Unsettling and intense, A Streetcar Named Desire, danced by the National Ballet of Canada in the work’s Canadian premiere, is a striking ballet that sticks with you long after the standing ovation ends.
Rather than a literal retelling of the acclaimed Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire is choreographer John Neumeier’s reaction to the thematic, emotional, dramatic and psychological realities that the play represents. He chooses to set the opening scenes of the ballet where the play ends, with Blanche DuBois in an asylum. The first act follows Blanche’s back-story, from her love for and marriage to a younger man, Allan Gray, her feelings of betrayal as she discovers him locking lips with another man, and Gray’s resulting suicide. Her devastation is hauntingly shown through the repetition of his suicide, the gunshot ringing out again and again in her mind.
As her home of Belle Reve falls into decay, Blanche follows her bolder sister Stella to the French Quarter of New Orleans and the second act more closely follows the story of the play. Out of place in the jazzy modern city, Blanche clashes with her sister’s rough husband Stanley Kowalski and although she is courted by his earnest friend Mitch, Blanche cannot escape her past.
The play is a perfect match for Neumeier’s dark and expressive choreography, which has the ability to convey emotional complexity. I’ve seen a few of Neumeier’s ballets before, most notably Nijinsky, my favourite ballet of all time, and each work seems to require its dancers to be especially strong actors in order to convey the emotional depth of the material. This quality makes Neumeier’s ballets an excellent fit for The National Ballet of Canada’s repertoire.
I was thrilled to hear that Sonia Rodriguez, in my view one of the most gifted dancer-actresses this universally talented company has to offer, would be dancing the role of Blanche DuBois on opening night. As Blanche, she is quite simply stunning, showing the fragility of a woman who can’t adapt to the changing world around her. From her opening scenes, where she trembles on the bed in an asylum, Rodriguez is vulnerable and expressive. She is matched by an excellent Guillaume Cote, as the rough Stanley Kowalski. A savage alpha-male, he beats his chest and engages in boxing matches (a change from the movie Stanley’s stationary love of poker to a hobby more dynamic and action-oriented). Despite this, Blanche is drawn to him, leading to the fateful rape scene, depicted with a brutal, unflinching, physicality.
The rest of the opening night cast was similarly strong. Jillian Vanstone is a lively, carefree presence as Stella, and although the character of Mitch doesn’t have a lot to do, Evan McKie makes the most of the role, giving a sympathetic portrayal of a man who genuinely cares for Blanche and is enraged when Stanley reveals the truth about her past.
There are just four leading roles, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Allan Gray, danced in the opening night cast by Skylar Campbell, had nearly, if not more, to do in the ballet than Mitch. Campbell’s duet with his friend, played by Francesco Gabriele Frola, was a highlight for me, as the choreography demonstrates the pull Gray feels towards the other man and his suppressed longing. Campbell is precise and expressive in the role, and reappears in the second act as a doppelganger newspaper boy who Blanche tries to seduce.
Like he did with Nijinsky, Neumeier chooses music that effectively intensifies the unnerving atmosphere of the work. Set to music by Prokofiev and by Alfred Schnittke, A Streetcare Named Desire has no live orchestra though, a decision that allows the stage to be extended over the pit and the action to take place closer to the audience. Although the loss of a live orchestra is felt, I think the choice works for Streetcar.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a very physical ballet, particularly for Stanley and for Blanche, who is thrown around the stage a great deal. In that respect it makes for an interesting contrast with Neumeier’s Nijinsky, where the male lead throws himself around the stage in a way that must leave bruises.
Personally, I not only enjoyed the inventive choreography and emotional intensity of the ballet, there were also several refreshing things to admire. The National Ballet of Canada has often focused, to a certain extent, on height-based casting, so the opportunity to see Evan McKie, one of the tallest dancers in the company, partner petite Sonia Rodriguez was a first for me. Although the height gap could look awkward, as McKie has to bend nearly in half to rest his head on her shoulder, I really enjoyed the opportunity to see these two gifted dancers duet.
A Streetcar Named Desire also presented the opportunity to see McKie play a role entirely different from the classical prince roles or, alternately, the characters who are quite frankly somewhat dickish (Onegin, Leontes) he has often played in the past. Although he dances these roles very well, it was a nice departure to watch him portray a slightly awkward sweet and earnest man.
And finally, kudos to the multi-talented Dylan Tedaldi, who shows off a fine singing voice (and to my untrained ear a pretty good southern accent!) with his rendition of Paper Moon.
I’ve never seen Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed 1947 play or even watched the movie. Beyond the famous STELLA! cry and Blanche’s famous final line, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”, I probably couldn’t tell you a single other thing about the play, so I certainly can’t comment on the ballet as an adaptation. I loved the National Ballet of Canada’s A Streetcar Named Desire though, and highly recommend it to those interested in an intense, emotional, but very beautiful night out at the ballet.
A Streetcar Named Desire is on stage until June 10, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Photo of Guillaume Cote and Sonia Rodriguez by Aleksandar Antonijevic.