The Big Easy: the name conjures up crumbling French architecture, steamy nights, and hidden alleyways that lead to gambling halls or brothels, all set to a soundtrack of sultry jazz music. In our collective American consciousness, New Orleans is not so much a city as a maze of secrets and vices. It is, perhaps, a difficult idea for a dance production to live up to.
This is the case with the Charleston Ballet Theatre’s The Big Easy, a clumsily put together evening of three ballets that differ from each other in nearly every way possible. While the dancing is uniformly excellent, unfortunately the same is not true for any other aspect of the show.
First, the music. The tunes that filled the beautiful Dock Street Theater during seating time were spot on, full of the mournful brass instruments and scratchy vocals that New Orleans jazz is so famous for. But when the curtain rose on the first ballet, “Summer and Smoke” choreographed by Daniel Pelzig, the music was delicate violin, the “4 Visages” by Darius Milhaud. Audibly, the music had nothing to do with New Orleans; after the show, some quick Wikipedia-ing revealed that Milhaud had been influenced by jazz and taught the jazz great Dave Brubeck, so I suppose that could be interpreted as a connection to The Big Easy, but one would never know it simply by listening.
“Summer and Smoke” was confusing in other ways, too. It’s the story of a girl who falls in love with a medical student, who then tries to seduce her. She rebuffs him; regrets it; seems to have some sort of sexual awakening; and attempts to get him back, but he is already engaged to another woman. It could happen anywhere — there’s nothing, even in the way of set or costume, to place it within the Big Easy or even its “sound and influence” (the show’s subtitle is “A celebration in dance of the sound and influence of New Orleans and the great Tennessee Williams”). The choreography suffered from the same displacement, owing far more to modern styles of dance than to anything else. Perhaps this ballet would have seemed less odd if it had appeared later in the evening, once the theme was firmly established. As it was, though, once the curtain fell and the lights went up for a 10-minute intermission, I was left wondering how on earth the CBT could have decided that “Summer and Smoke” fit into this evening.
The next two ballets, both based on Tennessee Williams plays, were far more palatable. Tony Powell’s “Soothe My Lonely Heart,” which was an examination of Southern social conduct in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, made excellent use of harsh lighting and jazz music by Etta James and Dave Brubeck to create a strong sense of drama that made for a provocative contrast with the female dancers’ soft pink ballet garb, complete with little fluttering ribbons coming down their backs. It was quite an interpretation of Southern femininity, especially as Tennessee Williams portrayed it: sweet and pretty on the outside, but strong, sharp, even angry beneath the floating scents and gentle smiles.
Jill Eathorne Bahr’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” closed the show and was by far the most complex ballet, telling as it did the entire tragic story of the play and making use of both set and costume changes. Bahr’s interpretation made heavy use of music from the film with Marlon Brando; this familiarity, in addition to the ballet’s adherence to the story, might have been part of why this episode seemed to be the audience’s favorite. Leading lady Jennifer Muller, who recently played the principal role in CBT’s Don Quixote, portrayed the vulnerable, on-the-brink-of-madness Blanche DuBois to perfection. She was spidery, slinky in the presence of her brutish brother-in-law Stanley, despite her desire to act as an unflappable gentlewoman. Ezlimar Dortolina as Stella was sweet and forthright, loving toward her sister and naïve of her husband’s violence, while Alexander Collen was frightening as the abusive Stanley. There is an especially poignant scene toward the end of the ballet, when Blanche has been raped by Stanley and is about to be shoved out of his and Stella’s lives and into a mental hospital, when she is passed from one man to another, utterly at their mercy; it makes for a concise and moving picture of the tragedy that has made Blanche into the fragile creature that she is.
If the same care had been taken with The Big Easy as a whole as was taken with each ballet individually, the effect could have been outstanding. CBT did, after all, choose fertile subject matter. As it was, however, The Big Easy missed its mark.