Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; May 28, 2015
Washington, DC, got the temperature right for the Scottish Ballet’s impressive debut at the Kennedy Center, at the tail end of their US tour. On a hot and humid spring evening, this little known (in the US, at least) ballet company from across the pond presented a sultry, beautiful, and affecting performance of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which served as the perfect vehicle for introducing themselves to an American audience.
I was lucky to have seen Cate Blanchett perform the role of Blanche DuBois at the Kennedy Center in 2009, and she was stunning. I can’t quite say that the Scottish Ballet’s Eve Mutso, equaled her but, using no words and wearing pointe shoes, she came admirably close and definitely tore at everyone’s heartstrings. How ironic, especially for me, someone raised in the American South, to see an Australian and a native Estonian play Blanche, a quintessentially tragic Southern belle, so incredibly skillfully.
My main criticism of the Scottish Ballet’s much-touted Streetcar, directed by Nancy Meckler and choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, is that it doesn’t deliver the sort of ballet I generally long to see – the kind that highlights the amazing strength and technical prowess of the dancers. This Streetcar departs from the formula of many narrative ballets by actually putting the story at the forefront, rather than the dancing. As a work of theater, this production absolutely succeeds. The story comes across very clearly. As a work of ballet, I can’t help but feel a little disappointment that the movement often takes a back seat to the unfolding of the drama.
However, it’s probably somewhat unfair to separate what’s “theater” from “dance” here. Lopez Ochoa’s choreography for Streetcar may not yield solos or duets that are likely to stand the test of time on their own merit, but what she does accomplish is pretty remarkable. The dancing, while not flashy, is creatively utilized, helps to move the story along, and adheres to the emotional ups and downs of the play. There’s a wonderful seamless quality to what takes place on stage that one rarely sees in classical ballets for which Lopez Ochoa and Meckler together are responsible and should be congratulated. And the dancers deserve much praise for their range of expression.
One of the reasons this Streetcar really connects with audiences, besides the seamlessness of the storytelling and dance, is the outstanding set and costumes (Niki Turner), lighting (Tim Mitchell), and music and sound design (Peter Salem). The work begins against a slightly fuzzy black and white photo of a columned Southern planation, Belle Reve. You can hear the buzz of summer insects. The music has a soft, boozy feeling. There’s an air of simplicity and innocence, but this changes upon young Blanche’s discovery of her husband’s love affair with a man. Mutso, in surprised distress, twirls between Victor Zorallo, as her husband, and Thomas Edwards, as his lover. After her husband’s suicide, Blanche shrinks into herself, and the home behind her, which we learn is built of piled crates, literally topples. These crates, with holes in them, like the holes to hold bottles, cleverly create a variety of set pieces, from a bed to a footbridge. The pink robe that Mutso wears during part of Act II, is diaphanous, and the lighting is such that the dark silhouette of her long legs shows through the fabric.
The most effective blending of theater and dance comes via the visualization of flashbacks. Blanche’s dead husband continues to appear and disappear, like a haunting memory. Zorallo, at critical moments, stands in his bloodied shirt surveying the drama. It’s a brilliant theatrical device. Also brilliant are the scenes in which the ensemble appears as a mob of disapproving voices driving Blanche out of town for her perceived transgressions, or as a spooky crowd of Mexican flower vendors, garbed in black with large red carnations held between their lips blooming where their mouths should be. Charm and humor, thankfully, mix with the seriousness. Great fun are a cute upbeat bowling alley bit, where the women wear cheerful print dresses, and the sections involving the comically inept Mitch (Lewis Landini), whose missteps in wooing Blanche add much needed levity.
As for memorable dancing, the rape scene between Erik Cavallari as Stanley Kowlaski and Mutso is appropriately difficult to watch and is thankfully brief. Cavallari grabs her by the back of the neck. Mutso’s legs quake. Somewhat less disturbing is the passionate makeup sex duet between Cavallari and Sophie Martin as his wife Stella. Martin eagerly peels off and over him, her legs tugged long and straight.
Not even an apparent accident early in Act II when one dancer flew backward with great momentum as if she was going to fall into the arms of someone else, only to discover there was no-one there, and landing with quite a thud, marred the overall performance, which was extremely well received.