Thursday, April 30, 2009

Culture Cat--BalletMet's "The Great Gatsby"

I've been a member-subscriber to BalletMet for four years, since I got my first job at the Statehouse. In that time frame, I have seen some truly remarkable works: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and JulietBalanchine's "Stars and Stripes" and, my favorite, Dracula

Well, I should say, my former favorite. Because BalletMet's new work, choreographed by company dancer Jimmy Orrante, is my new favorite. 

The Great Gatsby, based on the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells the story of love, betrayal and desire among the wealthy of Long Island in the 1920s. In the era of jazz and prohibition, Nick Carraway watches his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, rediscover her former lover and risk the demise of her marriage to Tom, a former polo player. It's a seminal novel in American literature, and when I saw this ballet on the schedule for this season, my interest was immediately piqued. First, it's a world premiere, a brand new ballet (how often do you get to see one of those?If you're a BalletMet fan, you get to see them often. You're lucky). Second, I was interested in the theatricality of it--how would this novel fare as a ballet? 

I am thrilled to report that the translation is flawless. In this superb ballet, all the elements of dance--brilliant choreography, innovative staging, sumptuous costumes, skilled lighting and superb dancing--come together for an evening you will not soon forget.

This cast (casts alternate) featured many of the company's first-year members, a decision I found intriguing but ultimately pitch-perfect. Gabriel Smith danced superbly as Gatsby, especially in his Act II pas des deux with Daisy (danced gloriously by Christine Mangia, who is from my hometown). Their love, so tender and passionate, is thwarted by Tom Buchanan's(Jeffrey Diehl) indictment of Gatsby in the murder of Tom's lover, Mrytle (Olivia Clark).

Both Diehl and Smith dance wonderfully, and their character work is flawless. Both create multi-dimensional characters who are vastly different but also, surprisingly, similar, as seen in Act I, Scene II, which shows both men (with their butlers) getting ready for the day. The choreography for both is almost identical. Adam Hundt (one of my favorite company dancers) performs beautifully as our narrator and West/East Egg outsider, Nick Carraway. Orrante often has him standing just outside a scrim, watching the dancers, and, in one brilliant scene, has him standing over Gatsby's corpse, looking down at his friend. He slowly walks to his side, picks up the handkerchief that Gatsby had given Daisy so long ago, folds it, and places it on Gatsby's chest. It's beautifully done.  Nick's love interest is Jordan Baker (danced with great exuberance by Adrienne Benz), a professional golfer and Daisy's friend. As the ballet progresses, the two of them watch as Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby's affairs reach a boiling point in Act II, Scene IV. In a New York hotel room, Daisy tells Tom that she has never been in love with him, and flees. Gatsby is calm and collected, whereas Tom's dancing is erratic, his barrel turns demonstrating the rage he feels against the upstart Gatsby. 

Another pair of key players in the drama are the Wilsons, Myrtle (Olivia Clark) and George (danced by Bryan Jenkins). George is clearly smitten with his pretty wife, but she is less than satisfied with the kind of life he can provide as a mechanic. Tom sweeps her off her feet with her own apartment and other gifts (including an adorable dog). Myrtle can't hide the giddy love she feels for Tom, even after he slaps her at a party. Clark played that particular scene beautifully, her hand cupping her nose and her fury evident as she flees the room. As George, Jenkins creates an arc ranging from puppy love for his wife to incoherent sorrow and rage at her death. When he arrives outside Gatsby's mansion with a revolver, we have no doubt he will use it. 

It's not only the dancing that keeps you entranced; it's also the production itself. The scenery, borrowed from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, is pitch-perfect, and the lighting, designed by Dennis Dugan, is amazing. In Act II, Scene II, Dugan uses individual spotlights to highlight the dancers, who dance in and out of them as their increasingly complex relationships are explained. Rebecca Baygents Turks' costumes, executed by the BalletMet costume shop, are evocative of the era without being too constricting to the dancers (how the men danced, full out, in white tie and tails is beyond me. In the theater, the men are hot after one show in those. I can't imagine dancing in them). In particular, Daisy's costumes are lovely. 

The corps, as usual for BalletMet, was technically and artistically wonderful. Their biggest roles were in the party scenes, where Orrante had them do a combination of jazz, charleston, and swing, all while keeping huge smiles on their faces. That cannot be easy, and they all did a wonderful job. 

The run ends on Sunday. If you haven't seen it, get to the theater! It is an experience you won't soon forget. 

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