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Camelot

Charleston Ballet Theatre

Sat. March 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Sun. March 25 at 3 p.m.

$25-$36

Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.

723-7334

Whether a living, breathing monarch named Arthur ever rose from obscurity to unite fifth-century Britain under an idyllic court known as Camelot is a question over which history scholars have worked themselves into pretzels for centuries. One camp insists that the king of Arthurian legend was merely a notorious Celtic warrior, another that he was the mythical personification of any number of Welsh, Norse, Druidic, or Celtic deities. He may have been a British-born Roman army commander fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxon horde, or he may have simply been the 10th-century Viking-slayer Alfred the Great.

Then there are the believers, tens of millions strong, who know Arthur as a deluded monarch who pretends to ride a horse while his trusted servant Patsy bangs two empty coconut shells together, who gets insulted by French soldiers and argues about the air speed velocity of coconut-laden African swallows, the king who lops all the limbs off a maniacal, trash-talking Black Knight, and who takes up a hilariously doomed quest to find the Holy Grail from a cartoon-cutout God.

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Since it was unleashed on the world in 1975, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become the de facto pop cultural reference for any and all things Arthurian. You can’t say “shrubbery” today without tempting a flurry of quotes from the film in bad British accents from an entire generation’s worth of wisecracking movie buffs.

So when Charleston Ballet Theatre raises the curtain on resident choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr’s new dance Camelot at the Sottile Theatre this weekend, she and her troupe are going to have their work cut out for them dramatizing the ancient tale without provoking a giggle or two in the Sottile.

I’m just saying.

Go ahead. Try it. Right now. Ask the people around you — strangers, friends, it doesn’t matter — what’s the first thing they think of when you say the words “dancing knights.” See if someone doesn’t hit you back with one of these lines faster than you can say “It’s just a flesh wound”:

” I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food-trough wiper! I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

“It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A five-ounce bird could not carry a one-pound coconut.”

“Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

True that. Spamalot, the 2005 Broadway musical adaptation of the film by Monty Python member Eric Idle, is on its way to becoming one of the most successful musicals of all time, winning a Tony Award for Best Musical and currently in the middle of separate North American and international tours (it landed in Charlotte last fall).

Catapulted cows aside, the contemporary legend of Arthur — the version that Bahr has drawn upon for her production — mostly hinges on the versions that come down to us from the likes of Thomas Mallory, Alfred Tennyson, and T.H. White. These highly fictionalized stories, the bulk of them made up out of thin air and rooted by only the slenderest of connections to the actual Arthurian mythos, are the source of most every modern account of King Arthur’s court and the so-called Knights of the Round Table: Camelot, the Lady of the Lake, the sword Excalibur, the mystic isle of Avalon, the wizard Merlin, Guenevere, Lancelot, Morgan Le Fay, and the legend of the Grail. (It’s fair to say that centuries from now, the legend will surely include the Knights Who Say Ni, Tim the Enchanter, Roger the Shrubber, and the bloodthirsty Killer Rabbit of Antioch.)

Charleston Ballet Theatre’s Camelot distills the Arthurian legend down to its romantic essence: the rise of Arthur, unknown son of Uther Pendragon, to the throne of Britain under the tutelage of Merlin the wizard; the ill-fated affair between his queen, Guenevere and his star knight, Lancelot; and his betrayal by the witch Morgan Le Fay and her evil little flunky, Arthur’s bastard son Mordred.

Bahr’s a pro. If the past is any precedent, CBT’s production — which features CBT’s top talent, music from Jean Sibelius and Ralph Vaughn Williams, special flying effects, and custom-made outfits from a Broadway costumer — is bound to be well worth the price of admission.

But you can bet that no matter how remarkable the footwork, no matter how impressive the effects, no matter how electrifying the dramatic tension between a king, his queen, a favorite knight, an ageless wizard, and an evil witch — somebody in the audience is going to be sniggering behind a hand and quietly singing, “We’re knights of the Round Table, we dance whene’er we’re able. We do routines and chorus scenes with footwork impec-cable, We dine well here in Camelot, we eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.

I’m just saying.