There is just something about that ancient tale of Aladdin that never seems to lose its magic.
Of course it has long been one of the most popular stories in “The Arabian Nights,” even if the saga of that poor little street urchin — who gets scammed by a sorcerer, encounters genies with special powers by way of a magic ring and a magic lamp, enjoys great wealth and happiness, but also must overcome immense difficulties — didn’t turn up in that collection of Middle Eastern tales until Antoine Galland, a French archeologist and translator, heard it from a Syrian monk in the early 18th century.
In England, it has been a staple of holiday pantos for more than two centuries. And, though considerable liberties were taken with the original story, most contemporary audiences know it primarily by way of the immensely popular 1992 Disney animated film.
Earlier this week, a new musical version of “Aladdin” opened on Broadway (with a score by Howard Ashman, Alan Menken and Chad Beguelin that incorporates five songs from the Disney film, with direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw). And to top it all off, this weekend, the Houston Ballet, one of the largest classical companies in the United States, will make its Chicago debut at the Auditorium Theatre with two performances of English choreographer David Bintley’s full-length, “family-friendly” ballet version of the story, featuring live accompaniment by the Chicago Philharmonic.
Bintley, artistic director of Britain’s Birmingham Royal Ballet since 1995 and co-artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan since 2010, initially created “Aladdin” for that Tokyo-based company. Last year, in somewhat revised form, it became an unexpected success for his Birmingham troupe, and the magic has since rubbed off on the lavish Houston co-production.
“Frankly, I was subjected to the ‘Aladdin’ panto as a kid, and I had little interest in telling the story,” said Bintley. “But some years ago, my friend, composer Carl Davis, gave me a CD of the score he’d written for a less than successful Scottish Ballet production in 2000. And I fell in love with it.” (Davis would go on to expand the score for Bintley’s three-act production.)
Arriving in Japan, Bintley began to realize ballet is not immune to politics.
“Although ‘Aladdin’ is a Middle Eastern tale, the story is set in China, and Aladdin himself is explicitly Chinese, even if most of the people in the story are Muslims,” said Bintley, who went back to the original story to create his scenario. “But relations between Japan and China have not exactly been ideal recently, so when I created the work, I portrayed Aladdin, his mother, and two friends as Chinese [we even have a dragon dance and a lion dance], but they are immigrants living in the Middle East.”
“I also came to realize the global impact of the Disney film,” said Bintley. “The influence is so strong I didn’t fight it, so there is a healthy dose of Middle-Eastern kitsch in the ballet, along with very clever, seamless set design by Dick Bird that keeps the storytelling fluid, and dazzling costumes by Sue Blane. It was made to keep a big company dancing full out with a mostly classical ballet vocabulary, but it also was designed to be entertaining. And we’ve got the flying carpet, and the lamps, and birds in the form of puppets.
“As it happens, the bits I worry about most in ‘Aladdin’ have nothing to do with the dancing. It’s that flying carpet, which requires the skills of eight technicians, and secrets I will not divulge. It can be pretty scary to watch the two lovely dancers who sit on that thing.”
Bintley’s next project will take him to quite a different world. He is choreographing a one-act work about France’s King Louis XIV, a great ballet enthusiast.