Most of us read A Streetcar Named Desire in high school or remember the riveting 1951 film with Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, and Kim Hunter. But how do you translate the beautiful narrative and passionate emotions (“hey, Stella!!!”) of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play into a ballet—where no words are uttered?
Scottish Ballet has figured it out, with a critically acclaimed production arriving at the Music Center this weekend directed by Nancy Meckler and featuring the choreography of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The internationally renowned choreographer has created works for more than 40 dance companies worldwide. Here we spoke with Lopez Ochoa to understand how she interpreted this literary and film classic.
What were some of the challenges of using dance as the storytelling medium?
As we started to brainstorm about the story, the first thing I mentioned to theater director Nancy Meckler was that there’s no past tense in movements. So we decided to tell the story chronologically with the very first event that is being talked about in the play. In the play/book a lot of the events are talked about, while most of the action just happens in the confinement of Stella and Stanley’s small apartment in New Orleans. For the ballet version we decided to use all these locations/events that the characters are talking about to change locations and create more visual dynamism. Like when Blanche arrives in New Orleans, the neighbor tells her that Stella and Stanley are at the bowling alley. Hence we’re showing the bowling alley in the ballet. This also helped us use the 26 dancers of Scottish Ballet and include big dance scenes.
How did you translate key acting scenes into the form of dance?
First we differentiated the acting scenes from the dance scenes. Then the theater director asked the dancers to improvise the acting scenes where the action is more based on gestures rather than dancing. Nancy taught the dancers the basic rule of acting: Each character needs a specific want in each scene. Nevertheless some emotions cannot be solely conveyed by actions but by symbolism and poetry. I think that dance lends itself perfectly for those moments.
Besides depicting the bowling scene, how does this production reinterpret the original play?
We found out that Tennessee Williams had first called the play The Moth, and so we wanted the ballet to start with the image of Blanche Dubois reaching for the light. Like a moth that is attracted by the light, in the end the moth burns itself with the heat of the lamp. Blanche is attracted by desire, which ultimately destroys her. Another theme of the ballet is the triangular relationship of Stanley/Stella/Blanche, which we’ve translated as a battle between the sexes: the male energy (Stanley) against the female energy (Blanche) fighting over Stella’s attention. And another important theme is to be found in the scenography. We have a wall created of 200 beer crates that falls apart, symbolizing Blanche’s world being shattered.
Do you recall what your first impressions were when you read the play?
When I read the book for the first time, I wondered why there were no ballets made of that play. I found out while choreographing that it is a very difficult story to convey, with all the intricate psychology of the characters. But I loved the challenge, and I think we managed it beautifully. I thought it was a wonderful story, and I really wanted to make an effort to offer the dance audience a new story and not a rehash of the existing repertoire. I also really liked the idea of not having the obvious good and bad characters. I find that the roles are more closely related to real people. And last but not least, I definitely appreciated that the female characters were not infantilized.
What impressions do you hope to leave with L.A. audiences?
As an artist your wish is that the audience feels something, whatever that may be. It is a narrative, so it’s not enough to just observe and enjoy the beauty of the dance. You have to understand what is happening if you want to be moved by the characters as the story evolves. It is an iconic story of American literature, and it is wonderful to bring the story back to where it was filmed and viewed for the first time in 1951. I secretly hope that some actors who have played the parts will be curious to come and see the show.
All photographs by Andy Ross.