American Repertory Ballet
The State Theater
New Brunswick, New Jersey

May 10, 2019
Beauty and the Beast (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

American Repertory Ballet has a new hit. Kirk Peterson’s Beauty and the Beast is not without significant flaws and it takes awhile to get moving, but once it does it’s wonderful, with interesting, complex, and exciting choreography for the engaging company (including dancers in ARB2, apprentices, and trainees). And most important for a fantasy story ballet, Beauty and the Beast makes you care. It deserved the standing ovation it received.

A former Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Peterson has choreographed Beauty and the Beast to a curated assortment of sections from various compositions by Tchaikovsky. With some exceptions, most of this works very well, as I’ll discuss further below. But what made the music sing was the live accompaniment by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nell Flanders.

American Repertory Ballet dancers
in Kirk Peterson’s “Beauty and the Beast”
Photo by Leighton Chen

I rarely discuss an orchestra’s performance front and center, but this one warrants it. From the opening overture – an excerpt from Swan Lake – the music selected set a tone, and provided a mood for each scene. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Being brilliantly played is a bonus. The sound quality was astonishingly rich; the tempo, to my ear, was exactly as it should have been (I’ve complained innumerable times about orchestral musical accompaniment being too slow); and the volume appropriately varied in intensity depending on the emphasis needed. I sat utterly mesmerized. If I’d only heard that “overture,” it would have made the evening, but the PSO’s performance level continued throughout. All orchestras – all ballet orchestras – should sound this good.

I’ve seen several pieces choreographed by Peterson before – by no means his complete choreographic output, and although they have not been bad, they were not memorable. With exceptions, the choreography for Beauty and the Beast is. The extensive pas de deux with Belle and the Beast that concludes Act I (to the “Elegie” from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3) is a marvel of simplicity and effectiveness and is alone worth the price of admission, and the concluding dances in Act II are not far behind.

The story of Beauty and the Beast is familiar, so I won’t recount it here. Its first writing preceded Disney by over 200 years, but, like many other fairy tales, it has roots that go back some 4000 years. It really is a tale as old as time.

Journy Wilkes-Davis and Nanako Yamamoto
in Kirk Peterson’s “Beauty and the Beast”
Photo by Leighton Chen

There are many cognates to the Beauty and the Beast story, some almost as old as Beauty and the Beast itself (Frog Prince, anyone?), and variations on variations. The theme of a beautiful young girl falling in love with an ugly creature who morphs into a handsome prince when she kisses him is ingrained in popular culture, and theorists have postulated that it originated as an effort to ease the pain of arranged marriages, or of marriages to older men, or to a combination of the two. Be that as it may, the story is a morality tale about seeing beyond a person’s corporeal shell to love him for the person he is, which is a common thread no matter how the story is told. Beastliness is only skin deep. [That this morality tale seems to go in only one direction – the girl being convinced that the ugly old goat she’s in bed with is really a handsome prince – might be a product of the need to procreate with whomever is available, or just misogyny, but that’s a thesis for another day. In any event, it might be worth remembering that the first written record of this fairy tale was penned by a woman: the author of the original (La Belle et la Bête), first published in 1740, was French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. An abridged version, published in 1756, was also by a woman: Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.]

I’m not familiar with any other ballet versions of the story, but I know they exist. Lew Christensen created a well-known version for San Francisco Ballet in 1958 (also to musical selections by Tchaikovsky), David Bintley choreographed a celebrated iteration for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2011, and various versions for adults or children dot the ballet landscape across the country, including a one-act version geared for children from New Jersey Ballet. The version by Peterson, who is ARB’s Resident Choreographer, doesn’t cater to children (though children would be no less appreciative than their parents), if for no other reason than that once one escapes the opening scenes, there’s nothing simplistic about the choreography.

Those initial scenes are disappointing – but in large part that might be a product of the story’s nature. In the opening scene, Belle (Nanako Yamamoto), her two sisters, and their father (Stephen Campanella; newly returned to the company), a widower, live in a shack in the forest, his business having failed. For reasons unclear, the Father decides to leave on an unspecified trip, and Belle decides to accompany him. The problem with the scene is that it’s static, and too much like Cinderella. The sisters, who are supposed to be vain and self-centered, are Cinderella’s vain and self-centered step-sisters. The father is clueless, and Belle is … well she doesn’t clear the table and clean the floor, but she’s as sweet and guileless as Cinderella. And there’s far too much mime. I don’t think Peterson had a choice here, but that doesn’t make the scene any less tedious.

The next scene shows the two of them, having made a wrong turn, lost in an “enchanted forest.” But there’s nothing enchanted about this forest, or the “animals” that populate it (except for a few squirrels). The choreography for the animals (three stags, four wolves, a lone doe) and some sort of cross between fireflies and butterflies (they’re supposed to be Dryads). The choreography here was unimaginative – the stags moved like stags, the wolves like wolves, and the Dryads like lovely insects. There was too much unison, and too much of the same movement. Even the doe (Shaye Firer), who dances rings around the stags and everyone else on it, seemed trapped in a deer-like partial face mask and in movement that, while unique to her in the scene, was mostly repetition of the same choreography. Granted that animals have characteristic movement qualities and move in herds (or swarms), but those qualities don’t make for interesting choreography. While the tempo was fast (like thundering herds), the effect was wearisome.

