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Review: Scheherazade The Tale of One Thousand and One Nights

Professional dancing let down by amateur costume and set

At the end of a hefty eight week term, we are all very much in need of a touch of magic to add to our Bridgemas. Having felt chewed up and spat right out again by a never-ending load of essay deadlines, evading the Cambridge bubble felt very much in order. A necessity even. And what better way than to spend a night at the ballet, in an world alive with fantastical tales, conjured up by Scheherazade herself.

Buzzing in part from the cider and white wine consumed before this 11pm show, I went to the ADC bursting with excitement and anticipation, eager to see Cambridge University Ballet Club’s take on a story very dear to my heart. Being partly Persian myself and my sister’s middle name being Scheherazade, I grew up avidly reading 'A Thousand and One Nights'. The story goes that Sultan Shahryār becomes deranged after he finds out his wife was unfaithful to him; he has her killed, decides that all women are cheaters and begins his mission of murdering every virgin in the land by marrying them and executing them on their wedding night. Finally, the vizier (the highest official to the Sultan) has no choice but to reluctantly offer his daughter Scheherazade as the next sacrifice. She sets out to survive by entrancing the Sultan with never-ending stories for a thousand and one nights so as to postpone her execution. The ballet focused in particular on the stories of Sinbad the sailor, Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

With such a great choice of a story and Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphony dramatically playing in the background, this ballet had all the tools for success. Yet as the curtains rose, my heart sank. Maybe my expectations had been overwhelmingly high but I had not expected to be so disappointed by the costumes and set. Instead of sumptuous fabrics and a gorgeous set fit for a sultan’s kingdom, the stage was left bare, with ballet dancers wearing varying hues of ghastly mustards and garish leggings. I wanted to be transported to the dream-like world of Scheherazade’s tales, but was simply unable to be. The props were so makeshift to the point of being farcical, with the waves for Sinbad’s ship drawn on cardboard being brought on rather awkwardly. A head popping out from below Sinbad’s ship made me feel as though I was watching my Year 7 Pantomime. Although it is true that the cartoon-like ‘jars of oil’ being brought on stage by mischievous ballet dancers who resembled Snow Whites’ Seven Dwarves made me chuckle, I’m not sure this directional choice of making the ballet so slapstick and childlike in its humour really did 'One Thousand and One Nights' justice.

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Photo Credit: Anna Sofia Bregstein

Such gaffes strike me as a real shame given the ballet dancers’ terrific performances. Harum Mukhayer’s narration was entrancing, Ali Baba and Sinbad’s energy infectious and a particular shout out must go to Luciana Boon, who played Aladdin’s Genie. Her acrobatics on fabrics suspending from the ceiling was both seamless and jaw-dropping.

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Photo Credit: Anna Sofia Bregstein

Yet the true gem and salvation of this ballet was, without doubt, the electric relationship between the Sultan (Victor Gomez) and the blonde haired Scheherazade (Talia Regan). Right from the start, Scheherazade stole the show, both in her elegance and captivating stare. You could have mistaken her for a ballet doll on an old-fashioned music box. The synchronicity between her and the Sultan’s movements highlighted how perfectly paired they were. Despite the show’s shaky start, the final scene was one of a triumph. The two enveloped themselves into one another, a visual symbol of their all-consuming love. Meanwhile, playing the dramatic shrill minor chord in the background as the narrator spoke the final line, ‘to respect a woman was much better than to fear her’, gave the show some much-needed emotional depth, otherwise been lacking due to the otherwise amateur feel of the production.

In short, if you’re after some great quality ballet, this is the show for you – but leave behind at the entrance door all expectations of glitz and glamour.

2.5 stars