Caracalla’s ‘Zayed’: Over the top and all over the map

We’d been watching dancers on sand dunes and films of desert skies and sun as the story of the founder of the United Arab Emirates was told by Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre in “Zayed and the Dream” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. As the production reached its triumphant climax, photographic backdrops showed skyscrapers ringing the Persian Gulf and Abu Dhabi gleaming on the coast.

Then, suddenly, whoa! “The Nutcracker” was in the house! As if to mirror the folk-dance excitement in that Christmas ballet, a parade of dance troupes took over what had been an ultra-focused hagiography of former president Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. Every ethnicity was represented: Russian, Spanish, Chinese and, of course, Arabian. Incongruous, yes. Out of place, given the over-the-top spectacle we’d been watching? Well, not really.

All you could do was take in the bulldozing kinetic force of it all. In place of Tchaikovsky’s “Trepak” dance, out bounded Ukraine’s Veryovka Ensemble in scarlet boots and billowing pants, spinning and kicking with Cossack adrenaline.

Following on its high-flung heels was “Coffee from Spain.” If the smoldering caballeros in trim suits from Flamenco Espanol didn’t give you the jitters by simply strutting into position, their fluttering, trembling stomping did. Next up: “Tea from China” — the Hang Zhou Song and Dance Theatre, in a more lyrical if circusy vein with its jelly-bean-colored silks. In case we hadn’t had enough Arabian dancing in the earlier portion of “Zayed,” we were also treated to an all-male folk-dance group from Abu Dhabi.

Hero worship knows no bounds, particularly when it’s paid for by vested interests. “Zayed,” a multimillion-dollar bio-musical performed Friday and Saturday, was commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which is also funding its overseas touring. Should we view it as a counteroffensive to the Arab Spring’s transformation of Middle Eastern autocracies? Perhaps that goes too far. But “Zayed’s” message is clear: Abu Dhabi really wants you to like this guy.

Propaganda aside, it seems there is reason to look fondly upon Zayed, who died in 2004; he had been Abu Dhabi’s ruler and first president of the United Arab Emirates and was widely seen as a force for good in the region. As we are told in this theatricalization of his life, he united fractious tribes, aided the Bedouins and promoted rights for women. In one of the most charming dances, female students whirl with their newly minted diplomas as math formulas drift across the backdrop.

The production values are top-notch: lighting design that takes us from moonlight to blazing noon; drapey, layered costumes that look lighter than air when in motion; and an arresting use of film as set design. Roving shots of the golden breadth of sand brought to mind “Lawrence of Arabia.” The film technique was also a way to work in documentary footage of Zayed. We saw him meeting with the queen of England and with President Bill Clinton.

But as a work of theater, the whole package is less than compelling. The dancing was far and away the best part — credit the pleasingly circuitous patterns and traffic management to choreographer Alissar Caracalla, daughter of company founder Abdel-Halim Caracalla. Yet during much of her work, there was also spoken text, which was translated on screens at the sides of the stage. You could read what was being said or watch the performance, but you couldn’t do both.

Director Ivan Caracalla, son of the founder, elicited a palpable sense of engagement from the performers. But the talented siblings were undone by the material. As pumped up as it was,“Zayed” lacked momentum. Where was the drama in this tale of one triumph after the other? You began to feel bludgeoned by incessant superlatives. (Some of the milder praise: Zayed was “a natural source of noble-mindedness and sagacity” who “made life blossom where there was nothing.”)

After the sermonizing had been exhausted, there was nothing left to do but jazz up the dancing. The Russian, Spanish and Chinese dances felt tacked on, but after an evening of excess, that was just a matter of degree.

by Sarah Kaufman

We’d been watching dancers on sand dunes and films of desert skies and sun as the story of the founder of the United Arab Emirates was told by Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre in “Zayed and the Dream” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. As the production reached its triumphant climax, photographic backdrops showed skyscrapers ringing the Persian Gulf and Abu Dhabi gleaming on the coast.

Then, suddenly, whoa! “The Nutcracker” was in the house! As if to mirror the folk-dance excitement in that Christmas ballet, a parade of dance troupes took over what had been an ultra-focused hagiography of former president Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. Every ethnicity was represented: Russian, Spanish, Chinese and, of course, Arabian. Incongruous, yes. Out of place, given the over-the-top spectacle we’d been watching? Well, not really.

All you could do was take in the bulldozing kinetic force of it all. In place of Tchaikovsky’s “Trepak” dance, out bounded Ukraine’s Veryovka Ensemble in scarlet boots and billowing pants, spinning and kicking with Cossack adrenaline.

Following on its high-flung heels was “Coffee from Spain.” If the smoldering caballeros in trim suits from Flamenco Espanol didn’t give you the jitters by simply strutting into position, their fluttering, trembling stomping did. Next up: “Tea from China” — the Hang Zhou Song and Dance Theatre, in a more lyrical if circusy vein with its jelly-bean-colored silks. In case we hadn’t had enough Arabian dancing in the earlier portion of “Zayed,” we were also treated to an all-male folk-dance group from Abu Dhabi.

Hero worship knows no bounds, particularly when it’s paid for by vested interests. “Zayed,” a multimillion-dollar bio-musical performed Friday and Saturday, was commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which is also funding its overseas touring. Should we view it as a counteroffensive to the Arab Spring’s transformation of Middle Eastern autocracies? Perhaps that goes too far. But “Zayed’s” message is clear: Abu Dhabi really wants you to like this guy.

Propaganda aside, it seems there is reason to look fondly upon Zayed, who died in 2004; he had been Abu Dhabi’s ruler and first president of the United Arab Emirates and was widely seen as a force for good in the region. As we are told in this theatricalization of his life, he united fractious tribes, aided the Bedouins and promoted rights for women. In one of the most charming dances, female students whirl with their newly minted diplomas as math formulas drift across the backdrop.

The production values are top-notch: lighting design that takes us from moonlight to blazing noon; drapey, layered costumes that look lighter than air when in motion; and an arresting use of film as set design. Roving shots of the golden breadth of sand brought to mind “Lawrence of Arabia.” The film technique was also a way to work in documentary footage of Zayed. We saw him meeting with the queen of England and with President Bill Clinton.

But as a work of theater, the whole package is less than compelling. The dancing was far and away the best part — credit the pleasingly circuitous patterns and traffic management to choreographer Alissar Caracalla, daughter of company founder Abdel-Halim Caracalla. Yet during much of her work, there was also spoken text, which was translated on screens at the sides of the stage. You could read what was being said or watch the performance, but you couldn’t do both.

Director Ivan Caracalla, son of the founder, elicited a palpable sense of engagement from the performers. But the talented siblings were undone by the material. As pumped up as it was,“Zayed” lacked momentum. Where was the drama in this tale of one triumph after the other? You began to feel bludgeoned by incessant superlatives. (Some of the milder praise: Zayed was “a natural source of noble-mindedness and sagacity” who “made life blossom where there was nothing.”)

After the sermonizing had been exhausted, there was nothing left to do but jazz up the dancing. The Russian, Spanish and Chinese dances felt tacked on, but after an evening of excess, that was just a matter of degree.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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