By DAVID LYMAN
Even in the realm of ballet's often-outlandish storylines, "A Thousand and One Nights," which the Cincinnati Ballet performs this weekend at the Aronoff Center, is an exotic one.
You've probably heard some version of the story. It revolves around Scheherazade, who saves the lives of her countrywomen by spinning a nightly yarn so engaging that the bloodthirsty sultan spares her life in order that he can hear another chapter the next night. And the next and next, for 1001 nights.
The ballet can't encompass all 1001. So choreographer Eldar Aliev chose just three; Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin.
For the audience, it's all hugely entertaining. For the dancers - especially those in leading roles - it's memorably grueling. Filled with athletic and spectacular lifts, the ballet is a challenge for even the most veteran performers.
"It's like a circus," says principal dancer Janessa Touchet, who has the added complication of performing with a partner she has never worked with before. Indeed, Alexei Tyukov, who danced the ballet when he was a member of Aliev's Ballet Internationale in Indianapolis, didn't arrive to rehearse with the company until Monday.
"It's really scary," says Touchet. "I cried in rehearsal the other day. If I can't do this with Anthony (Krutzkamp, her regular partner), how am I going to do this with someone I've never touched?"
But Aliev reassured her it wasn't impossible - just hard.
Building an effective partnership can take years. It's more than doing steps together. It's sharing a philosophy and understanding one another's quirks and manners of moving.
"In the beginning there were a few times when Emily (Ellis) and I tried lifts and they just didn't work," says Krutzkamp of his new partner. "She has a different body type than Janessa, so it was one of those things I just had to get used to."
Fortunately Aliev, a legendary and fiery former dancer with Russia's Kirov Ballet, is a methodical choreographer. Having performed this role himself, he's well aware of its complications.
"He had a reputation as an incredible partner," says principal dancer Kristi Capps. "So he's very, very careful about teaching the lifts to the dancers. I like that a lot. Because if you're going to be afraid of a lift, you've already lost the battle."
Even Tyukov, who reckons he has performed the ballet hundreds of times, admits that "A Thousand and One Nights" is an arduous undertaking.
"When I did it the first time, I have to tell you - I was dead," says Tyukov. "I was dead emotionally. I was dead physically. For me, because I've done this so many times before, it may be a little easier than for the other dancers. But at the same time, I have to tell you it is very, very hard."
Eldar Aliev choreographer, Eldar, Aliev.