Translating plays, books and poems into ballets can be tricky. Complex motivations or plot machinations reduced to movement often seem trivial. Probably for this reason, most 20th-century choreographers, especially in this country, have avoided literary works in favor of "pure movement" dances.
John Neumeier, an American who works in Europe (he currently directs the Hamburg Ballet), often choreographs from literary sources and just as often is kicked for it. It was touchingly brave of the Stuttgart Ballet to include his 1983 full-evening ballet "A Streetcar Named Desire," which received its Washington premiere last night at the Opera House, in its repertory. It shows a commitment to Neumeier, who has frequently worked with the company, as well as to a form of ballet that runs squarely against trends here.
Tennessee Williams' play works on a visceral as well as a literary level; its theme of dubious reality should be danceable. There are sections, particularly in Part I of Neumeier's ambitious attempt at this translation, that successfully use Williams' movement clues, while others miss his points. Ultimately this "Streetcar" gets derailed somewhere between Desire and the Elysian Fields.
Neumeier's "Streetcar" could be subtitled "Nympho Gets Hers." The tragedy of Blanche's dream world is stated as a theme, but dropped somewhere during the variations. Blanche, for example, taunts Stanley sexually from their first meeting, rather than exasperating him with her continual airs. There's a lot of sex in this "Streetcar," but it's dry, not steamy.
The ballet begins promisingly, with Blanche already in the asylum, and gets to the heart of things right off by showing her ambivalent relations with men. The action takes place in flashbacks and flash forwards, successfully creating the confused, kaleidoscopic world of a deranged mind. In Part I, choreographed to Prokofiev's "Visions Fugitives," in which Blanche remembers her days at Belle Reve, the colors are pastel, the temperature cool. The costumes, designed by Neumeier, are lovely, particularly the soft, fluttery dresses for Blanche.
In this section, some of Neumeier's dramatic ideas are striking. Stella races out, suitcase in hand, away from decay and toward life. Blanche stays behind, caught by dead and dying relatives who, clothed in heavy black, crawl toward her, clutching her dress. Other ideas are less fortunate. The relatives die by kicking over chairs and falling to the floor. Blanche's young husband, who is supposed to commit suicide but here merely falls down to the sound of an offstage gun, dies several times. The corps, eyes blackened, faces deadened with white paint, look like grotesque mannequins, and have (purposefully) little to do.
Part II moves the action to New Orleans, and Neumeier's frantic, jumpy movements for the corps capture the nervousness of that city while missing its sultry pulse. The dancers shimmy and shake a lot, but there's no rawness here, no heat. Stanley is transformed into a boxer to show his masculinity, an unnecessary conceit. Plot gets buried by symbol, atmosphere confused by music (Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 1, a collage-like work here played on tape, tinny and distant). When march rhythms are struck, the corps turns into an army, and New Orleans looks like Berlin between the wars.
The work is choreographed in the style of the New German Expressionism. People writhe in agony a lot, but it's depersonalized, unspecified writhing. There's lots of walking and gesture. It seems to be a style with which the new generation of Stuttgart dancers feels comfortable. There was a sense of commitment to "Streetcar" that the opening night's "Onegin" lacked.
Neumeier draws brilliant performances from his soloists. Marcia Hayde'e's Blanche is truly tragic, pathetic while still retaining dignity. Lisi Grether dances Stella as a '40s pin-up girl, lusty and ripe. The ballet is worth seeing for these two performances alone.
The men have less to work with. The choreography for Stanley is distastefully apelike, but Richard Cragun copes manfully. Vladimir Klos' Mitch is sweet and believably decent; Tamas Detrich made the luckless young husband sympathetic; Stephen Greenston, Christian Fallanga and Randy Diamond, as the Men in Blanche's past and future, were strongly characterized.
Sometimes Neumeier's ballets are more fun to talk about than to watch, and that's true of large chunks of "Streetcar." When Hayde'e is on stage, frantically fluttering, a moth that flees the light, the ballet works as theater. When the corps stalks or twitches, or the other characters bend double to express their innermost feelings, or Stanley and Stella make love while standing on their heads, it doesn't.