Haft Paykar by the Silk Road Dance Company  
- Christel Stevens, MD 
e-mail: stellaguru@yahoo.com 

May 4, 2005 

The Silk Road Dance Company of metropolitan Washington, DC has been presenting increasingly ambitious programs of dances from Central Asia since 1995. In their tenth anniversary year, they have reached a pinnacle of grace, grandeur, style and technical merit in the ballet Haft Paykar: The Seven Beauties which premiered on Saturday, April 2, 2005 at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, Maryland as the cornerstone of the Third Annual World Dance Showcase “Dancing in Islamic Lands,” presented by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Eighteen months in preparation, the masterwork of choreographer and Artistic Director Laurel Victoria Gray emerged as a symphony of color, light, movement, and even scent. Excited audience members gasped in awe as scene after scene unfolded, depicting the spiritual journey of a prince who gains the wisdom necessary for kingship from seven accomplished women. 

The text for the ballet is drawn from the 12th-century epic romance of Nizami, who lived in Ganja (located in present day Azerbaijan) and wrote in Persian, the refined court language of the period. The seven princesses in the tale hail from seven different lands, and it is in this aspect that choreographer Gray shows her breadth of knowledge by arranging the dance of each princess in the traditional style of the region she represents. In addition, each princess is linked to a specific heavenly body, color, and even scent. Aficionados of India’s traditional Navarasas would be quite at home with this concept, in which emotions are related to physical properties such as color and raga. In this case, each princess imparts an aspect of wisdom, such as honesty, patience, and courage, through her dance. In the poem, the Persian king, Bahram Gur, builds a pavilion of a different color for each princess, visits them on the seven days of the week in order, and dresses himself in the appropriate color for each visit. 

The performance opened with a prologue scene, in which the audience was invited to look through the eyes of the young prince Bahram Gur, who steps into a mysterious locked room and discovers portraits of seven lovely women from seven lands. As the curtain was drawn back, each princess was illuminated momentarily in a shaft of colored light, in frozen poses, glowing behind a scrim. The princesses’ lands of origin are India, Rum (modern Turkey), Khorezm (a region of Uzbekistan), Russia, Maghreb (Morocco), China, and Persia. After this tantalizing glimpse, the curtain closed again and the ballet proper began. 

The Indian Princess, associated with the color black, the planet Saturn, and the wisdom of patience, appeared posed in a darkened pavilion against a starry night sky. The reference to Mughal miniature paintings was fascinating: a Kathak dancer in a beaded black angharkha-style costume, sparkling with gold, posed center stage, with two handmaidens in long black velvet tunics and veils to one side, and the King, played with suave aplomb by Kevin Ryan, in black sherwani and turban seated on a carpet in an archway. Then the scene came alive, the dancer performing to the song, “Chhordo, more bhaiyan” in the style handed down from Shambhu Maharaj through Bandana Sen of Calcutta to disciple Jayantee Paine, who supervised the performance of her student Monica Ullaggadi. The performance was delicate and reminiscent of old black-and-white films such as Jaalsagar and Pakeezah. 

Then the scenes followed in a rainbow of brilliant colors and gorgeous costumes. The Princess of Rum, in the sun-lit yellow pavilion, presented a complete contrast to the somber opening scene. A drift of lemon scent filled the auditorium. The sparkling Turkish karsilama was led by Demet Cabbar, a sprightly and energetic dancer who represented Honesty. Next, a pair of handmaidens dressed in green ikat robes appeared to present an embroidered suzenai to the King, who was shading himself with a green parasol. Suddenly they dropped the tapestry to reveal the Khorezm Princess, performed by Cindy Connelly Ryan. This princess represents Faith, and, in a manner reminiscent of Kuchipudi dancers, performed her entire dance on a large embossed brass tray. The Khorezm dancers wear belled bracelets on their wrists and shiver them constantly to accompany their bird-like movements. The authenticity of this choreography was evident; it was taught to Silk Road Dance Company members by Qizlarhon Dustmuhamedova, People’s Artist of Uzbekistan. Laurel V. Gray’s ability to draw together such collaborators as Paine and Dustmuhamedova has made this composition impressive in its authenticity. 

