From the Spring 2015 Issue of Clef Notes Journal
Scottish Ballet, of Glasgow, will bring its bold creation, A Streetcar Named Desire, as part of a larger North American tour to Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park this spring. By May, when audiences have grown tired of the Chicago winter and crave a lively and colorful introduction to springtime, award winning Streetcar definitely fits the bill. While the work does, indeed, deal with some difficult issues like mental health and domestic violence, this fresh take on presenting the classic Tennessee Williams play will liven theater-goers’ perception on the story. Artistic director Christopher Hampson explains that Scottish Ballet is no stranger to bold choices and new ways of working, keeping each new work exciting and interesting from start to finish. Streetcar enjoyed its United States premiere in New Orleans in 2013 and Hampson is excited to share it with broader audiences during this 2015 U.S. tour. As an added bonus, well-versed Chicago dance fans will recognize choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa from her work with previously beloved Chicago company Luna Negra.
Hampson was appointed as Scottish Ballet’s leader in August 2012 and shared with me that his tenure began after the initial stages of Streetcar. Though he was not the individual to actually commission the project, his ties with the American South have contributed to an admitted pleasure in bringing the work to fruition. During his time in rehearsal for the new commission, he drew from his experience creating Ballet Black, an original ballet on an acclaimed British company that shares Streetcar’s setting in the southern U.S. territory.
In addition to teaching as a guest teacher at Atlanta Ballet, Hampson has also spent some time in Storyville, New Orleans researching the area and the culture. As he puts it, “It’s truly a special place and such wonderfully colorful characters are all around you.” In carrying the excitement and color of these “characters” into Streetcar, Hampson explains that this particular work characterizes the company quite well. The story deals with risky subject matter and brings a large group of artists to collaborate, something he says Scottish Ballet is certainly proud of.
A Streetcar Named Desire features the work of acclaimed theater director, Nancy Meckler with emerging choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, as well as an original score by Peter Salem and a stylized set by designer Niki Turner.
The team faced challenges they had not previously encountered in converting an iconic play into potentially the very first rendition of the story as a ballet. In their “making of” video the company produced for its Website, Meckler explains the challenge she felt in creating a production and explaining a story without the use of words. In rising to this challenge, the dancers and Meckler began first by researching and understanding the characters within the story. This initial approach—a technique usually employed more by actors than by dancers—helped the team to develop a strong sense of character very early on. Meckler also explains that to her, the challenge was very exciting, as she worked in collaboration with Turner to find and create brand new images that would insinuate the story without relying on words and heavy lines to express the complex tangle of ideas within the show. In employing this technique of characterizing without dance steps first, dancers faced the challenges of finding ways to express concepts without their main form of expression: movement. And so Meckler was as challenged by the lack of her own customary tool: words, as the dancers were by the lack of theirs
Since this process began for the company in 2012, they have also worked closely with choreographer Matthew Bourne on another piece, Highland Fling, in a similar fashion, approaching the work from an actor’s perspective. The method has had the serendipitous results of creating a more multi-dimensional collective of dancers—dancers who are finding themselves even more desirable to work with for many choreographers.
Curiously enough, playwright Tennessee Williams originally intended to call his classic work The Moth. Upon learning this, Meckler and Lopez Ochoa began to play on Williams’ interest in the delicate creature that is so drawn to light and flame. As “the moth,” (the main character, Blanche) possesses many qualities that can transform into powerful movement and images within the construct of the ballet. As written in the play, Blanche has an indelible attraction to bright light or “desire,” but she also knows that it can damage her if she gets too close. As her character struggles with her pulling desire, we watch it bring her to her demise.
To aid in emphasizing Blanche’s delicate nature, the artistic team worked with Turner to create a rough, industrial-looking set with bare bulbs hanging from steel pipe structures and grey and black boxes placed creatively to mimic any and all set pieces. In making this choice, the team created a cold and stark environment, but also one that allowed for endless imagination with the insinuation—and not the articulation—of objects that would otherwise be present on the set of a live stage play.
In many new artistic processes, the room for creativity can be explored as a storyline evolves and creates itself. Understanding that the team was tied to the already existing (and well known) Streetcar plot, Meckler explains that while “working around the issues of how to tell the story through movement, the play actually lent itself to the process and allowed for a lot of room to play within the confines of plot points.” In opening it up to make it into a ballet, small changes in the way the team chose to interpret certain elements were flexible, allowing the choreography to tell the story in a new light.
Hampson says of the novel approach to the choreographic process, “To be honest, almost nothing surprises us anymore. We’ve worked in so many different styles.” To be sure, the “jump-in and create this work spirit” of Streetcar’s team has made Hampson’s bold statement come to life quite organically.
As for the notion of bringing the new work to Chicago, Hampson notes a palpable excitement about revisiting a city he’s known for such “fantastic architecture and wonderful art.”
There’s no doubt that the bold, new approach to a treasured theater classic will leave that art richer still.
Scottish Ballet will bring A Street Car Named Desire to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park May 7 through 9.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Eve Mutso as Blanche with the Scottish Ballet (photo courtesy of Scottish Ballet).