wed 19/09/2018

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Ballet, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Ballet, Sadler's Wells

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Ballet, Sadler's Wells

Contemporary narrative ballet at its very best

Like a moth to a flame: Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois with Andrew Peasgood in Nancy Meckler and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s 'A Streetcar Named Desire'© Andy Ross

Your mum told you (or at least, I hope someone did) that it wasn't about being pretty, it was about having personality. True wisdom though this is, you probably also noticed that there are some jobs where it appears to be necessary to conform to a certain model of style or appearance. Playing the princess roles in ballet is one of these, though it's not about prettiness: for practical reasons you have to be shorter and considerably lighter than the men who will partner you. Tall ballerinas do become principals, but, especially in smaller companies, they don't often get to dance the Auroras and Odette/Odiles, the big female roles that carry a ballet and get all the glory; instead they get secondary, albeit powerful, roles as mothers, queens or witches.

Eve Mutso has played all of these at Scottish Ballet, and usually steals the show with her langorous grace; she has the knack of filling out every millisecond of the music, as if she's moving through an element thicker than air, and of seeming to complete each movement with a flourish. If she were a typeface, she'd be something like Georgia: serifed and classically shaped, but bolder and more space-filling than conventional dainties like Times New Roman. She was never going to dance the little girl Clara in The Nutcracker, but when the company decided to do a new version of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire in 2012 she was a stellar choice for Blanche – a complicated adult woman who is neither princess nor mother nor witch – and her performance is one of the highlights of this extremely good production, which this week returns to Sadler's Wells for a sell-out run.

Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois in Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named DesireChoreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and theatre director Nancy Meckler worked very closely on the production, which consequently feels tightly-plotted and taut with drama, the dance and the story always progressing in unison. Staples of balletic structure, like the scene where everyone gets to dance at once, or having a handful of supporting dancers onstage during the principals' big scenes, are present but skilfully integrated. The more or less omnipresent corps de ballet seem to hover between being other people in the real world and ghosts in Blanche's mental world, a sign of how alone she is even in company. The big dance party takes place at a bowling alley where we get to see the youthful, modern world, seething with bravado bordering on aggression, that Stanley inhabits and in which fading Southern belle Blanche (Mutso, pictured above right) is obviously out of place, a pale night moth amid the gaudy butterfly gals in their 50s floral dresses.

Lopez Ochoa is a choreographer of impressive stylistic range, supplying fluttery balletic waltzes for Blanche's youth in the dying world of the Old South, Robbins-style jazzy flair for the men of New Orleans, intensely sensual near-naked pas de deux for Stanley and Stella, and a rather European expressionist sequence at the end for the elegant black-clad figures purveying "flores para los muertos". The dance and Niki Turner's designs interact brilliantly; the constant on-stage remaking and shifting by the dancers of the clever set made entirely of crates seems entirely natural. Having had this piece in their repertory for some years now, the company (pictured below) are obviously comfortable in it, manipulating the props with beguiling confidence. I was particularly struck by a moment when a large suitcase is hurled across the floor at Mutso and stopped dead by the point of her shoe with perfect timing.

Eve Mutso and artists of Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire

The music too, a jazzy, melodic, atmospheric original score by Peter Salem, serves story and dance well with its raspingly muted trumpets, purring saxophones and anxious, mournful strings to evoke emotions, and all kinds of effects to fill Blanche's world with sounds – from the percussion cork-popping and piano-tinkle fizzing of champagne at her wedding to the rumbling of trains, pounding of hearts, and jukebox poignancy of Ella Fitzgerald singing "It's only a Paper Moon".

The show does lose momentum in the second half, when the focus narrows in on the deteriorating triangular relationship between Blanche, Stanley and Stella, but that's partly in contrast to the pacy, narrative-packed first half, which is so gripping that I (having arrived a few minutes late) was standing at the back of a packed theatre for about 40 minutes before I could spare enough attention from the stage to realise I still had my coat on and was roasting. It's in portraying the tense central triangle that ballet's limitations as a medium are more apparent; words would help to add nuance to the feelings which can only be mimed. My one small criticism of Mutso centres on this same point: while she's fabulous at conveying sensations – when she swigs from a hip flask you feel the cheap liquor trickling and burning past your heart; when she steps into a bath, you feel the shocking wetness of hot water on bare flesh – her acting of Blanche's emotions relies on a slightly repetitive repertory of tensely raised shoulders.

Quenby Hersh and Eve Mutso in A Streetcar Named DesireErik Cavallari seems like a nice chap who doesn't quite have the intensity to be a really terrifying Stanley (he was B-cast in the show's first run), though he is far better in this sort of character role than the classical princes he often plays. Quick, lithe Sophie Martin is a fantastic Stella, obviously torn between her sister and her man, and impressively fast in the athletic pas de deux Lopez Ochoa has given her. The rest of the cast have too little time in named roles to make much impression individually (though Quenby Hersh, pictured left with Mutso, shines as Young Blanche, surely a potential candidate for the main role one of these days), but they shine as an ensemble; there's no doubt that they're all putting their heart and soul into performing.

There's plenty more I could rave about, but I'll stop there: this a brilliant example of the contemporary narrative ballet – for my money far preferable to the rather insipid Northern Ballet Great Gatsby which was at Sadler's last week – and I'd like to see more by every member of its creative team.

  • A Streetcar Named Desire is at Sadler's Wells until Thursday 2 April. It embarks on a six-city tour of the USA in May.

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