"One Thousand and One Nights" is filled with multicolored, mesmerizing moments 

From Lebanon with Love

click to enlarge Caracalla Dance Theatre's new take on "One Thousand and One Nights" is a vibrant treat for the eyes

Photo by William Struhs/Spoleto Festival USA

Caracalla Dance Theatre's new take on "One Thousand and One Nights" is a vibrant treat for the eyes

When nearly 30 dancers from Lebanon's Caracalla Dance Theatre take the stage, hoisting one another into the air and spinning with controlled abandon, it's a dazzling site. Throughout Friday night's two-act, two-hour performance, the dancers shifted through set after set of elaborate, brightly colored costumes. It's a spectacle that shifts seamlessly from choreographed group dances that could accompany an Arabic pop star to more traditional ballet duets.

This production of One Thousand and One Nights shines as a sum of its parts. The stage set's two towers and stairs (shipped across the Atlantic, along with the costumes and the massive cast) serve as scene setters for a king's court, a bazaar, and a caravan throughout the show's three segments. A sheer screen hangs in front of the stage for the entirety of the first set, enabling dual layers of projections that provide a believable 3D effect as they portray an outer layer of castle walls or a fiery inferno.

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The projections help create a mood via a psychedelic mosaic in the bazaar, or by setting up a scene with video of approaching solders that will soon enter the stage as dancers. But the audience's feeling of immersion in Persia was challenged when they shifted to computer-animated horses and Bedouin riders. That slight element of cheese snuck in throughout the show, from the opening narrative's stock phrase, "Once upon a time in a land far, far away," to the stock images used to honor the host country in the closing scenes. The finale was accompanied by a collage of Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and the White House, interspersed with Lebanese landmarks.

Subtitles acknowledged "this great land of the free and home of the brave" that has "opened up its doors to the world and embraced humanity." In 2019, those words might sound sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek from an American troupe, but it's refreshing — albeit a little silly and out of touch with the country's current environment — to see them genuinely expressed by foreign visitors.
That bit of encouragement to our patriotic pride was the show's most significant written or spoken component. A narrator occasionally guided the stories to set a scene, but his deep voice and heavy accent often made him unintelligible. That didn't change much for the audience, however — although basic storylines could be followed, like a jealous man avenging his lover's unfaithfulness — Caracalla's adaptation is not a way to discover the details of One Thousand and One Nights' stories for the first time. If you didn't read the program, you might not pick up that in the second act, a wizard tricks bazaar customers into seeing an old woman as a beautiful young dancer. You'll laugh at his dwarf sidekick and pick up bits of narrative, but mostly, the tales serve as a loose source text for interpretive dance.

In the dancing itself, there are moves and scenes that show off feats of skill and strength, but there's nothing that would compare to Spoleto Festival USA's more physical circus-oriented acts. Likewise, the costumes are colorful and elaborate, but most wouldn't be worth individually viewing in a museum, if they weren't spinning wildly in unison on the bodies of dancers. And the music, in its unique Middle Eastern adaptation of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Ravel's Bolero, is a fascinating, perfect accompaniment to the dances, but its reworkings with Eastern instrumentation don't surpass the original material.

Altogether, however, they form a spectacular work of art. The beauty of One Thousand and One Nights lies in its feats of coordination and choreography. It's an easy show to relax and enjoy, if you simply sit back and absorb the vivid visual spectacle.

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