Is there any eternal resting site more beautifully damned than that of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, unceremoniously interred at St. Mary’s Catholic Church along Rockville Pike?
It’s a harsh contrast to their rollicking Jazz Age lifestyle, chronicled by Fitzgerald in his novels. Those books also capture the era’s desperation — especially his 1925 classic “The Great Gatsby,” a story of greed, excess and broken American dreams that continues to resonate today.
In 2010, the Washington Ballet’s adaptation of “Gatsby” by artistic director Septime Webre became the most popular ballet ever staged by the company outside of “The Nutcracker.” The troupe will reprise the production through Sunday to kick off its 2011-12 season.
“Although the language is poetic, the story is very muscular,” says Webre. “The energetic chaos of New York in the ’20s is distilled in the book, and that energy packs a wallop onstage.”
To translate “Gatsby” into choreography, Webre looked to the music of the era, which he notes is “eminently danceable.” Boston-based jazz artist Billy Novick penned the production’s original songs, which complement standards by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
Short monologues keep the narrative moving and allow the characters to develop. But the personas really emerge through their respective dance styles. “Gatsby is introspective and robust, Daisy is this effervescent socialite.” Webre explains. “These characters suggest movement and sculptural shapes with their bodies. The images we have of the era are very ‘dancy’ images. I wanted to show that.”
Emily Ellis, who plays Daisy Buchanan, the ingenue with a hold on Gatsby’s heart, says preparing for the role was daunting. “I reread the book and I watched the movie, but the hardest thing is getting the style correct,” she says. She looked to classic screen sirens such as Grace Kelly as models of polished femininity. That cinematic inspiration shows in Ellis’ movements, which are exaggerated yet graceful.
The production’s lead dancers execute highly physical jumps and turns to parallel the emotional ups and downs of the plot. But can a pirouette express the roiling conflict of Fitzgerald’s characters or the novel’s layered themes?
“You have to clasp this complicated story into a coherent two-hour experience,” he says. That meant distilling down scenes and combining supporting roles. “Side plots don’t work in dance,” he says. “We’re better with big, emotional themes.”
Webre says that “Gatsby” was a natural choice to lead the company’s 2011-12 season, which includes its traditional “Nutcracker,” a tribute to famed dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, and what Webre calls a “wild” staging of “Alice in Wonderland.”
“‘Gatsby’ is an amazing story that’s pertinent today,” Webre says. “The ’20s were a wild party, and we know how they ended.”
In 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 44, died of a heart attack in Hollywood. So why is he buried in Rockville? Fitzgerald had relatives in MoCo, and the family plot was at St. Mary’s Cemetery. But since Fitzgerald was not a practicing Catholic, he was denied a spot there and buried instead at Rockville Union Cemetery. (Zelda joined him eight years later, after she died in a fire at a mental hospital in North Carolina.) It wasn’t until 1975 that their daughter, Frances, petitioned to have the couple moved to St. Mary’s with the rest of the clan. His epitaph is from “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
In case your high-school recall of “The Great Gatsby” is dim, we provide a cheat sheet: Set in Long Island during Prohibition, “Gatsby” is a story of greed and longing told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a Yale grad who moves to New York City to learn the bond business. Nick rents a house next door to the wealthy, mysterious Jay Gatsby, who throws elaborate parties every weekend. Gatsby is in love with Nick’s cousin Daisy, who’s married to rich, boorish Tom Buchanan. Tom’s having an affair with a working-class broad named Myrtle. An elaborate love rectangle ensues. People die. And so, too, does Nick’s faith in the American dream.Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Thu. & Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1:30 & 6:30 p.m., $20-$135; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom)