Gilded Serpent presents...
from Haft Paykar by M. Baxter
Paykar: "Seven Beauties"
Seeking Love and Enlightenment in 12th Century Persia
produced by Laurel Victoria Gray
1: A TALE OF 1,001 NIGHTIES
I happened to catch a bellydance production based on the well-known
theme. In this version, excellence in technical execution was
accompanied by a somewhat bowdlerized storyline, where Sheherezade
is abducted (think: classic kink "rape fantasy"). When I read
the libretto and saw this, I went completely off the deep end.
The show itself was a glorious production, well-costumed, professional
sound and lighting, the whole nine yards - and I felt like a cranky
old curmudgeon for focusing on what was probably a minor point
for most people.
dancing was what I'd call best-of-breed American bellydance:
sharp, clearly defined movements, a lot of Vegas-style showgirl
formations, a little hip-hop fusion (my favorite number, actually),
appealing and engaging.
Of the classic
Near Eastern love-tales, the story of Sheherezade and the 1,001
Nights is perhaps the most familiar to American audiences, even
if most people haven't read the original translation. In a nutshell,
a sultan takes a trip and his wife goes to town with every male
slave in the palace while he's away. He comes back and catches
her in the act. Enraged by her unfaithfulness (never mind that
he can be as unfaithful as he likes), he kills her, and vows
never to trust a woman again. When he needs a little nookie, he
takes a virgin bride and has her executed at dawn.
say, this creates a climate of fear in the city under this king's
domain. This dire situation lasts until Sheherezade, a daughter
of one of the sultan's most trusted ministers, volunteers to be
his bride. Her horrified father tries to talk her out of it, but
off she goes and takes her sister Dunyazad with her. Through her
clever storytelling, she wins the heart of this king, who marries
her and repents his evil ways.
literal reading of this tale raises serious questions as to
her sanity. Why would any woman in her right mind want to marry
a known serial killer? Was he another Bluebeard? And don't all
the modern self-help books talk about co-dependence and how
we can't change abusive men? Was she suffering from Stockholm
syndrome or what? And why is marrying the king seen as the ultimate
prize? Why can't she have independent sovereignty?
One answer (and
it is not an easy one) is that this tale has allegorical and metaphysical
meanings. The name Sheherezade means "Savior of the City", while
Dunyazad means "Savior of the World." Her marriage to the king
represents a sacred marriage or divine union rather than a literal
historical event. Our society is somewhat literal-minded, and
we don't have a lot of room for allegory in our cultural mythos.
Even fairy tales are either taken as entertainment or are psychologically
de-constructed in ways that are revealing, but not always uplifting.
sharp contrast to the above-mentioned Sheherezade show was Laurel
Victoria Gray's premiere production of Haft Paykar:
"Seven Beauties" offered a lavish spectacle based on a
work of that same name by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami.
This work was
presented on April 2, 2005, in a show titled "Dances in Islamic
Lands". The event was sponsored by the Maryland-National Capital
Park and Planning Commission as part of MNCPPC's ongoing World
Dance Showcase program.
tells the tale of the Persian king, Bahram Gur, who is seeking
enlightenment. He visits seven princesses, each one associated
with a different quality, color, and astrological sign. He learns
important moral lessons through each of his encounters. For example,
from the warrior princess whose color is red and whose element
is passion, he learns to control his aggression through a vigorous
combat dance with costumes that looked like a cross between Conan
the Barbarian and the clay warriors from early Chinese royal tombs.
The use of storytelling
in dance and theatre productions is familiar to American audiences
through ballet classics such as "Swan Lake," "Firebird", and "The
Nutcracker". Sometimes the story manifests as a vague theme informing
the costuming and musical choices. At other times (Chinese opera,
waving its arms wildly, leaps to mind), the stories take
on an almost cartoonish quality, with fantastic characters and
exaggerated gestures that evoke both comic and tragic themes by
many of these productions, if I didn't have a libretto to tell
me what the story was, I'd never guess it from watching the action
onstage. Musicals and movie classics such as "The Wizard of Oz"
are more accessible to the literal-minded viewer, even more so
the silent movies of Charles Chaplin. I believe
that Chaplin's themes of subversion and humorous resistance to
authority, of tragicomic love and longing, and of hunger and survival,
would be clear to a viewer from almost any culture on the planet.
was somewhere in the middle. The color themes helped me remember
which princess we were up to, as did the dance styles. I sometimes
found myself wishing for more character interplay.
