Dance: Scottish Ballet gears up for A Streetcar Named Desire

A still from 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' directed by Elia Kazan. Picture: Getty
A still from 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' directed by Elia Kazan. Picture: Getty
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IT’S FRIDAY morning at Scottish Ballet and for once, Eve Mutso is not looking in the mirror. I say this not because the beautiful Estonian ballet dancer is vain, far from it. But like all dancers, the long reflective studio wall is usually her best friend, ensuring the perfect body alignment audiences eventually see on stage.

Today, Mutso is forgoing the mirror, and even the video playback her fellow dancers will rely on to correct mistakes. Instead, she’s looking inwards, digging deep for the fragility and sensitivity required for her part in Scottish Ballet’s new production, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Tennessee Williams would be proud. Mutso may not be delivering any of the lines the American playwright crafted in 1947, but she has given his legendary character, Blanche DuBois a whole new language – dance. Even without the benefit of costumes, lighting or set, Mutso’s incredible performance in rehearsal has me in tears – and I’m not the only one.

Taking a break after a tough morning’s rehearsal, including the rape scene with Blanche’s brother-in-law Stanley, Mutso talks to me about this once-in–a-lifetime role.

“It is hard,” she says in her soft Estonian accent. “Because it’s quite draining to take yourself to those places. Yesterday I went home after rehearsals, and in the middle of the evening I just started crying. I was trying to hold it all together, but sometimes you need to release the tension.”

Getting to the heart of Blanche DuBois, a Southern belle who falls on hard times, then falls even further when she visits her sister and brutish husband in New Orleans, has been crucial for Mutso. Which is why the mirror has taken a back seat.

“It’s so hard not to look into the mirror, because it’s such a natural reaction, to check my position,” she says. “But early on in rehearsals I was told ‘as soon as you look into the mirror, we lose you’, so I had to let go of that. And I decided not to watch the rape scene on video, because being a dancer I’ll analyse it and try to make myself look aesthetically nicer. But I don’t think that’s necessary, it’s about what the character really feels inside – I shouldn’t care what I look like.”

Mutso read and re-read Williams’ play and watched the Marlon Brando/Vivian Leigh film several times over before rehearsals started. Once the creative process was underway, however, she was determined to put her own stamp on the role.

“I tried to find my own way of bringing Blanche to life, because I don’t want to do it like other people,” she says. “Of course, I don’t have words, and the set will be quite different from the film, so this is my version of Blanche.”

Mutso also benefitted from working with the show’s creative team – choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and director Nancy Meckler. Ochoa and Meckler had never met before Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Ashley Page, brought them together for this show. Clearly Page has a future in matchmaking when he leaves the company this August, because the two women have carved something very special from Williams’ play.

“Nancy makes sure we know what our character’s wants and needs are, then Annabel creates the steps around it,” explains Mutso. “It builds layer by layer, so when the scene comes together there’s some serious work done in every aspect.”

In Williams’ play, the tragic past of Blanche DuBois is revealed slowly as the drama unfolds. Ochoa and Meckler have taken a different approach, creating an entire backstory in the first act to explain her moth-like fragility. Blanche’s family home, her young husband’s suicide and her subsequent slide into promiscuity are all played out before she visits her sister Stella in New Orleans.

“There’s no past tense in movement,” says Ochoa, “there is no vocabulary where you can say ‘and that was ten years ago’ as they do in the play. Blanche is such a complex character that we need to understand why she is the way she is. She’s been wounded from an early age, and Nancy and I thought it was important for the audience to understand where she’s coming from.”

With just four central roles in the play, Ochoa and Meckler had to think outside the box to bring in an entire company of dancers. Blanche’s sensitivity pitched against Stanley’s masculinity, with Stella in the middle, turned the story into a bit of a battleground. While Williams’ original intention to call his play The Moth, has led to an interesting motif that runs throughout the ballet.

“We tried to think about the story in terms of archetypes and themes, and less in terms of trying to put the play on stage,” explains Meckler. “Because it has to have meaning for people who haven’t read it or seen it. So we were inspired by the play to make a piece of dance, not trying to find a way to dance the play. Once you free yourself in that way, it opens up lots of possibilities.”

As with all Scottish Ballet productions, the show will have three casts, to allow for injuries and the stresses of touring. So three dancers, Mutso, Claire Robertson and Luciana Ravizzi will all take on the role of Blanche at some point.

But the role was created on Mutso, her first major character after dancing with Scottish Ballet for almost ten years. For her it was a case of “good things come to those who wait”. For Ochoa and Meckler, Mutso has been a dream to work with.

“Eve brings a huge amount to the part, and thinks very deeply about it,” says Meckler. “She’s always quoting things from the play to me, and has really analysed it. She’s very special in that way.”

• Scottish Ballet: A Streetcar Named Desire, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 11-14 April; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 18-21 April; and then on tour