The Princess of the Red Dome, linked to the planet Mars, presented a complete change of pace. Against a threatening flame-colored backdrop, four Amazon warriors appeared with leopard skin cloaks, shining silver shields, and real swords in their hands. They danced in the style of Georgian warriors preparing for battle, in a technique observed and recorded by Gray in her visits to the Caucasus region. When their Princess, powerfully played by Joanne Giaquinta, marched onto the stage, they greeted her by clattering swords on shields and ullulating in a frightening cacophony. When the King entered, he had to do battle with this fierce princess, to learn the virtue of Passion.  

With the audience on the edge of their seats after this exciting presentation, a calming influence descended as maidens veiled in aquamarine set the stage for the Princess of Maghreb, symbolizing the planet Mercury. First they escorted Bahram Gur, robed in royal blue, to a carpet arranged at center stage, and presented him with a blue hand-drum like the ones they carried. As the three of them struck the drums softly, the Princess, portrayed by Annetta Burger, and four accompanying dancers circled the stage dreamily in a Sufi ritual dance. The meditative scene culminated with the King in the center, spinning with his drum, while the women circled him with airy scarves of blue, raising the audience to the heights of spiritual love. This was the most recognizably Islamic of all the scenes, with the women tastefully veiled, wearing Moorish caftans and turbans, the blue pavilion reminding one of blue-domed mosques, and the final musical recitation of the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. As such, it was performed with suitable reverence and was well-received by the diverse audience. 

From Morocco the scene shifted to the other extreme of the Silk Road, with the Princess of the Sandal Dome performed by Cynthia Lin, in a costume modeled on Buddhist paintings of flying celestial apsaras. As she assumed various sculptural poses, a maiden garbed in pale golden silk swept across the stage spreading delicate sandalwood perfume with a carved fan. Then the Princess was joined by four dancers in brown velvet and golden skirts, who performed a traditional Chinese style ribbon dance, swirling long bronze-gold streamers. The audience interrupted the dance several times with enthusiastic rounds of applause. 

Now it was time for the seventh scene, and anticipation ran high. First, a solo dancer, Sarah Solomon, in a pure white gown with golden vest, draped with pearls and white and gold veil, floated across the stage with a length of fluttering white silk trailing from her upstretched hands. As she circled and spun, the silk formed a white cloud around her, leaving the viewer with no doubt as to the prevailing color of the final scene. Then the curtains covering the central set-piece were opened, revealing the slim, graceful figure of Parastoo Ghodsi as the Princess of Persia, representing the planet Venus, to impart the virtue of Devotion. After an enchanting dance with her handmaidens, this Princess led off the finale, a glorious white and gold wedding celebration. The King entered through the audience, accompanied by attendants bearing glowing candles. The scent of roses filled the air. As they slowly paced down the aisle, the other six princesses re-entered the stage wearing alabaster-white wedding garments and crowns, each in the style of the country she represented. The stage became a glittering sea of white, gold, and silver as the entire cast formed a wheel around the Princess of Persia and King Bahram Gur. As the music swelled, pink rose petals cascaded on the spectacular couple, as they turned hand-in-hand and bowed regally to the ovation of the packed auditorium. 

Laurel Victoria Gray is to be commended for her spectacular concept, and the members of her company for bringing a poetic fantasy to life. The imposing set pieces, designed and executed by Evgenia Luzhina-Salazar, and the intricate lighting design by Publick Playhouse Technical Director Cheryl Lee, worked together in perfect harmony to suggest the architecture of miniature paintings and the signature color spectrum so essential to the vision of Nizami. Although other dance companies may have attempted this ballet in the past, the Silk Road Dance Company’s production must be counted as the most faithful rendition of the literary classic Haft Paykar. 

Christel Stevens learned Bharatanatyam under the late Rukmini Devi at Kalakshetra College and from Leela Samson, Manipuri dance from Guru Naba Singha, Ojha Babu Singh and other renowned teachers. Christel is a member and past President of IDEA, the Indian Dance Educators Association, located in the Washington, D.C. area.