Thursday, May 11, 2017

"A Streetcar Named Desire"

Cal Performances presents
Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire
Photo Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet
A Streetcar Named Desire
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
May 10th, 2017

A single amber-hued light bulb hung in the middle of the stage. Up center was a backdrop of an old Southern estate. A steel, deconstructed frame forged an inner proscenium arch. Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois embarked on a solo, contained within a small square of light. A prelude of sorts, the variation ebbed and flowed with sinewy movements and a recurring motif - as Mutso’s hand approached the light, it trembled and shook.

And so began the West Coast premiere of Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the final dance offering of Cal Performances’ current season. And what a production to end with! Directed by Nancy Meckler, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, score by Peter Salem, design by Niki Turner and lighting by Tim Mitchell, the Scottish Ballet has proffered a new container in which to experience Tennessee Williams’ 1947 literary masterpiece. A tale of volatile relationships, charged dynamics, reality versus pretense, aggression and emotional fracturing.  

In Act I of the ballet, the viewer gets to experience the early parts of Blanche’s story, the events that are referred in other versions but rarely seen. Of course, with no text scenes during the ballet, it makes absolute sense that this would be the starting point as opposed Blanche’s arrival in New Orleans. It is the back-story, providing necessary context for understanding what happens later. In these early segments, we meet a different Blanche, one with a lightness and joy. This is apparent in her early pas de deux with Alan (Victor Zarallo), whom she marries. A lovely, courtly waltz follows their wedding, and motifs from it return again and again during the ballet, serving as reminders of a happier time and state of being.

Blanche’s bliss is certainly short-lived and the wedding waltz takes a turn when the groom is enticed by another man (Constant Vigier). This leads to a stunning pas de deux for the two men, with tender embraces and sharp jumps in second position. Blanche discovers them and the duet becomes a trio, injected with the wedding motifs. A time of loss follows – her rejection of Alan, his violent death, and that of her family, told through a striking set of family photo vignettes. Finally there is the collapse, literal and figurative, of her familial home, Belle Reve, into a pile of rubble.

A grid of bare lights descend and the pre-story travels briefly to New Orleans, for Stella (Sophie Laplane) and Stanley’s (Christopher Harrison) first meeting. Different arrangements of these lights would recur throughout the ballet, speaking to the theme of illumination – the revealing of the various circumstances and situations. Before Blanche arrives in New Orleans, we see her at the Flamingo Hotel and her pas de deuxs with different men at this establishment. Again, some motifs from the wedding waltz are present, Blanche trying to distance herself from her current reality. She is then shunned by her hometown, choreographically expressed through a wall of dancers cycling through militaristic, robotic isolations. She arrives in New Orleans.

There is still more action to come in Act I, yet it doesn’t feel long at all. A Streetcar Named Desire is a very dance-filled narrative ballet, not plagued with long stretches of gestural acting. The choreography keeps things moving, and moving at a wonderful pace.

The bowling alley scene has a very West Side Story feel, colorful and engaging, yet simultaneously speaking of darker undertones – violence, instability and quick escalation. Stella and Blanche have some telling moments, both Laplane and Mutso perfectly embodying these complicated women through their dancing and their theatrical interpretations. Mutso’s portrayal of Blanche’s deteriorating mental state was appropriately chilling, especially when she begins to see her dead husband. And the Act closes with Stanley’s vicious attack on Stella, his subsequent solo and then their explosive duet. Though well danced, this particular pas de deux was too long, perhaps the one spot in the ballet that could be edited down.

Act II is a whirlwind, to be sure. It opens with a group ensemble statement; a set of couples mirroring the extremes of Stella and Stanley’s instability. Then the ballet pivots to a brief courtship between Blanche and Mitch (Luke Schaufuss), including a clever imagining of a movie theater date. Time shifts in the second half as well, because the next time we see Stella, she is far along in her pregnancy. And while the score percolates with gossiping voices, Blanche is confronted by everyone, including Mitch, with the narrative themes from the beginning of the ballet. Blanche’s downward spiral continues and she retreats into the past. Amidst all the chaos and impending danger, there is actually a very touching, yet brief, exchange in this part of the ballet, one between Blanche’s present self and her younger self. A moment of caring, of comfort and of unconditionality. But that too, soon ends. Stanley savagely rapes her and, days later; she is led away by a doctor, presumably to an institution.

And then the ending. Brilliant. Blanche begins to see her dead husband again and while trying to engage with him, she ends up in that square of light from the beginning, reaches her hand up towards the bulb, and it trembles. With that powerful image bookending A Streetcar Named Desire, the space between beginnings and endings became deliciously porous. Perhaps the beginning and the ending of the ballet were actually the same moment, and what transpired in the middle was a remembrance…

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