Stage: A Streetcar Named Desire

Streetcar

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.

Stage: Pinocchio

Pinocchio

Based on Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, the National Ballet of Canada’s world premiere of Pinocchio is an inventive work that combines ballet and theatre in a vibrant and unique way.

In the ballet’s opening scenes, lonely Geppetto (Piotr Stanczyk), a lumberjack in this Canadian incarnation of the story, fells a tree and finds inside it a wooden boy. The Blue Fairy entrusts the boy to Geppetto’s care, telling Pinocchio (Skylar Campbell) that if he tries to be good, one day he might become a real boy. Naive and easily led down the path of temptation, Pinocchio is distracted from this purpose by a puppet show, a pair of naughty “friends” (the Cat and the Fox), and by the prospect of wealth. Appearances by the Blue Fairy (Elena Lobsanova), who acts as his conscience, set him back on course, but the second act sees him undergoing more trials as he is temporarily transformed into a donkey and later swallowed by a whale before reuniting with Geppetto.

Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio is a production that relies very much on strong acting performances. Fortunately, The National Ballet of Canada is a company I have always felt is particularly strong in that area. As Pinocchio, Skylar Campbell is such a perfect fit that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role. His Pinocchio is curious and impulsive, easily led down the path of temptation, yet he is also sympathetic in his naiveté. Campbell dances the role initially with an awkward colt-ish movement that sets the wooden boy apart from the real schoolchildren and other characters in the ballet, but as he becomes a real boy, Pinocchio moves with grace and fluidity to dance in celebration with his father Geppetto. Campbell’s acting is also excellent. He is eager and boyish in his portrayal of the wooden boy who means well but makes poor decisions, and his reunion with Geppetto is heartfelt and moving. On the other end of the spectrum, a scene where Pinocchio awakes to find the coins he has planted have not in fact grown into a money tree while he slept and have been taken by his treacherous friends, is humorous and displays a quickness of movement as Pinocchio sulks and checks for the buried coins again and again.

The whole company is excellent, but Piotr Stanczyk is a standout as the fatherly Geppetto, whose loneliness and worry is keenly felt as he searches for his son by putting up missing posters on every tree. Although I wish the ballet has spent more time on the father-son bond between Pinocchio and Geppetto, both dancers are gifted enough actors that the connection is felt and their reunion moved me. Another standout is Dylan Tedaldi’s fox. His movements are relaxed and appear effortless as he sinks into the jazz-influenced score.

The costume design is one of the first things I noticed about Pinocchio from its promotional material. All of the characters are vivid and colourful in appearance, from the beautiful dress worn by the Blue Fairy, to the plaid lumberjacks, and various animals. Pinocchio’s curly wig is designed to look like wood shavings and yes, his nose does grow! The sets and design of the ballet are similarly impressive. The ocean depths spring to life as dancers manipulate fish, and beautiful projections add to the ballet’s visual appeal.

The jazz-infused score by Paul Englishby also adds to the ballet, particularly through a spirited woodwind motif used for the character of Pinocchio, and a more delicate theme chosen for the Blue Fairy.

There are a few things about Pinocchio that I thought worked in this context, but I can’t imagine them adding to any other ballet. Chief among these are the use of spoken dialogue to tell the story and the abundance of Canadiana.

Five Blue Fairy Shadows, danced by principal dancers Guillaume Côté, Harrison James, Sonia Rodriguez, Xiao Nan Yu, and Corps de Ballet dancer Antonella Martinelli, give voice to the Blue Fairy’s thoughts through spoken dialogue, a rarity in the ballet world. Classical ballet often tells its story through dance and through codified mime. I’ll admit to being someone who finds the mother pointing to her ring finger to indicate that her son must get married, a technique found in ballets like Swan Lake, old-fashioned and unwelcome, but I also don’t find dialogue a necessity when choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon have so effectively communicated stories like The Winter’s Tale through dance. I thought the spoken dialogue worked in Pinocchio without detracting from the ballet, likely because it is so clearly targeted at children, but it’s not a feature that I can see working for most ballets. Additionally, the rhyming structure of the text gives off somewhat of a ‘Dr. Seuss meets the ballet’ vibe, particularly in the schoolchildren scenes. Not a bad thing in this case, but again not something I can see working well in other contexts.

While some elements of Canadiana, such as the Mountie accompanied by a few bars of “O Canada” and the beaver tourists, walk the line between being fun and over-the-top, I mostly enjoyed the Canadian content, from the sneaky raccoons in the Red Lobster Inn, to the subtler and very beautiful East Coast inspired setting where Pinocchio and Geppetto are reunited.

No doubt carefully aimed at the March Break crowd, The National Ballet of Canada’s Pinocchio is a family-friendly theatrical production that both parents and children will enjoy. Judging from reactions on social media, purists who go in expecting a classical ballet may be upset by this hybrid of theatre and dance. While it’s not something that I would see repeatedly, I very much enjoyed Pinocchio. For open-minded viewers, it’s a fun afternoon or evening out, that is well danced and acted by this talented company.

Pinocchio is on stage until March 24, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Photo of Skylar Campbell and Heather Ogden by Karoline Kuras