As the audience filtered in to take their seats at the Four Seasons Centre on the evening of June 3rd, they were met with the sight of a lone chair, haphazardly left on its side in the middle of stage. This is just one piece of choreographer (and costume, lighting and set designer) John Neumeier’s puzzle in his 1983 reinterpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire, premiering on The National Ballet of Canada.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning play, by American playwright Tennessee Williams, has been dissected by choreographer Neumeier right down to the raw and ugly truth of the 1947 classic. He has erased any romanticised ideals of Blanche DuBois’ descent into madness and the abuse she endures from her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Neumeier’s minimalist set design maintains focus on the actions of the dancers and scenes unfolding on stage, and allows the audiences’ minds to interpret as they please, with subtle props to give the viewers cues about location.
Act I opens where we left Blanche at the end of the play, in the asylum. Blanche, portrayed by the fragile and ethereal Sonia Rodriguez, is seated on the bed, wringing her hands frantically as if waiting for something to unfold. The plain white netting as a backdrop, her white attire and the ceiling fans that swirl over her head, induce a sickening feeling, as one might have in an austere hospital wing.
Slowly, danced memories begin to reveal themselves – of past lovers from her days at The Flamingo Hotel. Unlike the play, there are no assumptions here. Blanche’s licentious past is exposed through dance in an unabashed and shameful manner. Brent Parolin, Ethan Watts and Dylan Tedaldi dance (as Shaw, Kiefaber and A Soldier) terrifyingly but spectacularly, their bodies moving fluidly and effortlessly together in their pas de quatre with Rodriguez. When not dancing, they sit in a corner upstage, waiting and wanting on a bed, lurking in the corners of Blanche’s own mind. Their taunts never leave her and fester silently, until a word is uttered loudly by one of the three men. One could identify with Blanche’s pain through Rodriguez’s exquisite acting in this harrowing scene.
In another particularly haunting image in this act, the Ancestors (portrayed by Stephanie Hutchinson, Lorna Geddes, Hazaros Surmeyan, Tomas Schramek and Rebekah Rimsay) move ghost-like through Blanche’s memory of her wedding. The black-clad figures foreshadow the suicide of her husband Allan Grey, stunningly danced by Skylar Campbell with breathtaking leg extensions and backbends. Finally, the ensemble of Ancestors becomes unstable and falls apart in a strange but wonderful scene reflecting Blanche’s loss of her ancestral home, Belle Rêve, and her descent into insanity. Although this scene involves little to no ballet technique, the imagery, acting and simple movement is no less spine chilling. Meanwhile pianist Andrei Streliaev plays Sergei Prokofiev’s “Vision Fugitives” Op. 22 hauntingly in the background.
Act II flashes back to New Orleans where swiftly the now-recorded music becomes distorted jazz by composer Alfred Schnittke. The dancers change from white and beige attire to an assortment of thirties-inspired outfits, and shift to jazz-influenced choreography, reminiscent of Bob Fosse.
Blanche’s earthy sister Stella, danced by the effervescent Jillian Vanstone, debuts with her full personality in the second act. As a slight figure floating among the guests at the wedding in Act I, she now fully displays her intimate life with husband Stanley Kowalski, danced by Guillaume Côté. Côté effectively embodies Stanley, from his loud and abrasive steps to his attitude towards others. He exudes an air of arrogance and insensitivity, especially to Blanche There is a wonderful moment, a dance-off, between Côté and Rodriguez. She performs with classical precision while he interrupts with sharp swing and jazz moves, demonstrating the war between old sophistication and modern ideals.
The rape scene, danced by Côté and Rodriguez, is particularly distressing and painful, while Evan McKie’s portrayal of Mitch (Blanche’s would-be lover and saviour) completes the tragedy, with the genuine chemistry between McKie and Rodriguez suddenly shattered so brutally.
This is not a ballet for the family. Throughout, one feels a gnawing feeling deep inside, as the dancers’ steps and bodies becomes more sporadic and contorted, along with the music. Neumeier shows the ugly underbelly of Streetcar and unveils the dark beauty of this classic, which leaves one’s emotions in tatters on the floor. A beautiful, haunting and distressing ballet all at the same time – and successful – though it may not be to everyone’s taste.
The National Ballet of Canada performs A Streetcar Named Desire from June 3 through 10 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.