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Ballet tells 'Streetcar' tale through Blanche

| Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Perspective can make the retelling of even famous stories a fresh experience.

When choreographer John Neumeier decided to create a ballet out of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play "A Streetcar Named Desire," he boldly seized the opportunities created by using a different medium -- dance rather than words.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present Neumeier's "A Streetcar Named Desire" Friday through Sunday at the Benedum Center, Downtown. It will be the first production by an American ballet company.

"We're sitting in an elite group. San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre are the only two companies doing Neumeier ballets. He doesn't let them out. They're complex, not so easy," says Pittsburgh Ballet's artistic director Terrence Orr. "If I didn't know John and he didn't know me, we would never have had the ability to put on a work of this magnitude."

Neumeier's "Streetcar" has been mainly associated with two German companies: Stuttgart Ballet, for which he created it in 1983, and the Hamburg Ballet, of which he has been artistic director and chief choreographer since 1973.

"To have the honor of doing a John Neumeier work is fantastic for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre," Orr says. "He's one of the great choreographer directors of our time. He's an American who has lived in Europe for 40 years and taken an American play by Tennessee Williams and brought it to life in ballet."

Williams' play can be read from several points of view. Neumeier tells the story from Blanche DuBois' perspective. The play begins when she arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley Kowalski. The emotional baggage Blanche carries from her high-society life in rural Mississippi, which has utterly collapsed, fuels her ultimately violent conflict with Stanley.

The first act of Neumeier's ballet occurs before Blanche arrives in New Orleans because it's is essential to understanding her attitudes and vulnerabilities. Neumeier's current perspective on his "Streetcar" has the benefit of nearly three decades of experience and reflection.

"Basically I have a very strong feeling in all of my works that they have to be living works," he says. "That is, being a choreographer who is also a director of a company, I try to be at every performance which is given by the company -- not to admire the work, but to relive it to decide if it still has relevance, if I still believe in the characters and their interaction -- to see it as if I had never seen it before. I think this is something that makes ballet a living art because it lives only in the one performance."

Three years ago, he revised the ballet for Hamburg Ballet.

"So, with 'Streetcar' over the revivals, I think the basic concept -- the fact of reversing the chronology so we could understand the character of Blanche before she enters into New Orleans and the principal conflicts of the story -- is absolutely necessary. Ballet can only deal with the present, what we see now. There is no step that can suggest past tense. I think it is necessary to understand the world she stepped out of and the world that she's stepped into with Stanley," he says.

Neumeier came to Pittsburgh a year and a half ago to start the planning for this production. He picked Eva Trapp to play Blanche and Robert Moore for Stanley Kowalski.

"I find (Blanche) to be a very fascinating part to play and in the sense you really do get to evolve as this character," Trapp says. "I really do enjoy getting the chance to feel my way through even more as an actress than ballerina. At the same time, I like the interaction with everyone else. This has been a unique experience in that way."

She's impressed by the richness of Neumeier's realization in dance of Blanche, a character she cares for deeply.

"Every step I do, there's a thought behind it. It's very deliberate. There's always an inner monologue of what you feel," Trapp says. "In that regard, there are a lot of very physical parts when she's angry and when she's tormented that are very physical."

But for all the pain she understands her character is carrying, Trapp regrets Blanche's cruelty when she discovers her husband is homosexual. He commits suicide.

Given Neumeier's restructuring of the story, Stanley Kowalski doesn't figure much in the ballet until after intermission.

"The second act is pretty much jammed-packed as far as my role as Stanley Kowalski," Moore says. "I've been hitting the gym and doing a lot of pilates, because, in this ballet, Stanley is a boxer. He's a manly man. Instead of cards and bowling, one of his first scenes is in the gym with his friend Mitch. Stella brings Blanche into the gym to see her husband is so macho. I have a fight-victory dance after knocking him out."

Moore says Stanley "is kind of brutish, a simpleton. It doesn't take much to make him happy. He likes having relations with his wife, loves women, likes hanging out in the gym. His life is great until Blanche comes and imposes her values in his life."

Tamas Detrich has been working with Pittsburgh Ballet staff in rehearsals. He's associate artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, and would have danced one of the leading roles at the German premiere except he was injured. He has subsequently danced the ballet all over the world and says, "Always, at the end, there's an amazing response from the audience."

Detrich says "Streetcar" is very challenging in the emotional depth and musicality required. He's impressed by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers.

"They're very quick, very open and very hungry to digest all the material. They understand what John wants," he says. "He was here the first week working with the dancers. He was re-choreographing here on the dancers, which means he was inspired by the dancers."

Detrich has been responsible for prepping the solo roles, and is inspired by the dancers, too.

"Eva as Blanche is amazing. She has the potential to be exquisite, and I've seen a lot of dancers dance the role," he says. "She goes so deep into herself (that) she isn't acting. She is the person."

Photo Galleries

'A Streetcar Named Desire'

'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Ballet tells Williams' classic tale through Blanche'

Additional Information:

'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $22.75-$90.75

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or

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