American Theater Classic 'Streetcar Named Desire' Makes Great Ballet

Scottish Ballet presents ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Cal Performances May 10-12. (Photo: Andy Ross)

In an era when ballet companies struggle to bolster audiences for an art form that is considered by many to be elitist and out of touch, attempts to commission exciting new story ballets have often proven to be expensive failures. The Scottish Ballet’s riveting retelling through dance of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a rare exception.

Having met with an enthusiastic reception on an initial U.S. tour in 2015, this inventive work, created by Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, now comes to the West Coast. Bay Area audiences will be able to catch the show, presented by Cal Performances, at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley from Wednesday, May 10 through Friday, May 12.

I reviewed Streetcar for the Huffington Post when the Scots brought it to Chicago’s Harris Theater two seasons ago. Lopez Ochoa worked with stage director Nancy Meckler to fill in Blanche DuBois' backstory and chronicle the series of volatile relationships that steadily unhinged her.

Key to painting the psychological portraits of Blanche and her sister Stella was the depiction of the assorted sexual encounters that in Williams’ 1947 play take place offstage or are referred to only glancingly. Lopez Ochoa handles this with deftness and imagination – a welcome departure from the usual one-note portrayals of sex in contemporary ballet.

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Weaving popular dance styles into classical ballet, against a vivid jazz-inflected score by Peter Salem, the choreographer evokes both the glories and the seediness of New Orleans’ French Quarter, showing off the technical and dramatic virtuosity of these dancers.

Scottish Ballet in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, coming to Cal Performances May 10-12.
Scottish Ballet in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, coming to Cal Performances May 10-12. (Photo: Andy Ross)

The smallish Scottish Ballet operates on a budget of just under $8 million. Despite its lean resources, the organization appears to have cracked the challenge of creating what I like to call "sustainable ballet."

Avoiding the massive, ruinously expensive productions that many companies feel obliged to put on to bring in larger crowds, the company produces adventurous programming and reaches for wider audiences with its "digital season" – a series of short films that experiment with newer technologies like virtual reality (VR) and 360° filmmaking.

Scottish Ballet's footprint in the community further extends to two additional performance companies with distinct missions – one for elder dancers and one for students aged 15-21. These multiple platforms also give voice to a number of female choreographers, who as a group are sorely under-represented in the ballet world, but who often have different things to say than the men.

Overall, this heterogeneous approach strikes me as a smart way of deploying limited resources to build audiences while invigorating the art form.

The emphasis on imaginative storytelling, such as can be seen in stage productions like Streetcar and the organization's digital offerings, fully leverages the dramatic instincts of the dancers, both on stage and on film.

For example, the company’s collaborations with poets, photographers and other artists aim to put dance, as the company's artistic director Christopher Hampson puts it, “in the service of another art form, where dance is not necessarily the primary art.” The results are often mysterious, quirky, and uniquely beautiful.

Another scene from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
Another scene from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (Photo: Andy Ross)

Topicality is also key to the company's recipe. Hampson is interested in creating stories through dance that, as he puts it, "have a place in our time.” Streetcar, for instance, takes a hard look at patriarchy’s toll on the female psyche within the frame of a mid-20th century classic Southern tragedy.

With its moody score, its sensuous melding of classic and contemporary dance vocabularies, and its taut, minimalist design – an ingenious set constructed largely of wooden packing crates – the production packs a wallop and seems to be on track to become a classic.

'A Streetcar Named Desire' runs from Wednesday, May 10 through Friday, May 12 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Tickets and information here.

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