And then, after Father cuts a rose from the Beast’s rose garden for Belle and the Beast emerges from his mansion, the entire tenor of the ballet changes. It becomes interesting, and fun. The mansion is the “real” enchanted forest in this production. Inside the mansion, the same critters don’t move like animals or insects, they move as if, when indoors, they’re released from some spell themselves. The choreography, which is far more varied and interesting, makes them come alive – particularly the now enchanting Dryads (company members Erikka Reeinstierna-Cates and Emily Parker leading the group of eight ARB2 dancers). Belle’s fear is appropriate at the scene’s beginning, but she obviously is pleasantly surprised to find civility and care. It is at this point that the audience begins to care too.

Nanako Yamamoto and Journy Wilkes-Davis
in Kirk Peterson’s “Beauty and the Beast”
Photo by Leighton Chen

The most significant change, however, is provided by the presence of The Beast. Somehow, Journy Wilkes-Davis gave his character a soul and a heart. Even though his movement quality was restricted, and any facial expressions buried within the Beast costume, something about the way he carried himself as the Beast was as convincing to the audience as it gradually became to Belle. Perhaps the portrayal was as successful as it was because Wilkes-Davis has been there before – in 2015, he danced the Beast in a different production with Charleston City Ballet. Regardless, with a very human Beast and now captivating choreography for the Dryads, the ballet found its voice – which soared in the pas de deux that followed.

If you’ve seen George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Suite No.3 for New York City Ballet (which, on many occasions, I labelled a masterpiece), you know that his choreography for the “Elegie” from that composition is beautiful, romantic, and mysterious. It would seem that he had pre-empted the field. But Petersen’s take on it, though equally romantic, is very different, and absolutely spellbinding. With the audience having by then warmed to the atmosphere in the mansion and to the Beast not being as beastly as he looks, Peterson now tugs at the audience’s heart. In one lengthy pas de deux (which, to my ear, utilizes the full Elegie), and with a minimum of superfluous movement, Peterson displays the evolving relationship between Belle and the Beast. They dance, he begs her to marry him, she refuses … over and over. But each time, Belle yields a little, and then a little more; and melts a little, and then a little more. And gradually, between Peterson’s increasingly passionate choreography (matching the score), and the dancers’ execution and acting, you see Belle falling in love with the Beast … and, gradually, the audience falls in love with the ballet.

Peterson converts Act II into a combination Sleeping Beast and Wedding Celebration. Belle returns to find the Beast dead (or near death), becomes distraught, and kisses him. Gradually, the Beast awakens (did anyone say Jon Snow?), and, this being a low budget production in which stagecraft magic is in short supply, the Beast removes his outer shell as if he were removing a suit of armor. When he finally removes his head/face covering, the audience applauds – vigorously. The ensuing pas de deux between the Beast, now Prince, and Belle is as delightful as it should be, but it’s just the beginning.

Nanako Yamamoto and Journy Wilkes-Davis (center)
and American Repertory Ballet dancers
in Kirk Peterson’s “Beauty and the Beast”
Photo by Leighton Chen

At this point, either the ballet version of the story ends in a sweet pas de deux and a lot of soggy tissues, or a celebratory fairy tale wedding follows with a final pas de deux preceded by an assortment of divertissements only tangentially related to the story. Peterson takes the latter path, and other than those for Belle and the Prince, are large-scale, are all related to the story, and everyone in the cast gets to show off – from Daughters of the Court (promising-looking trainees) and Ladies of the Court, Cadets and Countesses, Knights and Marquises, and a Duchess. None of these dances looked the same, and those that included the Knights, Marquises, and the Duchess (Firer) were particular good. And the concluding pas de deux was (actually, were – there’s more than one) no less exciting to watch than those created by Balanchine or Petipa. And here Yamamoto was particularly impressive – no dancer should be assigned the feverish choreographic complexity and physicality that she faced at the end of a full length ballet, but she not only pulled through it, she excelled.

As indicated, however, the ballet is not without flaws, and although the positives outweigh them, I expect that this production will evolve over time and eliminate some of the problem areas. Among them, and aside from what I’ve already mentioned with respect to the ballet’s initial scenes, Act II’s beginning is very confusing. I (and others I spoke with) initially thought that Belle’s Father was the one being carried around the stage on his deathbed. This could be cured by having Belle return to the Beast’s mansion with her Father (and having that character just disappear, even if not inconsistent with the original story, leaves a visual and sensitivity gap unless the audience is somehow made aware of his condition). And although all the dances in Act II (after the Kiss) are better than good, there’s too much of them, with too many crescendos heralding what turn out to be false endings. The dances are all different, all complex, and, particularly for Belle and the Prince, all wickedly difficult-looking (one might call them beastly), but some condensation would be worth considering.

But my most serious criticism: Friday was both Beauty and the Beast’s world premiere, and it’s only scheduled performance. I expect, however, that it will return, maybe with a little tinkering, and hopefully with the majestic Princeton Symphony Orchestra providing live accompaniment.