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photo from Haft Paykar by M. Baxter
Gilded Serpent presents...
Haft Paykar: "Seven Beauties"
Seeking Love and Enlightenment in 12th Century Persia
April 2, 2005
produced by Laurel Victoria Gray

Reviewed by:
Rebecca Firestone

Last year, I happened to catch a bellydance production based on the well-known "Sheherezade" theme. In this version, excellence in technical execution was accompanied by a somewhat bowdlerized storyline, where Sheherezade is abducted (think: classic kink "rape fantasy"). When I read the libretto and saw this, I went completely off the deep end. The show itself was a glorious production, well-costumed, professional sound and lighting, the whole nine yards - and I felt like a cranky old curmudgeon for focusing on what was probably a minor point for most people.

The dancing was what I'd call best-of-breed American bellydance: sharp, clearly defined movements, a lot of Vegas-style showgirl formations, a little hip-hop fusion (my favorite number, actually), appealing and engaging.

Of the classic Near Eastern love-tales, the story of Sheherezade and the 1,001 Nights is perhaps the most familiar to American audiences, even if most people haven't read the original translation. In a nutshell, a sultan takes a trip and his wife goes to town with every male slave in the palace while he's away. He comes back and catches her in the act. Enraged by her unfaithfulness (never mind that he can be as unfaithful as he likes), he kills her, and vows never to trust a woman again. When he needs a little nookie, he takes a virgin bride and has her executed at dawn.

Needless to say, this creates a climate of fear in the city under this king's domain. This dire situation lasts until Sheherezade, a daughter of one of the sultan's most trusted ministers, volunteers to be his bride. Her horrified father tries to talk her out of it, but off she goes and takes her sister Dunyazad with her. Through her clever storytelling, she wins the heart of this king, who marries her and repents his evil ways.

A literal reading of this tale raises serious questions as to her sanity. Why would any woman in her right mind want to marry a known serial killer? Was he another Bluebeard? And don't all the modern self-help books talk about co-dependence and how we can't change abusive men? Was she suffering from Stockholm syndrome or what? And why is marrying the king seen as the ultimate prize? Why can't she have independent sovereignty?

One answer (and it is not an easy one) is that this tale has allegorical and metaphysical meanings. The name Sheherezade means "Savior of the City", while Dunyazad means "Savior of the World." Her marriage to the king represents a sacred marriage or divine union rather than a literal historical event. Our society is somewhat literal-minded, and we don't have a lot of room for allegory in our cultural mythos. Even fairy tales are either taken as entertainment or are psychologically de-constructed in ways that are revealing, but not always uplifting.

In sharp contrast to the above-mentioned Sheherezade show was Laurel Victoria Gray's premiere production of Haft Paykar: "Seven Beauties" offered a lavish spectacle based on a work of that same name by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami.

This work was presented on April 2, 2005, in a show titled "Dances in Islamic Lands". The event was sponsored by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as part of MNCPPC's ongoing World Dance Showcase program.

Haft Paykar tells the tale of the Persian king, Bahram Gur, who is seeking enlightenment. He visits seven princesses, each one associated with a different quality, color, and astrological sign. He learns important moral lessons through each of his encounters. For example, from the warrior princess whose color is red and whose element is passion, he learns to control his aggression through a vigorous combat dance with costumes that looked like a cross between Conan the Barbarian and the clay warriors from early Chinese royal tombs.

The use of storytelling in dance and theatre productions is familiar to American audiences through ballet classics such as "Swan Lake," "Firebird", and "The Nutcracker". Sometimes the story manifests as a vague theme informing the costuming and musical choices. At other times (Chinese opera, waving its arms wildly, leaps to mind), the stories take on an almost cartoonish quality, with fantastic characters and exaggerated gestures that evoke both comic and tragic themes by turns.

With many of these productions, if I didn't have a libretto to tell me what the story was, I'd never guess it from watching the action onstage. Musicals and movie classics such as "The Wizard of Oz" are more accessible to the literal-minded viewer, even more so the silent movies of Charles Chaplin. I believe that Chaplin's themes of subversion and humorous resistance to authority, of tragicomic love and longing, and of hunger and survival, would be clear to a viewer from almost any culture on the planet.

Haft Paykar was somewhere in the middle. The color themes helped me remember which princess we were up to, as did the dance styles. I sometimes found myself wishing for more character interplay.

The East also has a long-established tradition of dance dramas. Unfortunately, my untrained eyes don't catch more than the pretty costumes and beautifully nuanced movements.

Particularly with Indian classical dance, I'd need a de-coder ring to figure out what each arcane hand gesture really means. The singing, typically not in English, doesn't help a Westerner with comprehension either.

However, these dance dramas are intended for an audience that already knows the story, as with Christmas pageants. The visuals are really a reminder rather than an explicit narrative, and the audience fills in the rest with their minds. With Near Eastern esoteric literature, there is also the notion that while the Unwashed Masses can enjoy the spectacle, only those with the Knowledge need understand the inner meaning. Approaching Haft Paykar from this perspective greatly lessens the compulsion to understand each and every element as if it were a question on the S.A.T.

