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Ballet Theater's 'Streetcar' fascinating, hauntingly powerful

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presents several ballets each season it knows will be popular with a wide audience, ones that can be taken primarily as entertainment.

In mounting John Neumeier's 1983 "A Streetcar Named Desire" over the weekend at the Benedum Center, Downtown, the ballet offered an artistically ambitious work that is fascinating, challenging and hauntingly powerful. It is the first American company to perform the work.

Neumeier took advantage of the change in medium from spoken word to dance by rethinking the story of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Neumeier employs a striking narrative dance style. Ballet vocabulary fills what might have been simple pantomime with vast and subtle expressive power.

The ballet opens in silence with Blanche DuBois sitting on a bed in the New Orleans Sanitarium, "haunted by madness and memories," as Neumeier puts it.

She remembers the dances on her wedding day at the family estate, Belle Reve (Beautiful Dream), which are strongly stylized with pauses, slow motion and underlined symbolism.

Although the DuBois family is high society, Blanche has a wanton side that is shown by men around a bed on the far right of the stage. One calls to her to come for what she knows she wants, one of the few times words are spoken or sung in the ballet.

Eva Trapp was a mesmerizing Blanche, a characterization built with fluttering legs and flexibility on pointe. The fluidity with which Trapp shifted from proud to fragile, illustrating her denial of reality, was stunning.

The climax of the first act is her husband Allen Grey's suicide on their wedding night. She sees he is homosexual in a long duet sealed with a kiss between Allen and his lover. Blanche reacts with revulsion and rejects him with the utmost cruelty. The gunshot that follows echoes in her mind.

Christopher Budzynski offered a finely characterized Allen, as droll as athletic. In Act 2, the dancer played a paper boy whom Blanche comes on to, as well as the doctor who treats her in the final scene.

The second act takes place in New Orleans. Stella takes Blanche to meet Stanley at the gym, for in this ballet he's a boxer. As soon as Blanche has the chance, she puts herself between Stella and Stanley and flirts with her sister's husband.

She does begin a relationship with Mitch, who was well played by Stephen Hadala. But Stanley blows the whistle on her past, and Mitch rejects her.

Blanche is already at her wit's end when she is raped by Stanley on and near a bed in the center of the stage. It balances, in an awful way, her husband's suicide in Act 1.

Robert Moore was charismatic as Stanley in a different way from Marlon Brando in the famous 1951 film. Moore is more handsome, and with chiseled muscles loved by the lighting.

Alexandra Kochis was a fetching Stella, who fully conveyed her character's physical delight with her husband as well as her open-hearted response to her sister.

Neumeier made interesting selections for the music for his ballet. The first act is set to Sergei Prokofiev's "Visions Fugitives," some of which were performed using a recording of an arrangement for string orchestra and others by the piano solo original played by the company's outstanding pianist, Yoland Collin.

But the choreographer's more brilliant achievement is the way he matched story and movement to Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 1. It's an incredibly original and extravagant score -- a wild and sometimes delirious juxtaposing of many styles of music. No less astonishing is the dancers' musicality in coordinating with seemingly unpredictable music.

Yet while Neumeier's ballet is American in its Southern story, its costumes and the presence of jazz elements in Schnittke's piece, it doesn't feel entirely American. The stylization feels German, both in the ways Neumeier creates emphasis and the degree to which he wants to emphasize.

But then this ballet was created for a German company and initially for German audiences. And while Blanche's story is American, its pattern is not uniquely American. Europe had plenty of experience with former aristocrats who couldn't adjust to their loss of wealth and sense of superiority.

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