When the Scottish Ballet took its production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” to New Orleans in 2013, the audience reacted to Blanche DuBois in toe shoes and a dancing Stanley Kowalski with shouts of praise.
“Like they were amazed that we managed,” says choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
She shared that surprise, considering that it was her first narrative ballet. Her co-conspirator, theater director Nancy Meckler, was a rookie, too. She had directed plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company but had never worked on a ballet.
Lopez Ochoa, who is half Colombian and half Belgian, lives in Amsterdam. Meckler is an American expat who lives in London. Their collaboration began as a blind date: They were brought together in 2012 by the Scottish Ballet’s director at the time (Ashley Page, who has since left), and the two women were strangers to each other.
“It was uncharted territory in terms of how we were going to work together,” Meckler said by phone recently from her home in London. “So we spent a week going out to the theater.” The two women laughed, they talked, they bonded. And then they set to work on the ballet.
“I couldn’t have made it without her,” Lopez Ochoa said by phone from Amsterdam. She describes Meckler as “guarding the story, so that every scene told it.”
In other words, she kept out the pretty moves that didn’t move the plot forward. Every movement had to work dramatically. This is an obvious goal of a narrative ballet, of course, but it’s rare that a narrative expert — such as a director — is brought into the process of making one. The Scottish Ballet will make its Kennedy Center debut with this unusual adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play May 28-30.
Works by both women have been seen in Washington before. The Washington Ballet has performed Lopez Ochoa’s shorter works, and Meckler ran a theater company, Shared Experience, that came to the Kennedy Center in 2001 with “The Mill on the Floss.”
As a teenager growing up on Long Island, Meckler got to see George Balanchine’s works for the New York City Ballet, and that has influenced her career. Physicality pervades her theater work; she says it is “as close as you can get to dance without having dancers.”
“I love theater that explodes out of naturalism, when you express things that are usually hidden.”
“Streetcar” lends itself to ballet quite nicely, she says. “It feels as if the play was really asking for this to happen. It’s so emotional, and is such a huge story that it is almost operatic. It felt very natural.”
Fragile, haunted Blanche: You can picture her as a wispy ballerina. And Stanley — he’s an entirely physical character, especially as Marlon Brando played him in the 1951 film version of “Streetcar.”
But what about Mitch, the big galumphing poker player who falls in love with Blanche? “I had to make him dance awkwardly, and that was tough,” Lopez Ochoa says. “I’d tell him, ‘No, you have to be a doofus.’ And he was amazing at it.” They came up with clunky moves for him and costumed him in a baggy, ill-fitting suit.
The key was getting the dancers to think like actors. “Dancers express themselves through very strong gestures,” Meckler says. “We didn’t want to use those big theatrical gestures that you get in the fairytale ballets. We wanted them to be more real, and to have a very strong inner life.”
This is especially important in the few scenes with no dancing, such as in the apartment where Stanley and his wife, Stella, Blanche’s sister, live, and where Blanche comes to stay after losing the family plantation. The first time Stanley sees Blanche in his home, “he feels she’s an intruder, and she feels he’s looking down on her,” Meckler says.
She asked the dancers: “How, in the way you take your shirt off, and the way you take a drink, how can we understand that you wish she wasn’t here, because she thinks you’re common? How do we show, by the way you sit or how you ask him to put your necklace on, that you want him to like you, and to let you stay?”
Like the dancers, Lopez Ochoa was on a learning curve in her first work based on a story. “Sometimes I felt I wasn’t free to go with the inspiration of the day,” she says. “Usually, the way a dancer moves, I can just go along with it and discover things about the piece.” Yet here, the script dictated, which was sometimes frustrating, she says.
At one point, the composer, Peter Salem, took her to task after a rehearsal. “He was furious,” Lopez Ochoa says. “He said, ‘I don’t see what I composed! There’s doubt in the music, and there is no doubt here!’ I thought, ‘Wow, if the composer is mad at you, you really need to rethink the choreography.’ ”
Yet the collaboration went so well that Lopez Ochoa has asked Meckler to join her on a short work she’s making about artist Frida Kahlo for the English National Ballet. What she took away from the “Streetcar” experience is a big thing for a ballet maker to acknowledge: Less is more.
“You need some time and space” for the narrative to unfold, she says.
“We try to cram everything with movement,” says the choreographer, “but sometimes stillness and silence is where the emotions come and express themselves.”
A Streetcar Named Desire May 28-30 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $30-$108. 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.