There is dark, and then there is the über-noir, transgressive vision of modernist choreographer Angelin Preljocaj.
Founding Ballet Preljocaj in Champigny-sur-Marne in 1984, the French-born Albanian shot to fame in 1990 by setting "Romeo and Juliet" in an Orwellian dystopia, his Juliet a daughter of a Ceau¿escu-style dictator, his Romeo a homeless drifter. Five years later, he created "Annonciation," which drew protests from orthodox Russians when it showed the archangel Gabriel as a woman who kisses the Virgin Mary.
And not many audiences can forget Preljocaj's "Rite of Spring," made in 2001, in which a gang rape occurs, and the Chosen One, stripped naked, is made to perform a kind of sacrificial orgasmic dance before finally expiring.
"There is a very, very dark side in humanity," said Preljocaj, 57, by phone from Aix-en-Provence, where the troupe calls the stunning Rudy Ricciotti-built Pavillon Noir home. "There is something light and beautiful in humanity, but my way of fighting against the very hard part is to show it and not to answer a question but to ask a question on that."
One of Europe's leading contemporary choreographers, Preljocaj has made more than 48 works, including dances for, among others, the Paris Opera Ballet, Berlin Ballet and New York City Ballet. His latest deconstructed, erotically charged narrative is the 90-minute "Les Nuits," the choreographer's take on "One Thousand and One Nights," which premiered last year in Aix and makes its North American debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion June 20 through 22 for three performances. (Its youth-obsessed "Snow White" came to the Music Center in 2012.)
And while life today may seem bleak in some respects — financially, ecologically, culturally — Hollywood is riding high on anti-heroes (and anti-heroines), doom, gloom and hellish scenarios.
It exploded on the small screen starting with "The Sopranos," continued with "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and a host more. Even family-friendly Disney has gotten into the act with its new "Maleficent."
Cultural critic and USC professor Leo Braudy does not see this as a new trend so much as an old one becoming more prevalent.
"It basically started in the '70s, with Angela Carter's book, 'The Bloody Chamber,' and the redoing of fairy tales to highlight the darker side. People said she rewrote them, but she said she was merely revealing the darkness that was always there. The Brothers Grimm had to tone some of them down in later editions," Braudy said, "because the original tales were really dark. By hearing them and understanding them, children could master their own fears. The sugar-coated version, which we're more used to, that's the anomaly."
"Les Nuits," a terpsichorean spectacle teeming with sex and steamy imagery (containing partial nudity, it's recommended for mature audiences), features 18 dancers moving in Preljocaj's signature style. An amalgam of classical and contemporary vocabulary steeped with intense physicality and emotion, his whiplash choreography is characterized by its articulated lines, razor-sharp precision and quicksilver deployment of steps.
Agence France-Presse's Laure Brumont called "Les Nuits" "fireworks for the five senses." The work is set to a mostly original score by singer Natacha Atlas and violinist Samy Bishai as well as new music group 79D — with Atlas' Middle Eastern crooning of James Brown's classic "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" an ironic doff of the Preljocaj chapeau.
The costumes, designed by haute couturier Azzedine Alaïa, also reflect a dollop of dominatrix chic: fiery red mini-dresses, bondage-like halters and high-heeled boots for the women; striped pajama-like trousers for the men. Constance Guisset's sets range from Moroccan-style arches and giant urns to aluminum cages with pliable elastic bands, the cages a backdrop for some crotch-grabbing and entangled coupling.
Add Cécile Giovansili-Vissière's lush lighting and voilà, an action painting comes to life. This makes sense, as Preljocaj, slight-of-build with a full head of gray hair and beard, also paints, and said that for "Les Nuits" he was influenced by visions of the Orient as interpreted by Delacroix, Rousseau and Ingres. Researching "Scheherazade" prompted him to plumb the more sensual aspects of the story, as opposed to the political, but because he's Albanian, he added that his inspirations are both cultural and ethnological. "I'm like two heads," he said, "one is Albanian with some traditional and archaic family values, and another head is with the French culture. It's very Descartesian.
"I think it's important to cross over the inspiration and not be only in one stream," he continued. "Because I am an immigrant, a lot of good things can arrive from outside. For me it's a kind of way of thinking about what must be the humanity — which is an exchange between different situations and what we can share, what we can trust together."
He's also got a penchant for films — dark ones, citing directors David Lynch, Roman Polanski and Lars von Trier as influences.
This doesn't surprise dancer Liam Warren, 25. In his fifth season with the troupe, he trusts Preljocaj implicitly, even when he's on stage in "Les Nuits," getting shaved à la "Sweeney Todd," without, however, a throat-slashing dénouement.
"We go to the theater to go somewhere else," said the Canadian-born performer by phone from Israel, where the company was performing. "Angelin's work isn't always optimistic, but I would say it's realistic. Do I find it dark? Maybe, but ... in France, in general, people are quite cynical and critical, and it could be the result of that atmosphere. I would say that Angelin tries to pull elements from real life. He's trying to reflect how he sees the world today."
France may not be alone in producing a dance artist with an "outre noir" (beyond black) viewpoint, a term coined by French painter Pierre Soulages to describe his own work. Indeed, England's Matthew Bourne puts a vampiric spin on "Sleeping Beauty," Russia's Boris Eifman sets his "Don Quixote" in a mental institution, and Hamburg Ballett's John Neumeier offers a gloomy depiction of "The Little Mermaid," with the title character undergoing extreme physical suffering to live on land.
Dance Magazine editor in chief Jennifer Stahl wrote by email that "adding an element of darkness to full-length story ballets makes them feel more contemporary and sexy. What's interesting is that almost all of Hollywood's recent depictions of dance — 'Black Swan' was a sinister version of 'Swan Lake' in its own way — have used darkness to make dance seem cooler [and] can often make it appeal to a younger crowd than your typical dance audience."
With his formally complex choreography and shrewd mix of the dark and the erotic, Preljocaj, who receives the 2014 Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement next month, may attract that coveted young audience, but for him it's still about the dance.
"I have a lot of pleasure trying to tell stories with human movement. It's very important, because human movement can tell another story than the human word, but is still able to tell stories. And also because I'm an immigrant, it's important to say love and good things can come from the stranger. But don't," he added, "be afraid of the danger."