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Scottish Ballet tell the story of A Streetcar Named Desire

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  • by Lindsey Johnstone
 

Take an exclusive first look at the making of Scottish Ballet’s forthcoming A Streetcar Named Desire, in video interviews with the production’s director, choreographer and prinicipal dancers.

To many, Stanley Kowalski’s anguished cry of his wife Stella’s name is what comes to mind when they think of A Streetcar Named Desire. Scottish Ballet, however, has taken on the challenge of adapting Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play without the use of his words.

Set in New Orleans, the play tells of the clash of values of the Old South and those of the new urban working class, encapsulated in the destruction of damaged and delusional fading southern belle Blanche Du Bois by the primal and frustrated Stanley, and is no stranger to adaptation. Elia Kazan’s 1951 film starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, for which Leigh won the Best Actress Oscar, is the most iconic, but there have also been a 1995 operatic version, by André Previn; two television versions in 1984 and 1995; and ballet productions in 1952 and 1983.

Scottish ballet principal Tama Barry, who will be dancing the role of Stanley, said of the challenge of interpreting the character with movement alone: “The difficulty for me is that Stanley is a complex character. With the text, it’s easier to lighten him and provide depth and different dimensions, and show his banterous side.

“With movement this is harder. But without that element of sympathy for the character from the audience, he would just become a straightforward baddie, and then the story doesn’t work.”

“It’s such an iconic role, and particularly Brando’s version of it. The last thing you want to do is a pale imitation of that. I’m quite lucky in that respect, as our version being all movement puts distance between what he did and what I’m doing.”

The production is also devoid of ballet mime, the use of specific gestures used in classical ballet to communicate certain words and themes. Barry says of this decision: “It was very important to [director] Nancy [Meckler] that we didn’t look as if we needed to talk, as if we were trying to use words but not being allowed. It is all told through movement. We stepped away from classical ballet ideals completely.” Scottish Ballet’s renowned lavish production values are also absent, with the sets pared back and the costumes basic, bringing the focus entirely on to the story.

Director and co-creator of the production Nancy Meckler came to Scottish Ballet from a theatre background that has included work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of England, at the request of Artistic Director Ashley Page, who had noted her propensity and ability for work with movement.

Of the challenges in working in the new medium of dance, she said: “For me, it was understanding when was the right time for my input, and when the dancers had to just concentrate on their steps. The ‘when’ was the challenge; the ‘how’ is not that different. Dancers are human beings and they’re used to playing roles. The challenge was learning and understanding the process that a dancer, and a dance company, goes through.”

For Meckler, adapting the text was less of a challenge than one might have thought. She said “Tennessee Williams was such a poetic writer. That lends itself hugely to physical expression. For example, we learned that he was initially going to call the play The Moth, to reflect the idea of Blanche as a delicate creature that is attracted to flame, representing desire, but knows it will be her undoing. We have used that imagery in our opening scene, which is of a young girl dancing below a light bulb, as though reaching for the flame; beautiful, but self-destructive.”

For choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, the challenge was to use movement alone to portray the strong, and very different, characters of the play, who, she points out “are not fairytale characters”.

The perfect illustration of this character representation through movement is Lopez Ochoa’s decision to have the character of Blanche be the only dancer en pointe, reflecting her studied and affected stance of setting herself apart from the other characters, as a means of clinging to her pretensions of refinement and using her poise as an illusion that only thinly veils her torment and alcoholism from both herself and others.

Lopez Ochoa said: “For the other characters in New Orleans the style is very jazz, very rough and grounded. Blanche’s being en pointe makes the difference between her and her surroundings very clear. Her movements are also very different when she is around people, when it’s all very elegant and precise, to when she is alone.

“The character of Stanley is very frustrated; he will always be working class, and will never be recognised as anything else or rise above it, even if he does have the intellect to do so. He is angry, but also very smug and cocky. But we realised that if he moved too much he looked too happy. So we kept his character very theatrical. Tama Barry is very good at playing passive-aggressive. He just walks on stage and you know his character.

“With the character of Stella, it’s all about round movements, with the hips, as though moving into water, and very natural, as she is the only character who is not plotting and manipulating.”

Another challenge for Lopez Ochoa was movement’s lack of ability to denote past tense, in a story in which so much of the characters’ past, particularly Blanche’s, is not revealed till the end of the play. For the creative team, this meant working through the script to put the events in chronological order. Lopez Ochoa said: “You need to see why someone is in the state they are in; you need to know what has happened to them to understand their character.

“Our main focus was that someone could know and understand the story from the ballet if they haven’t read the play or seen the movie. This is the story of a girl who doesn’t fit, and everything is there to tell that story.”

The UK tour of Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire begins 11 April in Glasgow, travelling to Edinburgh, London, Aberdeen, Inverness and Belfast.

For booking and more details go to

Scottish Ballet

Scottish Ballet will be broadcasting a live panel discussion webcast on Thursday 29 April at 7pm, in which Nancy Meckler, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Ashley Page and dancers Tama Barry (Stanley) and Eve Mutso (Blanche) will discuss the creation of A Streetcar Named Desire and take questions from the online audience. For full details and how to send your questions go to Scottish Ballet.

 

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