Joshua L. Peugh, founder and artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, describes how he came to choreograph the new work that will lead off the company’s sixth season, with a run in the Wyly’s high-perched, black-box 6th Floor Studio theater Oct. 11-14. (The rest of the contemporary dance company’s season will play out at the WaterTower Theatre, in Addison.)
Aladdin, حبيبي, the title of the evening-length piece, includes the Arabic script for habibi, a term of endearment meaning “my love,” “my darling,” or “beloved.” It’s a move with many implications.
“My partner was out of town one weekend, and when he’s out of town, I treat myself,” Peugh says, with a good-natured laugh. He found himself in a bookstore, this dancer who double-majored in English and loves “digging into subtext and sort of excavating our human condition through stories.”
“I picked up a copy of the Arabian Nights. ‘Once upon a time in China …,’” he read, a common way for tales from distant climes to begin at the time of the compiled Middle Eastern folk tales’ writing. “That’s not right. In my imagination, this was always a Middle Eastern story. The more I read, the more the contradictions stood out to me,” Peugh says. He’d begun down a rabbit hole.
The story of Aladdin and his magic lamp is one from One Thousand and One Nights with convoluted European roots. A first reference emerged by French Antoine Gallant, a friend of Cinderella’s famed author, Charles Perrault, in the mid-1700s. Seeking the story’s origin, “he went to a Syrian monk who was living in France,” Peugh says, having done the research. “So, this Catholic monk from Syria is telling [the story] to this Frenchman. He’s either hearing [it] in Arabic and translating into French, or hearing it in French, translated from Arabic. So, we’re talking about this text that’s been translated and changed.”
For Peugh, the material had two pertinent upshots: “(A) we think we know what it is, but we don’t. And (B) it’s a reminder of that game of telephone. If you tell a story once, it’ll change to [reflect the world view] of the storyteller. Eventually you end up with a very different iteration of the same story.”
“And maybe that is authentic,” he continues. “Because storytelling is the passing of stories.”
The company’s principles have always been to “present contemporary dance of the highest quality,” says Peugh. “But we always want to be telling the most human stories in the most human way, so more people can see themselves in it.”
The world of Aladdin’s setting is one he knows. Chadi El-Khoury, Peugh’s partner, who is dancing the lead, was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and moved to Dallas with his family when he was 11 years old. But the rhetoric surrounding the West’s perceptions of the Middle East is also claimed and questioned by the company as a whole.
The creative process diverged from Peugh’s habitual way of working. “We’ve been using more acting exercises, theater games, to build material. Usually, I create a phrase of movement and turn it into a duet, and then take it apart and turn it into another solo phrase, and then manipulate that into another duet. It sort of balloons from the inside out. Then I go back in and shape it. By the end of the first week, we had something like 35 phrases. And we hadn’t started to [put it together yet].”
To build a 90-minute work without an intermission expands the scope of what the company has done before. “It’s narrative, [and] I’ve never done a work this long before,” Peugh says.
The piece will be performed in the round, the audience seated on cushions and rugs. “The idea is that as soon as you enter the space, you’re in this world and part of the storytelling,” Peugh says. Music by local composer Brandon Carson, performed live, will include the swirling sounds of guitar and oud, clarinet and Chinese wind instruments. The frame presence of the audience mimics, in some ways, the larger framing story: that One Thousand and One Nights is the making of Scheherazade, weaving stories for the sultan in order to extend her life.
In early October, Dark Circles will teach a movement class to refugee children through a volunteer partnership with HeartHouse Dallas. The students’ stories and phrases written in Arabic will become part of the set at the Wyly, where a 28-foot textile will act as backdrop, a collection of scraps from former costumes—“a collage of ideas and stories that hangs behind us,” says Peugh. A block of tickets will be set aside for the children to witness the fruit of their storytelling.
Peugh brings back the personal element, where so much of the push-pull of meaning-making lodged for this work. “[In] our story of Aladdin, the man playing Aladdin[‘s] perspective is being a gay Arab man navigating our current situation.” And while he hopes the piece will invoke a sense of home, “I’d rather the audience leave with rephrased questions,” not answers, he says. “I want to plant some seeds.”
Catch a free preview on Saturday, Sept. 29 at NorthPark Center (North Court) at 12 and 2pm. Dancers will perform in rehearsal clothes.