Thu 10/10 @ 7:30PM
Everyone knows the story of Sheherazade, the woman who escapes death one night at a time for a thousand nights by telling the king stories that she refuses to finish until the following night. Her story is the framing narrative of One Thousand and One Nights, the basis of the text that’s known in the west as Arabian Nights.
Recently we heard that Loretta Simon — whom we knew from ballet classes and from her time on faculty at Cleveland School of Arts — was setting a piece called Sheherazade Retold on Verb Ballets. We arranged to sit in on a rehearsal and later spoke with Loretta on the phone.
Vic: So, Loretta, how did Sheherazade Retold come to be?
Loretta: It all started three or four years ago when I went to Nairobi, Kenya because I’m involved with a not-for-profit group called Safe Spaces, which offers activities for young girls to keep them safe instead of being in the slums. And when we’re talking about the slums of Nairobi, we’re really talking slums. So in Nairobi I was teaching Pilates, dance, improvisation and music appreciation. It was a wonderful experience for me. And I became part of an organization called Friends for Safe Spaces and we do fundraisers. When they asked me what I could do I said, “I can create something that has to do with women.” So my friend Persephone Abbott, the singer, said, “I have Sheherazade and I’ve always wanted to do it” and I said, “I’ll choreograph it.”
Vic: Just to clarify for our readers, we’re not speaking here of the Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade that Michel Fokine choreographed for the Ballets Russes in 1910. Instead you’ve used all three of the songs in Ravel’s song cycle of Shéhérazade — “Asia,” “The Enchanted Flute” and “The Indifferent One” — correct?
Loretta: Correct. I found only two dancers at the time who would do it for free — we did everything for free — I did it all in eight two-hour rehearsals and we ended up creating a piece that sent two girls to college for a year. Then Maggie (Margaret Carlson, Verb’s producing artistic director) saw it, and we agreed that I would use more of a chorus and make the choreography more challenging because the original choreography was at the level of the people I had to work with. So with Maggie’s dancers I had the opportunity to see a sketch come to life.
Vic: You said something really interesting during rehearsal about the Arabic origins of the arabesque and understanding the arabesque as a shape of the torso as well as the leg extended behind the body.
Loretta: Well, that’s where it comes from. It’s a curvature and a twisting of the torso on a diagonal line that brings the leg up.
Vic: And please talk about the arm shapes in Sheherazade Retold, which I found very engaging and very different from conventional ballet arms.
Loretta: I like the shaping because it refers back to the arabesque, the Arab line, the curving and ornate line of the culture. I thought it works perfectly with the piece. And I love the open, receiving hand that you see in this piece, and in oriental and early Christian paintings. It’s different from the conventional ballet hand, which is, I guess, more baroque.
Vic: Yes, we feel that you’ve drawn on your Lebanese-American heritage and your feminism — not to mention your craft as a — to create a version of Shéhérazade that’s a world away from the misogyny and sexual exploitation of the Ballets Russes Shéhérazade.
Loretta: I wanted to get beyond fascination with oriental and exotic culture to tell a story of forbearance, enlightenment, and heroism.
Vic: And we think you have succeeded. Now in closing, please give us an idea what you’re currently doing in Amsterdam.
Loretta: I’m teaching Pilates and Ideokinesis. Coaching dancers. When it’s not raining, Amsterdam is beautiful.
Sheherazade Retold is only one of three dances in this concert “Akron Legends of Jazz and Dance,” in which the dancers will share the stage with live accompaniment by the musicians of the Chamber Music Society of Ohio.
The concert also includes a new full ensemble ballet, Stellar Syncopations, choreographed by Verb dancer Kate Webb, and set to “Excursions” by beloved Northeast Ohio jazz pianist and composer Pat Pace, the jazz “legend” referred to, who passed away in 2006. For this performance, “Excursions” will be played live by an ensemble that includes flutist George Pope, co-founder of CMSO and a member of the original Excursions ensemble.
Also on the concert is Rococo Variations, a rather unusual ballet by the late Ohio Ballet founder Heinz Poll, the other “legend” referred to. Poll frequently expressed his disdain for conventional ballet and “candy box” ballet clichés, but he did choreograph a few ballets that incorporated conventional ballet elements such as pointe shoes and tutus. Rococo Variations, one of those ballets, gets restaged for this concert by Richard Dickinson, Verb Ballets’ associate artistic director and former Ohio Ballet dancer. Rococo Variations is set to Tchaikovsky’s score titled Variations on a Rococo Theme. The ballet features two principal female dancers and their partners with a corps de ballet of four female dancers.
The performance takes place Thu 10/10 at Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall. Tickets are $45; students are Learn more and get tickets at tuesdaymusical.
Next for Verb, One Dark Night with rock guitarist Neil Zaza, rock band, string orchestra, and three Verb premieres. Tickets are $25-$75. To purchase tickets go to AkronCivic.
[Written by Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas]