SAN FRANCISCO — It’s a little known piece of trivia, but this picturesque city has been called Baghdad by the Bay, so I guess it wasn’t that surprising to see Alonzo King Lines Ballet put on an aromatic new version of “Scheherazade” at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Arts Center on a program that included Mr. King’s more ethereal “Dust and Light” (2008).
Actually the world premiere of this “Scheherazade” took place December 2009 in the somewhat fabled contemporary kingdom of Monaco. There Jean-Christophe Maillot, artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, enlisted Mr. King to create a new ballet to redefine the historic Diaghilev tradition.
The premiere was to be the start of a year-long celebration in honor of the seminal 20th century ballet visionary and Ballet Russes artistic director Serge Diaghilev, one that encompassed new work, students, literature and film spread among 19 premieres, 50 companies and 300 artists. More importantly, this project reimagined a work that defined a company of major historic proportions in its early days.
It took nearly 10 months for Mr. King’s “Scheherazade” to undulate its way back to his home turf in San Francisco, but the results were well worth the wait. While the richness of a plot line was elemental to Mr. Diaghilev’s company, it was not to Mr. King, who builds his movement on scientific principles. In this instance, his deconstructed vision made for an exceptionally vibrant work, one of the best we have seen from him.
The original work by Michel Fokine told the frame story of “1001 Nights,” how the Shahryar’s wife had betrayed him. As a result, he would bed a maiden and have her killed the next day to avoid that same possibility. When the virginal pool ran out, the clever Scheherazade, daughter of the Shahryar’s advisor, volunteered to be next. The first night she wove a mesmerizing story for the Shahryar, one that remained unfinished at dawn. Beguiled, the Sharyar was compelled to spare her life. This continued, as the title suggests, for nearly three years. By then the ruler had fallen in love with Scheherezade and her life was spared.
Mr. King was inspired by the ballet itself and the history, but chose to filter it through a contemporary lens, where suggestion ruled over specifics. The audience could see that in Robert Rosenwasser‘s decor, a pliant gold tent-like swatch of fabric that dominated the stage, changing form like a hovering mist as the ballet progressed.
But Mr. King really began, not with Mr. Fokine’s story of love, lust and death, but with composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s original idea: to provide a series of untitled musical stories from the collection. Mr. King took it even further, only naming Scheherezade (Meredith Webster) and the Shahryar (Corey Scott-Gilbert). Other elements from the tales were virtually omni-present — the slaves (both men and women), the vizier or advisor, a peacock — in a swirling movement design.
Like Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov, Mr. King chose to use the vibrancy of color, shifting emotions, seething melodic arcs translated into movement. Thus the ballet became a kaleidoscope for the senses. Although Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov’s melodies occasionally emerged like ghosts from a time past in the throbbing original score by Zakir Hussain (created “after Rimsky-Korsakov”), there was a global feeling — full of sensual percussion-driven music that established some undefined exotic locale.
The music appeared to inspire the dance, although they didn’t just mirror each other. Instead there was a singular new connection between the music and the dance, perhaps born of Mr. Fokine and Mr. Balanchine, but forging its own alluring pace, an instance of history truly coming alive again.