Crossroads Theater, New Brunswick, NJ; May 2, 2014
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning depression-era play, “Our Town,” is not the type of play that one would believe might translate into a good ballet. I saw it many years ago, and recall thinking that it was more wordy than most, and took too long to get to its emotional detonation. But I was younger then – OK, I was still in high school – and maybe more impatient. Even then, however, it was apparent that “Our Town’s” brilliance was in its insidious, matter-of-fact simplicity; its tranquility masking the turbulence that is life. But a ballet? To capture all those words?
Philip Jerry, a former Joffrey Ballet principal, made it a mission to do just that. After retiring from the stage, he attended Princeton University, graduating with a degree in art history. While there, he was Ballet Master for American Repertory Ballet. Concurrently with his studies and his work with ARB, he fine-tuned his ballet adaptation of “Our Town”, which he’d been working on for many years since his retirement. ARB premiered the ballet, in its final ‘official’ form, in 1994 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton (where Wilder’s play also premiered in 1938) shortly before Mr. Jerry’s death, at 41, in 1996.
In conjunction with the 75th Anniversary of the play, ARB presented Mr. Jerry’s ballet for a special one-time performance (the play itself is being presented next door, at the George Street Playhouse, until May 25). The ballet and ARB’s performance of it were both wonderful. My only argument is that it was only performed once for the occasion. Once is not nearly enough.
Mr. Jerry took certain liberties with matters, removing some characters (of particular significance is the elimination of the ‘Stage Manager’, the story’s narrator and surrogate ‘God’s messenger’) and some secondary plotlines. But he maintained the play’s simplicity, its emotional upheavals, and its message. In short, he maintained its essence by distilling it to a smaller cast of characters and focusing attention on the two leads, Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who meet, fall in love, marry, have children, and die (Emily) in little more than 75 minutes.
Where the play had words, the ballet, of course, has movement. Choreographed to excerpts from compositions by Aaron Copland (including his “Fanfare for the Common Man”, which provides the ballet’s well-chosen opening musical panorama), the movement is as straightforward and simple as its story – but, like the story, there’s more complexity to it than meets the eye. Each supporting character’s limited time on stage must include enough to tell the audience who that character is. These limited moving portraits are on the mark – particularly with respect to Stephen Campanella’s Joe Crowell (the Paper Boy), Marc St.-Pierre’s Mr. Stimpson (the town’s alcoholic choirmaster); Edward Urwin’s dual role as Dr. Gibb and Joe Stoddard (The Undertaker), Alice Cao’s Mrs. Soames (the town gossip), Andrea D’Annunzio’s Mrs. Gibbs, and the characters of Mr. & Mrs. Webb, portrayed by Joshua Kurtzberg and Samantha Gullace. The piece is performed on a relatively spare stage, but it never looks spartan. On the contrary, the ballet is abuzz with energy, moving with a steady pulse and vitality with all the cast members rotating on and off stage individually or in groups as the landscape of characters take their turns as temporary focal points.
But “Our Town” comes to life whenever Emily and George are on stage – which is most of the time. Like everything else in the ballet, it’s the simple things, the beauty in the ordinary, that make their relationship moving. One unpretentious, lovely duet follows another. Of course, meeting, loving, marring, bearing children, and dying, are inherently dramatic events. But in this ballet, it’s not just the procession of life episodes: it’s the little things. When they meet, he carries her bags; later, as their love progresses, she falls from a ladder into his arms. Still later, they dance a delightful little pas de deux, in the rain. One wonders if Mr. Jerry saw “The Fantastics”, and its “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” segment, which I thought of as I watched that scene. Through it all, the townsfolk observe, support, and silently comment.
As George, Cameron Auble-Branigan is the boy next door, the reluctant groom, the loving husband, the excited father, and the grieving widower who moves on. He acted, and danced, each life experience and each emotional quality clearly. But the piece’s moving force was Monica Giragosian. She was a delightful, believable, extraordinarily compelling Emily.
The key to any dancer’s performance where characterization and some semblance of a story is presented is for the dancer not just to dance the steps, but to successfully communicate his or her character’s feelings emotionally to the audience; to connect. Ms. Giragosian did. In a previous performance as the “Snow Queen” in ARB Artistic Director Douglas Martin’s “The Nutcracker,” I described her as a bundle of energy, but a little flyaway. Here, she harnessed her energy sufficiently to let all facets of Emily’s character and life-changes, even in death, come through, and the necessarily more understated choreography produced a more controlled performance. Her joyous and heart-wrenching portrayal prompted both tingles and tears.
Ballet masterpieces come in many flavors. Some are found in themed works of emotional complexity; some in abstract works that move an audience simply by the quality of the movement on stage. Or sometimes they just portray a simple story perfectly. Time will tell whether Mr. Jerry’s ballet, which fits in the third category, qualifies as a masterpiece, but that’s not really important. What is important is that his “Our Town” successfully distills into movement what Mr. Wilder created in words, and in the process, not only matches the play’s impact, but enhances it. His ballet, and ARB’s performances, made the play come alive with new energy. And had the ballet been around in the Stone Age, when I went to high school, and had it been required viewing to supplement the required reading of the play, I probably would have loved “Our Town”, the play, a lot more than I did.
I understand that “Our Town,” the ballet, will be presented again in October 25, 2014 at Theater at Raritan Valley Community College. It should be seen…more than once.