In recent seasons the Dance Theater of Harlem has been looking back to the classics to vitalize its repertory. This season, at the New York City Center until Jan. 25, Dance Theater of Harlem is delving not so much into a classic as a piece of mythology. This is Fokine's "Scheherazade."
Produced by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1910, and starring Nijinsky as the Golden Slave, this is the one that had Paris swooning in the aisles. It became the password for all the wonders of the Russian ballet as invented by Diaghilev -- daring, voluptousness, modernism, passion, elegance.
As befitting a myth, "Scheherazade's" reputation is all vaporous enthusiasm with precious little explication to back it up. What one mostly knows about this harem ballet is that it was gorgeous to look at, thanks to the decor and costumes by Leon Bakst. With its suggestion of miscegenation -- Nijinsky in dark brown body paint with the wife of the Shah -- "Scheherazade" was wonderfully scandalous but not avant-garde enough to cause a scandal, as did some of the Ballets Russes' later works. One hears of "Scheherazade" as a pure pleasure dome, exotic but not dangerous. When pushed further to explain the public's rapturous response, historians say that it came at the right moment. Curiously, one reads little about Fokine's choreography.
The first thing to strike one on seeing Dance Theater of Harlem's rendition, staged by Frederic Franklin, is that it makes perfect sense not to have heard much about Fokine's part in it. His choreography is really an accompaniment to decor. His purpose seems to have been to design a moving panorama of color and texture. The characters don't dance, they sway and shimmy and glide in strategic parts of the stage. The heart of this ballet is the orgy scene, where the women of the harem take up with the slaves while noble- men are off fighting. One sees big circles of beautiful costumes spinning by in faster and faster sequence.
Given today's hierarchy in dance productions, where choreographic values are supreme, one is amazed by the modesty of Fokine's contribution to "Scheherazade." One is touched by his bowing to decor and Rimsky-Korsakov's luscious score, and appreciative of his tact. But is one dazzled by this production as the Parisians were?
Part of this failure lies with the dancers. In the leading role of Zobeide, the Shah's wife who proves her nobility by killing herself after her indiscretions with the Golden Slave, Virginia Johnson was hoity-toity rather than proud. For the cameo but reputedly spectacular role of the Golden Slave, Fokine's design is such that the slave must assert his powers within a few seconds and amid much tragedy. Eddie Shellman seemed lost among the hordes. Carl Michell's costumes are enchanting, but the reconstruction of the Bakst decor is stolid.
When all is said and done, however, there remains the question of whether a myth can be recaptured. If "Scheherazade" amounted to interesting sets of dances, there might be a chance for it. So, too, if today's dancers had magical telepathy with the past. Basically, we're dealing with someone else's memory of a perfume he once sniffed a long time ago. There's not much hope of bringing that to life.