Scottish Ballet tackle A Streetcar Named Desire
Behind the scenes at new ballet based on Tennessee Williams play
How on earth do you make a ballet out of a Tennessee Williams play? Kirstin Innes goes backstage at Scottish Ballet’s new production of A Streetcar Named Desire to find out
Stanley Kowalski eases his muscles in around the thin body of the woman who will become his wife. Flirting with her, he pulls her handbag from her lap, wears it on one casually extended foot, a powerful, teasing predator. Behind her eyes, a light switches on, and she rises to his lure, shakes off her prim posture and picks up his movements with the rhythm of her hips, a conscious and willing sexual submission. Around them, New Orleans bustles with gossips drinking gin, gamblers, sailors on leave, and the jazz on the score goes somewhere charged and carnal.
It’s not, directly, a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, but the characters of Stanley and Stella and their primal physical chemistry are instantly recognisable to anyone even vaguely familiar with the play (or the famous 1951 movie, starring Marlon Brando). And it’s all done without a syllable of conversation. Adapting one of Williams’ notoriously talky texts into a wordless medium, as Scottish Ballet are doing with their brand new, soon-to-premiere version of Streetcar, might seem counter-intuitive, if not an impossible task. However, one of Williams’ greatest talents was always giving life to fully 3D characters. In the corner of the rehearsal room, a token string of pearls around Eve Mutso’s neck are not the only thing marking her out immediately as the dancer creating the role of the definitive ‘fading Southern belle’, Blanche DuBois. She’s en pointe, practising delicate, fluttering movements with her shoulders, the turn of her head. These characters have always existed in the physical; this is a logical step.
‘Tennessee Williams almost called the play The Moth, says Nancy Meckler, Streetcar’s director and co-creator. ‘That idea of Blanche, how vulnerable she is, drawn to bright things that will harm her. It’s a very visual image; we’ve gone back to in the ballet.’
It was actually Meckler herself, who comes to Scottish Ballet from recent stints at the RSC, Broadway and the National Theatre of England, with whom the production started.
‘Ashley [Page, Scottish Ballet’s artistic director] had seen a very physical, movement-based adaptation of [George Eliot’s novel] The Mill on the Floss, which I did with my company Shared Experience, and thought it would be interesting to have a theatre director work on a ballet.’
Although her work is well known for its physical elements, Meckler has never directed a ballet before, so she was paired up with choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
‘When we met, I came with a few suggestions for ideas we could work on,’ says Meckler. ‘One of them was Streetcar, and Annabelle went and watched the film, got crazy about the characters, and came back saying that we had to make a ballet from them.’
The New Orleans street scene I’ve watched Scottish Ballet principals Tama Barry (as Stanley) and Sophie Martin (Stella) rehearse today is one of a number created especially for the production.
‘We spent a whole week together just going through the story, scene by scene, trying to work out how to tell each part visually. We didn’t want to be slavish to the story because then it would just look like we were missing the words. Early in the text, Stella and Blanche have a long conversation about Stanley where Stella says how much she loves him, how their poverty doesn’t matter – complex ideas that you can’t necessarily get across in ballet. It’s also mentioned that Stanley is at the bowling alley, and we realised that if we went to the bowling alley, we could see this Stanley Kowalski, close up. We could see that he’s king-of-the-walk, can be violent when things don’t go his way; also, Blanche can watch how close her sister is with her husband, and feel excluded. It’s all a much more physical way of meeting Stanley than having two women sitting around a kitchen table talking about him. I went back to the film and realised they’ve done the same thing there; it must be the obvious way to open up the action.’
What Meckler has done is an act of translation; the conversion of the characters’ rich, often sordid backstories into action is only a small part of that.
‘Finally, this is a ballet of Streetcar, but it’s not a ballet of the play. The play has inspired us to make a ballet.’
A Streetcar Named Desire, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wed 11–Sat 14 April; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 18–Sat 21 April.