Like the text for which it's named, Caracalla Dance Theatre's "One Thousand and One Nights" is a behemoth. Boasting a cast of 40 dancers, singers and actors, the production is as grand as can be imagined.
The Beirut-based company was founded by Artistic Director Abdul-Halim Caracalla and now is led by his son Ivan Caracalla. The company celebrates its 50th anniversary with a Spoleto Festival USA debut this season and the U.S. premiere of “One Thousand and One Nights.” A guiding principle of the company’s works is East-meets-West, and they are known for a distinctive movement style said to fuse a variety of techniques.
While his daughter Alissar Caracalla is the company’s current choreographer, Abdul-Halim Caracalla trained under the legendary modern dance icon Martha Graham in the 1960s. The troupe considers Graham a major influence. While this production was dramatic and grandiose, it was hard to pin down many hints of Graham’s technique outside of some occasional floor work or angular port de bras. What was much more present was a solid classical ballet vocabulary and a wide array of Eastern folk dance, intermixed with acrobatics and some contemporary jazz-like movements.
It’s always impressive to watch large groups of dancers in unison — many moments of which we were treated to — but the most stand-out instances of technique came in the smaller group or pas de deux sections.
One that stuck out was a brief and impassioned moment of partnering in the first act between the queen, dressed in a long turquoise dress, and her illicit lover in a burnt orange robe and pants. Both expressive in their portrayals of the scene and expansive in their movement, it was a welcome burst of beauty that was over far too soon in an otherwise dragging prologue.
Of the three sections in “One Thousand and One Nights,” the second, set in a bazaar, was the strongest. Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” score re-orchestrated to include traditional Arabic instruments was complimented by energetic movement sequences, more small-group work and a welcome hint of comedy.
The costumes and headpieces — rich, jewel-toned silks and velvets adorned with hundreds of crystals and embossed with the most intricate embellishments — set the luxurious tone all on their own. Hanging over the whole production, however, was the use of projections as part of the scenes.
While at first it seemed they would just be used for small effects or to create a more lavish backdrop, the projections quickly became more pronounced. On multiple occasions in the first section silent video footage of people running through corridors of a palace was projected as the performers went about dancing, and in another moment of that same act, a video showed two monarchs riding on what appeared to animated horses towards a battle as their palace was ransacked.
In the third section of the work there were numerous photo slideshows, including one in the finale featuring prominent U.S. landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty and White House. While I imagine the intent of this last visual effect was to issue an appeal for tolerance and unity through diversity that was the crux of the final caravan section, it was quite jarring.
These moments made it difficult as a viewer to focus on the actual performers, who were wonderful to watch. The dancing was joyful, the vocals stunning, and each artist did an incredible job in their portrayal of the narrative.
Overall, Caracalla Dance Theatre should be applauded for such a tremendous undertaking; I would sooner ask for less fanfare than wish for more when it comes to a subject so grand as “One Thousand and One Nights.”
Reviewer Lily Watkins is a Charleston-based dancer, dance instructor and writer.