock the doors to the male slaves' quarters. When joined by the men, they engage in a frenzied orgy of food and drink, and ultimately sex, as couples sink together onto the pillows to writhe in passionate embraces. At the ballet's conclusion, the shah unexpectedly returns and orders them all killed, including his favorite wife, Zobeide.

The principal characters are Zobeide and the Golden Slave, so-called because of his exceptional beauty. At the Paris premiere in 1910, famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky portrayed the Golden Slave. His virile sensuality and astounding leaps in which he appeared suspended in midair were a revelation for the Parisians who were not accustomed to such a dynamic male performance.

Today, the erotic duet of Zobeide and the Golden Slave, with its overhead lifts and intertwining bodies, is the highlight of many Scheherazade productions. But when the ballet debuted in Paris, the dazzling spectacle of costumes and scenery in colors of crimson, royal-blue, gold and peacock-green thrilled the public as much as the dancing, and inspired both a fashionable fade of feathered headdresses and renowned jeweler Louis Cartier to create combinations of emeralds and sapphires for the first time.

Even if the St. Petersburg troupe travels with such elaborate scenery and costumes, it's doubtful that Ham Hall, with its limited backstage space and access, could accommodate it. However, the stage won't be too bare. "There'll probably be a backdrop and other appropriate elements to help create the right atmosphere," says Jennifer Vaughn, UNLV's College of Fine Arts' public relations director.

One thing is certain: Today's audiences, used to the sex and violence in movies and on TV, aren't going to be as shocked as were the few who, after the Paris premiere, described the ballet as "barbaric."

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