“For the first fitting, I was by his side. We were looking at the length of the garments to make sure that one could see the ankles and the feet of the dancers. When Mr. Alaïa is working, he has a very determined intensity. What touched me, was to see him cut and snip the cloth. He works in front of a large, tall mirror next to his desk, and when he makes a cut, it is so precise that it takes your breath away. Azzedine Alaïa is a living master.” — Jonah Bokaer, Choreographer, Shahrazad
Commissioned by the Royal Ballet of Flanders, at the invitation of its Artistic Director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Shahrazad is the new ballet choreographed by Jonah Bokaer, with costumes made by Azzedine Alaïa. “It is a redo of Diaghilev’s original Ballets Russes Scheherazade production (1910),” explains Bokaer to Vogue Arabia.
Speaking about Mr. Alaïa’s precious involvement, Bokaer says, “I was very aware of his work. He is without a doubt, my favorite designer. My father — like Mr. Alaïa — is from Tunisia, and we also share a few friends in common — including Robert Wilson — so there’s a natural fondness there,” he says.
Bokaer explains that creative meetings with Mr. Alaïa took place around the designer’s kitchen table in Paris. “It’s there that I realized just how personally Mr. Alaïa works,” recounts Bokaer, commenting on the feeling of “family” that permeates the walls of Alaïa’s atelier. “In these meetings, Mr. Alaïa was incredibly warm and gentle, and very clear and economical with his words,” he adds. To wit: when asked about the collaboration with the ballet company during an October meeting with Vogue Arabia, Mr. Alaïa only said, “Beaucoup de travail. Beaucoup!” (A lot of work. A lot!) before breaking into a smile, eyes twinkling.
Shahrazad is an Oriental ballet that recalls Arabian folk tales and is set to a score of Oriental music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Bokaer wished to explore the eternal nature of the legendary One Thousand and One Nights from which the ballet is inspired. “There’s a notion of looping, or repeating,” describes Bokaer, “I thought, let’s examine the idea of eternity from that part of the world.” Along with Moroccan dramatist Youness Anzane, the concept of a constant burning fire with an evolving color, and the cycle of a burning flame was born.
Mr. Alaïa designed 34 garments for 14 dancers (all who traveled to Paris for their in-house fittings). “The first set [of garments] consists of beautiful and dramatic silhouettes,” explains Bokaer. Sleeveless, and to the ankle, they feature a slightly shimmering material, which Bokaer describes as “stunning” under theatrical lighting. He iterates that the Alaïa garments “flare like a fan and enhance each dancer’s line.”
“What shocked me is how light the garments are,” says the soft-spoken choreographer. “I thought they would be heavy, like black velour; but in fact they are lighter than the thinnest cotton. How does he create this illusion?” he wonders out loud.
The ballet’s opening night was a resounding success — and one that Bokaer assesses on a personal level. “In Western dance, Middle Easterners are very absent — particularly on the stage and in ballet,” and adds that he was the only dancer in the history of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with Arab origins. Bokaer explains that if this absence represents a true “divide” in the dance world, it is a veritable chasm in choreography. Today, Bokaer’s Shahrazad — created with a cast of some of the Arab world’s most exceptional talents — is nothing short of a coup for both the Arab world and the world of high art.
Shahrazad by the Royal Ballet of Flanders and with the Royal Orchestra of Flanders, until December 2nd, 2016, in Gent, Hasselt, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. operaballet.be +32 (0) 70 22 02 02
See the Azzedine Alaïa Spring 2017 collection here.