Saturday, February 18, 2006

Scheherazade: The Right Way to Tell the Story

I've been to enough writer's conferences where much time is spent on determining the right way to tell a story. Once I even conceded that writing may not always be the right way to tell the story (big of me, eh?). Friday night, Stella and I went to see the Milwaukee Ballet dancing Kathryn Posin's take on the story of the Arabian Nights, and I must say, the ballet is the absolute correct medium to tell the story of Scheherazade.

It was sensual and beautiful. Every year I take Stella to see the Nutcracker, every year I wait until my favorite portion, the Arabian dance, and every year I wish that could go on longer than it does. And so when I saw that Scheherazade was returning (missed it the first time), I was really happy. What a treat-- a whole night of Arabian Dance! The sets are minimal, focusing all the attention to the dancers, as they go through those stories from my youth -- Aladdin, the Magic Horse, and my favorite this evening, Sinbad the Sailor. It was a wonderful ballet to take a 7 year old girl to for a variety of reasons. First, the minimal sets encouraged us to take what they gave us and let our imaginations fill in the rest, as though we were reading the story. Particularly effective was the use of flowing blue fabric and dancers dressed in that same fabric to suggest the cruel sea that Sinbad finds himself lost in.

But it's the overall story that I was happy to share with Stella. This isn't a princess gets swept off her feet and lives happily ever after deal. Scheherazade has a job to do: she basically saves her people from massacre and murder, particularly the women of her culture. She is able to accomplish this not only because she is beautiful physically, but she is intelligent, well-read, clever, loving, and strong in her resolve. She earns the love and respect of a king who is under a very evil influence, and ends up being the influence instead. King slips (big time!) but by now, Scheherazade and her stories are so powerful that they (with the help of one of her characters, Aladdin's lamp genie) can even overcome mass destruction and death. Now that's a female protagonist a feminazi can proudly take her little girl to see! Its also nice to see, in these Taliban-tainted times, portrayals of middle eastern women with these traits, with plenty of powerful sexuality. We forget that the part of the world that forced burqas on their women is also the part of the world that gave us belly dancing and incredibly sensual music. Plus, the role of Scheherazade is danced by Kara Wilkes, who (and everybody goes on and on about this) is a taller than average, and thus a powerful looking woman. She's got a wonderful duality between power and tenderness, grace and strength. Stella was in awe of her and, yeah, so was I. Ballet in general has those traits, led by graceful power, and was thus the perfect medium to convey this story.

Opening act was an abstract thing called Coronach, directed by Lila York. "I didn't get it," the dad of a father-daughter date we shared a table with during intermission admitted. It wasn't a story, and admittedly, Stella was just as bored with it as the daughter with whom we compared favorite episodes of Puffy Ami Umi. I enjoyed it, although it went a bit long. As I told the dad, "I knew it wasn't a story ballet, that it was sort of like modern art in that it was there to be enjoyed in and of itself." It looked cool. I think I put up with it because I've been watching figure skating all week, and the purpose of figure skating at the Olympics is to show off your ability, not necessarily tell a story, so I was in the frame of mind to accept showing off ability, snippets of cool effects and dances that could probably be part of a bigger, more sensical production. (It reminded me a lot of the songs of Kim Deal.) But both me and the dad explained to our daughters that big productions like this usually have opening acts that you may or may not necessarily like. Sometimes, the audience hates the opening act, even if the opening act ends up being bigger than the headliner. I told Stella to her astonishment, "One time Jimi Hendrix opened up for the Monkees and got booed off the stage." Stella, a Hendrix fan, couldn't believe it. "So sometimes, it really pays to really pay attention to the opener."

"I was still bored," Stella replied. So there you have it.

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