Dallas — Joshua L. Peugh, artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, seems to find deep satisfaction in retelling stories, unearthing hidden or forgotten meanings, or simply reframing narratives in different contexts. He does all that and more with the most elaborate endeavor of his career, Aladdin, حبيبي (the second word meaning Habibi, an Arabic term of affection). Presented at the Wyly’s Sixth Floor Studio Theatre in Dallas, the 75-minute show is the first of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project 2018-2019 season. Created in collaboration with his company members, the production draws heavily from the experiences of Beirut native Chadi El-khoury, the show’s lead dancer in the titular role.
Brandon Carson provides a rich and varied musical score, which is played live by a six-member ensemble. The music’s depth, range, and use of different types of instruments is astounding and proves as much of a draw as the choreography itself. String, wind, and percussion instruments of Middle Eastern and Asian origin obviously appear, the marimba and clarinet play prominent roles, and electric guitar, bass, and other percussion complete the unique sound.
Costumes by Susan Austin deliver a clear aesthetic and relevancy with stunning simplicity, allowing the choreography to shine. Bart McGeehon’s lighting and scenic design make wonderful use of the unconventional stage space, which delightfully surprises when stepping off the elevators. Audience is seated on most of the floor across three sides of the stage with some colorful cushions and a few raised seats, which immediately sets up the performance as an intimate, almost immersive experience. The band stays on a raised stage at one of the shorter edges of the dance floor, and all four corners serve as entrances and exits.
The most enigmatic and slightly frustrating aspect of the viewing experience is reconciling expectations with reality. Since the show is titled Aladdin, it’s natural to immediately associate it with the Disney version, which has now spun off into a Broadway musical and upcoming live-action film. Any pre-show reading of the marketing information and interviews (or knowing the company’s repertory) lets viewers know that this isn’t the usual story. The original tale, “The Story of Aladdin,” provides the premise, which leads into thoughts on Middle Eastern stereotypes and how tales change based on the storyteller. Character names follow the source material (so don’t expect a literal Jafar), and Aladdin’s mother plays a large part.
Overall, it’s best to recognize the origins and its associations, but not cling too tightly to those notions when following Peugh’s narrative, which is ultimately about a man’s journey of coming out. The production follows a linear storyline, yet some areas communicate more abstractly than others. As the show opens, the entire cast enters in gray harem pants and sleeveless white shirts with a cowl-neck, a costume to which they frequently return. First, they reenact a street scene with an informal soccer game, card-playing, and laundry-hanging. Unison choreography with heavy gestural segments set up the aesthetic, and the dancers immediately draw in the audience with their mysterious expressions, seductive without being sexual.
After a bit of a prologue introducing Aladdin’s mother (Victoria Daylor), the action begins with the African magician (Eric Lobenberg) trying to entice a resistant Aladdin. After a struggle, he’s forced onto a journey. A tense interaction between them ends in a nightclub where the ensemble has changed into more modern clothing. The magician leads Aladdin to a young woman, but he’s more interested in the male Princess Balroulboudour (Nicholas Heffelfinger) and they engage in a short but tender duet.
After a moment of contemplation on his time with Balroulboudour and an agitated interaction with his mother, he encounters the Genie of the Lamp (Lena Oren) and the Genie of the Ring (Jaiquan Laurencin). The mood abruptly changes with their entrance, as bluesy, more syncopated music match their persuading choreography. A harsh red light signals one of the most unexpected moments of the evening. The ensemble returns to the stage, not in the harem pants but in bondage wear. Repeating only a few movements, the genies move them around like chess pieces, while Aladdin pensively observes.
Much of the subsequent choreography with Aladdin moves among soft duets with his newfound love, more tension with his mother, and deeper struggles with the magician, presumably over his sexual identity. Unpredictable moment number two turns the whole other-worldly atmosphere upside down with a scene straight out of classic Broadway. The ensemble, including El-khoury and Heffelfinger, don gold costumes similar to A Chorus Line (the female style) and Peugh’s quirky, theatrical choreography—the type that put him on the national radar earlier this decade—ensues. The flashiness entertains, for sure, but its inclusion is highly cryptic.
Additional clashes with the magician involve an agitated trio that includes his mother, but Aladdin eventually dominates the magician. The latter’s nephew arrives, furious at the situation and befriends Balroulboudor. In the end, Aladdin reconciles with his mother, introduces her to his new love, and a triumphant ensemble segment closes the show with a bang.
Even with any confusion regarding the narrative vs. expectation or the meaning behind certain segments, it’s difficult not to get swept up in the delightful world on stage. The vocabulary is fairly typical of Peugh’s aesthetic, with lines and maneuvers that almost resemble classical technique but deliberately go a different direction, deep lunges, and phrases that end in unexpected ways. Ungulating, fluid movements hint at the traditional belly dancing of Middle Eastern origin, and some snake-like qualities follow the story but look completely in line with the company’s essence.
El-khoury delivers his best performance yet, and his increased athleticism, articulation, and quiet intensity solidify him as one of Dallas’ best dancers of this year. Oren opens up a more enticing side to her unique execution, and Daylor finds a delicious softness with a steadfast aura as Aladdin’s mother. Partnering between El-khoury and Heffelfinger never looked so effortless, and even the lifts meant to signify struggle with other characters find a satisfying ease. All dancers commit to the narrative, characters, and vocabulary with stunning and alluring clarity.
This show is definitely on my list of top performances of the year.