Tuesday, June 6, 2017

When Suggestion Becomes Statement: John Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
(Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Ballets there are many. But few have the equivalent of a PG-13 rating. Tickets to the student matinee of the National Ballet of Canada's production of A Streetcar Named Desire, at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts through June 10, come with a warning that the "mature subject matter" – often a euphemism for pornography – is suitable for grades 10 and up only.

But relax. While the depictions of suicide, prostitution and rape are graphic, they are not corrupting. Neither are they sordid or morbid or at risk of getting anyone arrested. John Neumeier's ballet, based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, shines a light on life's underbelly, its dark perversions, while also making room for a fantastical dreamer like Blanche DuBois. It's a stunning achievement, despite a few bumps encountered along Streetcar's fabled route. To wit: the first act threatens to be boring while the second pokes you in the eye with a prolonged act of forcible violation as repellent as it is artistically risqué. Subtlety takes a backseat to psychology, the result of a need to know about underlying causes, blunting the overall impact.

But these eccentricities are also why Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire -- and there are several dance versions of the original 1947 play out there --  stands out: wholly original in style and execution (Neumeier is responsible for not just the choreography but also the sets, costumes and lighting design), the two-act ballet is totally riveting as a piece of wordless theatre. It jars and prods, making it a welcome change from the predictably tame fare of snow maidens and swan queens usually seen at the ballet, over and over again. Viewer discretion is advised, if only because the adult content here depicted might just give traditionalists a shock.

While boundary-breaking, the ballet is not new. Neumeier created A Streetcar Named Desire in 1983 for the Stuttgart Ballet as a star vehicle for the wonderfully dramatic ballerina Marcia Haydée and her equally potent partner, Richard Cragun. The Milwaukee-born choreographer's imaginative retelling of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama still serves as a platform for singular dance talent. Much of it was on display last Saturday night at the ballet's Canadian premiere.

National Ballet principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez turns out a superb performance as Blanche DuBois, the faded Southern belle whose devastating demise drives A Streetcar Named Desire into the murk of human tragedy. The lead role, as conceived by Neumeier, is fragile, vulnerable, emotionally raw and neurotic. She has strong erotic longings and acts upon them with indiscretion, hustling soldiers on leave and messenger boys young enough to babysit. Blanche, whose name means "white," is pallid in appearance but dark in her soul. Rodriguez plays her like a high-wire act, teetering on the edge of doom. Combining desperation and poignancy with classically correct technique, Rodriguez carries the show, appearing virtually in every scene. You simply can't take your eyes off her even as she is being manhandled in ways that make you wish you could look away.

Sonia Rodriguez in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Doing much of that manhandling and dancing opposite her, Guillaume Coté is aggression personified. He plays the role of Blanche's arch-nemesis, Stanley Kowalski, a character who pushes sympathies out the bedroom door, with animal-like ferocity. As the Polish-born alpha-male, he tears to shreds Blanche's nylon-thin fragility without mercy. She is his sister-in-law, and what he does to her is further tainted by the taboo of incest. In the play, Stanley shoots pool. In the ballet, he boxes half-naked in his spare time, a macho sport serving as the perfect conduit for his quicksilver bursts of violence.

His sparring buddy is Mitch, the mild-mannered gentleman who would rescue Blanche from her sordid past turning tricks at the Pink Flamingo Hotel. Evan McKie plays the role, which a plain-spoken Karl Malden portrayed in Elia Kazan's award-winning 1951 movie version of the play, with head hung low from shame after discovering that Blanche isn't clean enough to bring home to his mother. It's a performance marked more by nuance than bombast, and the better for it. Jillian Vanstone is Stella, Blanche's insouciant younger sister, who is married to Stanley. She is as carefree as Blanche is psychologically constrained. Coming across as more superficial than she is in the play, Stella reads movie magazines curled up on her bed, blissfully oblivious to anything other than her man, his muscles and the sexual heat between them.

But sex isn't the only attraction here. A Streetcar Named Desire gives rise to a study in opposites – female versus male sexuality, truth versus illusion, past versus present. There's also the theme of insanity, which Neumeier explores again in his 2000 ballet, Nijinsky, also in the National Ballet's repertoire, similarly using it to explore a character's fractured sense of reality. In pre-show interviews, including videos the National Ballet has posted online, Neumeier makes clear that his ballet is not a literal translation of Tennessee Williams' words into dance. It is more a personal exploration of his script's core themes of memory, desire and madness. He takes great liberties with the original material, structuring his ballet into two parts, each with a different piece of taped music.

The first act, running 32 minutes but feeling longer for spinning its wheels, serves as the backstory to events seen in the play. Most of the action takes place in Laurel, Miss., at Belle Reve, the family home of Blanche and Stella, before the latter moves away to live in jazzy New Orleans. The opening scene shows Blanche sitting on the edge of a bed inside an insane asylum. The following episodes represent a compilation of past recollections, some distant and others more recently baked in memory. Neumeier sets this part to Sergei Prokofiev's Visions fugitives, an aptly titled choice given the slippery quality of Blanche's memory.

Guillaume Côté and Jillian Vanstone in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

The second act, longer at 58 minutes but more briskly paced, is set to Alfred Schnittke's blaring and angular Symphony No. 1. Blanche's romantic reveries are now good and over. This section of the ballet concerns events known from the play – Blanche's arrival at the New Orleans home of Stella, now married to Stanley; her flirtations with Mitch and other male strangers; and her need to dress up and be admired at all times, to be considered attractive and desirable regardless the passing of the years. In the play Blanche says she is adaptable. But in the ballet she is stuck in time. The choreography in the second act is expressionistic in style compared to act one, where the long, lean lines of classical dance, symbolizing Blanche's pretensions to refinement, predominate.The first act takes pains to show the homosexual affair involving Blanche's husband Allan Gray (Skylar Campbell) and a character named only as Allan's Friend (Francesco Gabriele Frola), an incident which leads ultimately to Allan's taking his own life with a gunshot to the head. Williams only faintly alluded to the presence of a homosexual husband in his drama as the cause of Blanche's subsequent decline into nymphomania, preening vanity and madness, never showing him on stage. Neumeier has taken that scant mention and turned it into a full-fledged story, full of yearning, pathos and exquisite male partnering.

Surrounded by shrouded figures symbolizing death, the homosexual dance (if it could be called that, for brevity's sake), could be its own ballet. Allowing it to serve as a kind of extended prologue to the central Blanche-versus-Stanley story, however, lessens its effect. The clandestine sexual relationship coupled with Allan's sense of shame after being caught and the disgust which envelops Blanche -- causing her to distance herself from her husband despite the tenderness and genuine love between them -- bogs the dance narrative down in a surfeit of details (all of them suggestive of the ballet's origins at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic) which needlessly complicate the central message of emotional detachment.

In other places Neumeier remains faithful to the original script. He retains the allegory of a decaying American South as a means of understanding Blanche's own moral decline and detachment from truth, for instance showing the neoclassical pillars of an antebellum mansion collapsing into ruin. He also recycles key metaphors from the play, including the paper lantern which Blanche would attach to a naked lightbulb to soften her cracks. "I don't want realism," declares this tarnished beauty in the play, "I want magic."

Yet, by unearthing what Williams wanted to remain buried, Neumeier has unwittingly hampered that magic. Despite what he says, his version of A Streetcar of Desire is literal. He has made a ballet so explicit in parts – the rape scene, which in the Williams original which takes place offstage, is here chillingly front and centre, with legs thrust open and fists pummelling red marks onto flesh – that little is left to the imagination. Suggestion has become statement. You have been warned.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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