The East also
has a long-established tradition of dance dramas. Unfortunately,
my untrained eyes don't catch more than the pretty costumes and
beautifully nuanced movements.
with Indian classical dance, I'd need a de-coder ring to figure
out what each arcane hand gesture really means. The singing,
typically not in English, doesn't help a Westerner with comprehension
dance dramas are intended for an audience that already knows the
story, as with Christmas pageants. The visuals are really a reminder
rather than an explicit narrative, and the audience fills in the
rest with their minds. With Near Eastern esoteric literature,
there is also the notion that while the Unwashed Masses can enjoy
the spectacle, only those with the Knowledge need understand the
inner meaning. Approaching Haft Paykar from this perspective greatly
lessens the compulsion to understand each and every element as
if it were a question on the S.A.T.
ends with a divine marriage symbolizing the Sacred Marriage between
the ruler and the land, as well as spiritual union with the Divine
Beloved. I'm not sure why the existence of another layer of meaning
makes the show more satisfying - if a tree falls and no one hears
it, did it make a noise? And yet, to me it is satisfying to think
that these cosmic themes were consciously enacted. Perhaps the
memes will, over time, sink into popular consciousness until they
reach critical mass and bring about world enlightenment... who
theatrical productions such as Cirque du Soleil include
at least vague story lines, mostly as a device to string together
a series of virtuoso acts (aerial, juggling, physical comedy)
that would otherwise appear unrelated. Although I adore watching
Cirque du Soleil productions, I always had the feeling that the
human condition was not really the point, and except for one or
two acts that really touched me, I found the Cirque material slightly
unfulfilling for this reason.
Even when a
show attempts to borrow at least the external forms from some
body of myth or literary work, it is unusual for the producers
to be as aware of the allegorical content as Gray is of the deeper
meanings behind Haft Paykar.
Not many people
have the imagination to re-create Persian mystical poetry, much
less the feeling and the background to do so in depth. Gray's
background includes degrees in history, extensive travel and research
in Central Asia and Uzbekistan, as well as study of other Middle
Eastern dance forms. She founded the Uzbek Dance and Culture
Society in 1984, and has worked since 1995 with her ensemble,
the Silk Road Dance Company, to bring Central Asian dance
forms to American audiences.
of Gray's oft-stated goals is to bring Near Eastern dance out
of the restaurants and nightclub settings where it is most typically
encountered, and elevate it to the same high-art status that
ballet and other world dance forms currently enjoy. When she
first explained her idea to Christel Stevens,
Performing Arts Specialist with the MNCPPC, Stevens became an
immediate and enthusiastic supporter and was instrumental in
bringing the idea to fruition.
is both broad and ambitious. A year and a half in the making,
this show cost over $10,000 not counting the costuming, and involved
over 20 dancers. The staging eschewed Vegas-style glitziness in
favor of the jewel-like perfection of the Persian miniatures upon
which much of the costuming was based. It was presented at the
Publick Playhouse, a 500-seat hall that looked filled
to capacity, with professionally done lighting and sound. The
backdrops had been painted by Russian set designer Evgenia
Luzhnia Salazar to evoke Persian palaces.
the elements worked well to fill the stage and entrance the viewer.
The pacing and visual direction directed the viewer's attention
clearly. I was never bored, which can be a problem with big productions
that are too busy or that go on for too long. Haft Paykar made
effective use of choreography and stage direction to avoid this
dance execution was both outstanding and authentic; it is very
hard for troupe leaders to insist on good technique without
driving all the dancers away.
was especially challenging in that regard, because it presented
seven distinct national dance genres from Uzbek Khorezm to a Moroccan
zikr (spiritual dance). Gray has managed to attract a good number
of professional-level dancers in addition to having a sizeable
and well-run student troupe. All the dancers exhibited strong
stage presence and showmanship, another element often neglected
in the presentation of "purist" ethnic dance.
I had to pick a favorite character, it would probably be the prince
himself. He opened the show with some comic interchange involving
an apple (my memory fails me here).
It was funny, whatever it was, and had a Renassiance Faire quality
to it, half "fake"loric, half Shakespearean. He managed to anchor
the show without taking it over - very appropriate for a prince
who's doing some educational bride-shopping.
A third element
to praise would be the costuming. I sometimes ponder the appropriateness
of attempting to re-create "authentic" ethnic dance from other
regions of the world, where every detail is "just like it was
back in the Old Country" with the exception of the dancers themselves.
This can result in some odd visual clashes, because the original
costuming was designed to flatter a different type of physique
and coloring from what the actual dancers possess.
this production, however, the dancers had all been carefully
costumed in a way that was both true to the genre and also flattering
to the dancers. Most of the fair-skinned Celtic types were in
blues and teals, for example - another contrast to the
Sheherezade show, where all the dancers were identically costumed
for each number.
The fact that
this show generated enthusiastic support from the D.C.-area Persian,
Azerbaijani and Uzbek communities also speaks very well of Gray's
work. She has worked for over 25 years to cultivate relations
with the diplomatic and expatriate communities from these areas,
often presenting at the Uzbek and other embassies.
I did have three
teensy complaints about Haft Paykar, none of which was strictly
related to the dance performance, but which did impact my theater-going
experience. First, the theater was so hot that I had trouble at
times paying attention to the dances. Second, the lighting could
have been a bit brighter.
third, Haft Paykar was actually only the second half of the
show, the first half of which was of somewhat uneven quality.
The opening number for the entire evening was, in my opinion,
the weakest piece in the show, a Turkish folkloric piece with
great costuming and choreography, and absolutely no showmanship.
I'm not sure
when the next opportunity will come for you to see Haft Paykar,
but I would recommend it for all audiences. Those who don't get
the Sufi metaphysics and allegory will have plenty of other things
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