We need to talk about sexism in dance. The glass ceiling that female choreographers still face today has been in the news recently, but what we see on stage matters, too, and the issue is bound to arise with new dance versions of the epitome of Orientalism, Arabian Nights. So it did at Aix-en-Provence’s Grand Théâtre for the world premiere of Angelin Preljocaj’s Les Nuits (The Nights), the main dance event of Marseille-Provence’s year as European Capital of Culture.
The programme tells us that through the figure of Scheherazade, Preljocaj means to address “women’s place in our societies”. The first half-hour does so in provocative fashion. The French choreographer welcomes us to a harem of topless women languorously bathing in beautifully lit billows of smoke, only to have the fantasy interrupted by brutish men in black. A scene straight from a music video follows – six couples simulating sex to electronic music, popping through their rippling routine, detached in their reaction to the heavy beat.
Clever parody, surely, and when a line of women in red minidresses and vertiginous heels interrupt their cabaret routine to “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” to give us one-finger salutes, the irony is clear. But it is by no means a get-out-of-jail-free card, and the performance goes into freefall from this point on, rushing headlong into the clichés it was sneering at minutes earlier.
Preljocaj’s Nights channel MTV’s to an uncomfortable degree, with lounge music (by Natacha Atlas and Samy Bishai) and lighting, the occasional S&M garb courtesy of Azzedine Alaïa, and soft porn galore. We witness women held by the crotch, dragged by the hair, men posing as demigods and thrusting their hips for songs on end, women showing off their extensions, Crazy Horse-style, behind stylised bars. A man-on-man Kamasutra also features, in the form of shaving rituals and would-be underwear commercials.
All this, and no hint of context or original choreography to provide perspective – instead, shallow movement, some recycled from earlier Preljocaj works, and enough sexual euphemisms (ah, the women smoking from a hookah erected between the men’s legs) to fill many a teenager’s night. There is a fine line between parody and simply rehashing sexist representations for the sake of it, and after 60 minutes of this drawn-out wet dream, Les Nuits left this writer utterly dispirited. There is an audience for this type of work, I note, as the enthusiastic opening-night reception illustrated. It’s a man’s world indeed.