Haft Paykar ends with a divine marriage symbolizing the Sacred Marriage between the ruler and the land, as well as spiritual union with the Divine Beloved. I'm not sure why the existence of another layer of meaning makes the show more satisfying - if a tree falls and no one hears it, did it make a noise? And yet, to me it is satisfying to think that these cosmic themes were consciously enacted. Perhaps the memes will, over time, sink into popular consciousness until they reach critical mass and bring about world enlightenment... who knows?

Other theatrical productions such as Cirque du Soleil include at least vague story lines, mostly as a device to string together a series of virtuoso acts (aerial, juggling, physical comedy) that would otherwise appear unrelated. Although I adore watching Cirque du Soleil productions, I always had the feeling that the human condition was not really the point, and except for one or two acts that really touched me, I found the Cirque material slightly unfulfilling for this reason.

Even when a show attempts to borrow at least the external forms from some body of myth or literary work, it is unusual for the producers to be as aware of the allegorical content as Gray is of the deeper meanings behind Haft Paykar.

Not many people have the imagination to re-create Persian mystical poetry, much less the feeling and the background to do so in depth. Gray's background includes degrees in history, extensive travel and research in Central Asia and Uzbekistan, as well as study of other Middle Eastern dance forms. She founded the Uzbek Dance and Culture Society in 1984, and has worked since 1995 with her ensemble, the Silk Road Dance Company, to bring Central Asian dance forms to American audiences.

One of Gray's oft-stated goals is to bring Near Eastern dance out of the restaurants and nightclub settings where it is most typically encountered, and elevate it to the same high-art status that ballet and other world dance forms currently enjoy. When she first explained her idea to Christel Stevens, Performing Arts Specialist with the MNCPPC, Stevens became an immediate and enthusiastic supporter and was instrumental in bringing the idea to fruition.

Gray's vision is both broad and ambitious. A year and a half in the making, this show cost over $10,000 not counting the costuming, and involved over 20 dancers. The staging eschewed Vegas-style glitziness in favor of the jewel-like perfection of the Persian miniatures upon which much of the costuming was based. It was presented at the Publick Playhouse, a 500-seat hall that looked filled to capacity, with professionally done lighting and sound. The backdrops had been painted by Russian set designer Evgenia Luzhnia Salazar to evoke Persian palaces.

Altogether, the elements worked well to fill the stage and entrance the viewer. The pacing and visual direction directed the viewer's attention clearly. I was never bored, which can be a problem with big productions that are too busy or that go on for too long. Haft Paykar made effective use of choreography and stage direction to avoid this pitfall.

The dance execution was both outstanding and authentic; it is very hard for troupe leaders to insist on good technique without driving all the dancers away.

This production was especially challenging in that regard, because it presented seven distinct national dance genres from Uzbek Khorezm to a Moroccan zikr (spiritual dance). Gray has managed to attract a good number of professional-level dancers in addition to having a sizeable and well-run student troupe. All the dancers exhibited strong stage presence and showmanship, another element often neglected in the presentation of "purist" ethnic dance.

If I had to pick a favorite character, it would probably be the prince himself. He opened the show with some comic interchange involving an apple (my memory fails me here). It was funny, whatever it was, and had a Renassiance Faire quality to it, half "fake"loric, half Shakespearean. He managed to anchor the show without taking it over - very appropriate for a prince who's doing some educational bride-shopping.

A third element to praise would be the costuming. I sometimes ponder the appropriateness of attempting to re-create "authentic" ethnic dance from other regions of the world, where every detail is "just like it was back in the Old Country" with the exception of the dancers themselves. This can result in some odd visual clashes, because the original costuming was designed to flatter a different type of physique and coloring from what the actual dancers possess.

In this production, however, the dancers had all been carefully costumed in a way that was both true to the genre and also flattering to the dancers. Most of the fair-skinned Celtic types were in blues and teals, for example - another contrast to the Sheherezade show, where all the dancers were identically costumed for each number.

The fact that this show generated enthusiastic support from the D.C.-area Persian, Azerbaijani and Uzbek communities also speaks very well of Gray's work. She has worked for over 25 years to cultivate relations with the diplomatic and expatriate communities from these areas, often presenting at the Uzbek and other embassies.

I did have three teensy complaints about Haft Paykar, none of which was strictly related to the dance performance, but which did impact my theater-going experience. First, the theater was so hot that I had trouble at times paying attention to the dances. Second, the lighting could have been a bit brighter.

And third, Haft Paykar was actually only the second half of the show, the first half of which was of somewhat uneven quality. The opening number for the entire evening was, in my opinion, the weakest piece in the show, a Turkish folkloric piece with great costuming and choreography, and absolutely no showmanship.

I'm not sure when the next opportunity will come for you to see Haft Paykar, but I would recommend it for all audiences. Those who don't get the Sufi metaphysics and allegory will have plenty of other things to enjoy.

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