National Ballet of Canada: A Streetcar Named Desire
Choreography by John Neumeier
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Rodriguez led a strong opening-night cast on Saturday as the National Ballet danced the Canadian premiere of John Neumeier’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the American-born choreographer’s 1983 two-act adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ most celebrated play.
Blanche DuBois, a sometime Southern belle, has exceedingly bad timing. Born into a decaying Mississippi plantation aristocracy she is unable to adapt to the brash, brave new world that in the post-World War II era is rapidly engulfing it. Still, even if Blanche had been born much earlier it’s unlikely her life would have been a picnic. She’s a fragile creature who seeks solace in all the wrong embraces. Blanche’s sister, Stella, a sturdier soul, sniffs the wind and heads for cover in New Orleans with an alpha-male husband, Stanley Kowalski. Blanche remains as their ancestral home crumbles into ruin.
In his swift-moving second act, Neumeier generally follows the dramatic arc of Williams’ play but sets up Blanche’s back-story in a shorter Act I prologue. We meet her, taut and trembling, already committed to an asylum, sitting on one of the ballet’s two erotically emblematic beds.
In her delirium Blanche conjures a jumble of memories. There are friends and hook-ups, and a serious young man Blanche obsessively adores and marries, only to discover him lip-locking with an older man. She denounces his betrayal. He shoots himself. For Neumeier this is clearly the point that tips Blanche into dangerous emotional territory, the fatal gunshot echoing in her head like a curse.
The strongly stylized choreography for Act I is almost expressionist in tone as Neumeier, who also designed and lit the ballet, evokes less the luxury than brittleness of the old South. Act II, which opens with a scorching, multi-position Stanley/Stella love-making session, has a more realistic tone as it evokes the jazzy, raucous tumult of French Quarter New Orleans.
Neumeier substitutes a boxing match for Williams’ poker game. It’s a smart choice that allows him physically to reinforce his view of Stanley as a chest-beating brute to whom Blanche, regardless, is drawn like a moth to a flame. Neumeier makes clear that Blanche merely toys with Stanley’s well-meaning friend Mitch, cleverly deploying the same dancer who portrays her suicidal husband – a splendidly intense and expressive Skylar Campbell – as the newspaper boy Blanche tries to seduce. He reappears in another role, but enough spoilers already.
Stella, danced with just the right note of sensual self-indulgence by Jillian Vanstone, is the least developed of the major characters. Mitch, sympathetically portrayed by Evan McKie, fares better. His duet with Blanche conveys an awakened ardour that crumples into despair when Stanley reveals Blanche’s sordid past.
Stanley as a man is a cartoon of his insensitive, domineering self and Neumeier spares nothing in depicting his savage rape of Blanche. It’s profoundly disturbing to watch. Guillaume Côté, playing so totally against type, nevertheless manages to embody Stanley with white-hot fury and physical forcefulness. His Stanley is laughably absurd and also very scary.
On paper, Neumeier’s choices of music, Sergei Prokofiev for Act 1 and Alfred Schnittke for Act II, seem incongruous. Yet, in adding impulse and atmosphere to this extravagant psychodrama, they work exceptionally well.
The fleeting, fragmentary, at times almost impressionistic character of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives impart a surreal, dreamlike character to Blanche’s fevered recollections. As for Schnittke’s chaotic, abrasive and disorienting Symphony No. 1 with its sudden shifts of mood and tempo and cacophonous overlapping of musical styles and references, you could imagine it having been written expressly for Neumeier’s ballet.
By decree of the choreographer, both are delivered in canned form, which given the scale of the Schnittke score must be saving the National Ballet a bundle in live orchestra costs. It also allows Neumeier to extend the stage over the pit, moving the action forward to deliver a powerful in-your-face immediacy.
Devotees of Tennessee William’s play could be forgiven for balking at some of the liberties Neumeier takes, but the choreographer never claimed to be making a literal adaptation. It’s his take on what remains a landmark work of mid-20th century dramatic writing. In depicting as it does a clash of two cultures, one corrupt and outmoded and the other crude and cruel, with Blanche as the symbolic victim caught between the two, Neumeier’s ballet in fact does not stray far from Williams’ intent.
The ovation that acknowledged greeted Rodriguez and her colleagues’ company premiere performance suggests Saturday’s audience was suitably impressed by Neumeier’s unsparing portrait of the sad and troubled Blanche.