Tim Cornwell: Scottish Ballet ready to turn to new page

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MARLON Brando’s gut-wrenching cry of “Stella!” in A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the biggest blasts of bare-shouldered passion in the movies.

Which is why I’m particularly keen to see how Scottish Ballet brings the best-known of all Tennessee Williams’ plays to the stage this spring, and how the raw emotions are danced rather than spoken.

Something like the skill of Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words will be called for. In that production, which came to Edinburgh in 2004, Bourne took the Dirk Bogarde film The Servant, another movie classic, and portrayed the characters of the upper-class young man and his cloying, manipulative valet using multiple, identical dancers who eerily shadowed each others’ moves.

Scottish Ballet slipped out the announcement of its April production of Streetcar quietly, before Christmas. Created by the award-winning Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that drips with Southern passion, it has its world premiere in Scotland, before touring to London and Belfast.

Scottish Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty is a reminder of just what its departing artistic director, Ashley Page, has delivered for Scotland’s national dance company. Critics called it a “richly deserved revival” of Page’s version of the Tchaikovsky classic, which premiered in 2007.

It is clever, and thoroughly watchable, from the jerky, demotically dark portrayal of the witch Scarabosse, to a comically heroic Prince, to the simpler pleasure of watching first-rate dancers doing their best turns in the final wedding scenes.

In a decade at the helm of Scottish Ballet, Page is credited to transforming it from a company on the verge of becoming an artistic laughing-stock to a top-ranking troupe with unswerving performance standards. It has been an “astonishing transformation” in the words of the critic Rupert Christiansen, not known for respecting any sacred cows on the Scottish arts scene, bringing “energy and innovation” to a formerly “tired and timid” outfit.

But oddly, the man who should be departing from Scottish Ballet in a blaze of back-slapping was a bit of a ghost at the feast for Sleeping Beauty’s revival. The company has been in an odd kind of limbo since Page’s departure was announced more than a year ago, in an episode that still hasn’t been quite explained.

Page has brought a distinctive style to his new versions of classic story ballets, including The Nutcracker and Cinderella. They have spurned Christmas family magic for darker, subversive twists in the tales, more bare torsos than tutus, sinuous and edgy rather than simply turning on the grand jetés. After ten years, it’s probably time for a change of mood again, but it’s a shame that it has been under a cloud.

Page continues to be hugely supportive of his dancers and their shows, but it has been a little difficult for the company to trumpet his achievements. He said in November 2010 he was leaving with “great sadness and regret”, turning down his board’s offer of just a one-year extension to his contract, saying he had wanted up to five more. The departure was meant to be amicable, but sounded like acrimony.

It left him with nearly two years in post, with his replacement, Christopher Hampson, taking the reins this summer. Streetcar, though Page hasn’t personally choreographed it, is the last production he has commissioned. Next Christmas, his influence will loom large again, with posters already promising his Nutcracker as next year’s big seasonal revival.

The past work of Ochoa, choreographing Streetcar, looks striking – it includes Zip Zap Zoom, named one of the top dance highlights of 2009, billed as an explosive piece set in the virtual world of video games.

Observers here believe that Hampson, who has danced and choreographed for English National Ballet, among others, will keep standards high – for all the warnings, and some carping, over the loss of Page. Challenges, and opportunities, beckon for Scottish Ballet.