SUMMONING visions of orgiastic frenzy and sensual languor, of flashing scimitars, turbaned potentates and flimsily veiled concubines, few ballets in history have been as thoroughly drenched in mystique as "Scheherazade." The work will be seen here in five performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House in a new restoration by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, when that troupe begins its week-long visit Tuesday evening.
It was and remains, in the words of ballet chronicler Cyril Beaumont, "the most voluptuous of all the ballets that were presented by the Diaghilev company," and in its initial guise if offered "a marvelous spectacle which for sheer sensuousness of colour and mood has probably never been equalled."
The ballet had a sensational effect on the first Parisian audience of 1910.
"What was the most potent element in 'Scheherazade,'" Diaghilev biographer Richard Buckle asks, "to conquer a public already rendered susceptible to Oriental excesses by 'Cleopatre' the year before? Was it the theme of the Shah's vengeance on his faithless harem, the mass slaughter, on his unexpected return from a hunting, of women surprised in flagrante delicto with their Negro lovers? Was it Fokine's choreography and his new kind of vivid mime, bereft of the old sign language? Was it the performances of Bulgakov as the Shah, of Rubinstein as Zobeide and of Nijinksy as the Golden Slave? Was it the surging crescendo of Rimsky's music, in which the movement called 'Festival of Baghdad: the Sea' became a bacchanalian orgy followed by mass execution? Was it the setting and dresses of Bakst, with juxtapositions of colour hardly guessed at before in the West?"
Buckle assigns credit for the triumph to Diaghilev's genius for amalgamating such an array of talent and material. Be this as it may, after a checkered career in numerous revivals, "Scheherazade" gradually disintegrated into a butt for ridicule as distance from the original production grew and tastes changed. What may have appeared scandalous to the culturati of 1910 began to look like self-parody to spectators who'd been through two world wars, the Roaring Twenties, a Great Depression and the popular canonization of Sigmund Freud. By 1944, after "Scheherazade" had given long and dependable service as an exotic vehicle for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, critic Edwin Denby was calling the ballet "an illustrious warhorse foundering in dishonor." The sex provoked not blushes or outrage, but laughter. Inadequate orchestras, slapdash decor and harassed dancers undermined any remaining theatrical panache. And the choreography itself had apparently deteriorated -- Denby complained there was not enough "dance form" left to sustain a cast: "There is only miming and hubbub, and that doesn't keep for 30 years."
However, a lovingly meticulous revival by Nicholas Beriozoff for the London Festival Ballet in 1978 (seen at the Kennedy Center that year, with Nureyev as the Golden Slave) renewed interest in the work and restored it to a place of esteem in the international repertory. Just last month in New York, the Dance Theatre of Harlem introduced its new production, with staging by Frederic Franklin, new costumes by Carl Michell and reconstructions of the Bakst decor by Geoffrey Guy (who'd done the same for the London Festival troupe). Franklin, well known to Washingtonians for his long association with the National Ballet, and danced the Golden Slave opposite Alexandra Danilova's Zobeide for the Ballet Russe, and had learned his role from Diaghilev dancer Jan Yavzinksy. In the opening night performance at the Kennedy Center, Franklin will portray the mimed part of the Chief Eunuch, as he did for the production's New York premiere.
In some ways, "Scheherazade" may seen a far-fetched choice for DTH -- it's the first big story-sum-spectacle ballet the troupe has attempted -- expecially in view of the racial titillation it excited in its early days. The decision, a calculated risk, was a deliberate one.
Says DTH co-director Arthur Mitchell: "We needed a big ballet, and we also wanted one with popular appeal. But rather than do another 'Nutcracker,' we looked for a ballet that could develop and stretch the dancers in a new dimension. 'Scheherazade' fit the bill. The music is familiar to everyone, and we all grew up with the 'Arabian Nights' stories. I'm always thinking about audience development, and 'Scheherazade' is a wonderful introduction for people who've never seen a ballet. But it's also a marvelous challenge for the dancers -- not so much in technique, because there's not that much dancing, but in style and acting. And it turned out to be a 'natural' for us, because it fits our company so well."
Removing the "ethnic" angle puts the choreography in clearer contemporary perspective, and in other respects too, the ballet makes good, timely sense as a DTH project. Histrionic flair has always been one of the troupe's strong points, and the '80-'81 season happens to mark the 100th anniversary of Fokine's birth. An American revival of one of the choreographer's landmark creations may help to give us all a new purchase on his historic contributions to the development of the art. It's all too easy nowadays to dismiss Fokine's work as dated, but we may be in danger of underestimating the staying power of his imagination. "Les Sylphides," "Petrushka," "Firebird" and "Le Spectre de la Rose" have repeatedly demonstrated their contemporary viability; there may well be much treasure in the remainder of the recoverable Fokine legacy that can afford us both enlightenment and pleasure.
The fact is that a large portion of modern ballet practice and sensibility derives from Fokine. It was he who introduced the "short form" -- the compactly structured one-act ballet -- which still dominates today's repertoire; it was he who, with "Les Sylphides," led the way to the "abstract" ballet created to pre-existent music; and it was Fokine, too, who replaced the conventional pantomine to tradition with a newly flexible, naturalistic gestural language for the expression of dramatic action within the context of dancing.
Fokine himself considered "Scheherazade" to be the first exemplar of his revolutionary esthetics. "In staging this ballet," he wrote in his memoirs, "I applied for the very first time my principles of describing action. The actions and emotions were expressed through movements and positions of the body. No one 'spoke' with the hands. Is it possible to express every kind of human emotions without the use of hands? The answer is, no. But in 'Scheherazade,' every emotion is clearly projected . . . only those gestures were used which clearly expressed the action. 'Scheherazade' contained love and passion, guilt, treachery, and anger, grief and desperation, and there were no hand gesticulations. There were hand movements in the ballet, but these were living hand movements by which we naturally accompany our speeches . . ."
It's also hard to repress the desire to see a ballet which was the springboard for so many legendary performances. It was "Scheherazade" that made Nijinsky a name to conjure with. Two and a half decades after he first saw Nijinsky dance in it, Beaumont's memory of the experience still flamed: "I can still see his astounding first entrance, when, the last blue door having been flung open, he darted towards Zobeide with the swiftness of a bolt from a crossbow, a flashing parabola, to stretch his arms wide in a gesture of possession, like some indolent animal awakened from sleep. His performance ended on a high note, and thrilling death scene, when, having run and swerved and doubled in frantic endeavor to escape his murderous pursuers, he was cut down, to fall headlong and spin on the back of his neck with his legs flung upwards, until he subsided like 'a fish tossed onto the sand.'"
Besides "Scheherazade," DTH will be bringing two of its Balanchine interpretations to Washington for the first time -- "Serenade" and "Four Temperaments" (the last time the company was in town, at the Warner Theatre in 1979, deference to the simultaneous appearances by the New York City Ballet led DTH to forego its Balanchine repertory here). Also new to this city will be the company's staging of Glen Tetley's "Greening." The Opera House programs will also include Robert North's "Troy Games," Geoffrey Holder's "Dougla," Karel Shook's version of the "Corsaire" pas de deux, Billy Wilson's "mirage," and Arthur Mitchell's "Manifestations."