Rosemary Ganley The Peterborough Examiner March 17, 2022
A Streetcar Named Desire Becomes a New Dance Experience
I have always been canny enough to find some friends who are smarter and more sensitive to artistic expression than me. I want to learn from their appreciation of great art, music, drama and fiction. That is, to learn the heritage left to us by the best of humanity.
I’ve always found such people, in both big cities and small towns. This month, two such friends, he a scientist tremendously well-read, she, an English major who paints and writes poetry, took me to Toronto for a cultural experience of ballet. It was a coming-out from the long COVID imprisonment, and a welcome respite, to be able to flee for a few hours the suffering wrought on the Ukrainian people by a satanic madman.
It was ballet, the art form I know least about, not counting Wagner’s operas. The graceful art, without words, by which, through music and movement, the human body expresses all possible emotions and situations. Perhaps it is this very absence of words that makes it the best salve for wounded spirits. It was St Francis who reportedly said to his disciples, “In all things, testify, and on a few occasions, use words.”
My generous friends had booked tickets last fall as subscribers to the National Ballet of Canada. This performance was historic: it was the return in-person to the stage of a troupe of performers who had spent pandemic lockdown at home practicing on barres that the company had installed. It was also the farewell tour, just five days in length, of Principal Dancer Sonia Rodriguez after a 32- year career with the National Ballet. She has 18- and 14-year-old sons. Her astonishing lithe technique, tremendous stamina and openness in communicating emotion have endured through many years and many roles. It’s enough to make me scurry to the Y.
To present such beauty to sad and tired Canadians, as this company has done, can only be described as a gift.
Yet the narrative is anything but cheery. Choreographer John Neumeier, who lives and works in Hamburg, Germany and is a favorite of the National Ballet, turned to the tragic play “A Streetcar Named Desire” by American playwright Tennessee Williams, as his story.
In it, set in steamy-hot New Orleans, post-Second World War, a southern belle Blanche duBois, who has fallen on hard financial times and is surviving on the streets, comes to live with her sister Stella and her brutish, working-class husband, Stanley Kowalski in Mississippi. This man, played by Marlon Brando in the movie version, is a suspicious and cruel chauvinist, who ultimately assaults the fragile Blanche, driving her to madness.
The script includes suicide, rape and violence. Yet it is rendered watchable through art. My friend told me that artistic companies now employ “intimacy consultants” who work to prevent exploitation of dancers and actors, even in such scenes. Through dance, sexuality is portrayed as a potent life force.
Neumeier knows that playwriting and dance are different art forms and he is free to make changes in his. For example, he opens the ballet with the distraught Blanche sitting on a bed looking out blankly as the audience. She is now a resident of a mental institution to which her sister has committed her. For Tennessee Williams, that was the conclusion of the play. The principal dancers of the company are extraordinarily talented. Guillaume Cote as Stanley is always threatening, a kind of sociopath. The corps de ballet includes young dancers from South Africa, the U.S., the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, the National Ballet School itself, Poland, Australia and Japan.
How relevant is this story of violence against women, in the age of MeToo? Now in its 70th year, the National Ballet is committed to works by Indigenous creators, such as Tribal Vision Dance and Red Sky Performance.
On the way out, I got an autographed copy of “T is for Tutu” a children’s book by Sonia Rodriguez and Kurt Browning, which has since educated this reader even more.
"Gleanings" is Rosemary Ganley's new book. You can purchase directly from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or from >Amazon<