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Ballet Preljocaj's 'Les Nuits' seduces but is problematic

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Ballet Preljocaj's meticulously seductive "Les Nuits," given its North American premiere by the Dance at Music Center program over the weekend, has a simple and obvious title. Not only is "The Nights" short for "One Thousand and One Nights," but the appellation handily suits French Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who likes to think of himself as an instigator of dark dance. He is even about to move into Pavillon Noir, a dance center being built for his French company in Aix-en-Provence.

At the center of "Les Nuits" is the history of France's fraught obsession with North Africa and Asia. Where would French music, dance, painting, food and foreign policy of the last century or more be without it? But there is the dark side. The amalgamation of cultures is not seamless these days in a country that is full of divisive prejudices and electing officials eager to keep France French.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Ballet center: A dance review in the June 23 Calendar section said that the French company Ballet Preljocaj is preparing to move into a new facility called Pavillon Noir. The company already has moved into Pavillon Noir.
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Preljocaj clearly attempts to offer progressive perspectives. In "One Thousand and One Nights," Scheherazade spins tales to ward off a king's revenge against women by sleeping with, then executing, virgins. Her sexuality keeps him aroused and interested and a little less dangerous.

The choreographer readily welcomes the allure of soft sensuality while recognizing its potentially sinister underpinnings. He seeks to empower women. He looks for cultural common denominators in "Les Nuits," employing collaborators with North African pedigrees, such as Tunisian-born Paris couturier Azzedine Alaïa as well as fusion singer Natacha Atlas, who blends beats into Arabic pop, and Egyptian-born violinist and electronic composer Samy Bishai.

Ultimately, Preljocaj's blender becomes quite large in his 85-minute balletic West-meets-East parade for 18 excellent dancers. There aren't stories here, rather erotic and exotic incidents proceeding, one after another, as sort of post-Pina Bausch vignettes. The movement can be, at its best, elegantly post-Merce Cunningham abstract. Or specific.

Thanks to Alaïa's flowingly feminine designs for women, the lightly Arabic traceries of Constance Guisset's sets and Cécile Giovansili-Vissière's mood-making, precise lighting, everything looked terrific on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage Saturday night for the second of three performances.

But while "Nuits" is exquisite to behold, wonderfully danced and culturally inclusive, it is neither especially dark nor progressive. The danger of all that blending proves to be a conventional global gray.

Moreover, seduction is not a new activity. Men and women have yet to cease their power struggles. And the West and East, when not warring, are all too ready to merely smooth over differences rather than exult in or learn from them.

"Les Nuits" begins with a Western pop-culture oriental fantasy suitable for French Playboy circa 1961. A dozen scantily dressed women languorously take their bath. They are accompanied by a low electronic drone. They wave fluidly inviting limbs. Men respond with typical enticement and violence. Two elaborate pas de deux interestingly offer the more confusing aspects of attraction and conquest.

There is a chorus line of women in red. Women slither in and out of large ceremonial vases. Men slit one another's throats. There is room for Bollywood and robotic hip-hop. Pop songs — "This Is a Man's World" and the James Bond theme "You Only Live Twice" — get Arabized with beats and vocal melismas.

Three sections stand out. The most remarkable is a brilliant dance for the bare back of Cecilia Torres Morillo, a spotlight revealing a ripple of muscles moving like the skin of a snake. In another, women blow dancing smoke from hookahs, like latter-day Carmens. The ending is women in elegant cages, good for a little tasteful exploitation.

"Les Nuits" is not likely, in the end, to please feminists nor multiculturalists. Despite the many variations on dominance and submission, men remain in control and women work their wiles. The music reveals just how powerful the Western influence is. Bishai's beats inevitably act as devices of masculine empowerment, while Atlas' Arabic embellishments function in a purely feminine way of working musical wiles.

Preljocaj can display a mean streak along with his seductions. In one of his signature recent pieces based on John Cage's "Empty Words," he uses a disturbing live recording of the piece in which a Milanese crowd got dangerously out of control for cheap laughs. But the choreographer also has a talent for making the undanceable ingeniously danceable, as he once did with the loudly amplified sounds of four whirlybirds in Karlheinz Stockhausen's Helicopter String Quartet.

The attraction in "Les Nuits" thus remains the dancing, some of it clichéd, some of it fresh and surprising, some of it simply entertainment, and all of it superb.

But evocative, let alone probing, darkness eludes Preljocaj's conventional orientalism. The late scholar Edward Said once decried the Western attitude of treating the East having provided "a fecund night out of which European rationality developed. "Les Nuits" is that problematic good night.

mark.swed@latimes.com

Twitter: @markswed

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