With the Scottish Ballet’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the dance company manages to tell Tennessee William’s rich story without the benefit of words, all while refusing to make sacrifices to the plot. In the process, they exceed all expectations. Like a silent film — but without over-exaggeration — the principal characters’ storytelling abilities demonstrate pure acting at its finest. The closest we come to words (apart from the recurring song, “Paper Moon”) is Stanley’s signature threefold cry for “Stella!” although even this bellow is intentionally reduced to muted vowels.
Yet in this ballet, the depth of loneliness Blanche feels is more palpable than in many other traditional productions of the play. The ballet opens with her gazing at a bare light bulb, seemingly searching for something amidst of the buzzing city around her. When her bouts of drinking lead to lavish imaginary fantasies, the return to solitude on stage is abrupt and dramatic.
The size of the cast — 33 dancers have traveled to Charleston — brings a genuineness to Williams’ story, like a scene from Blanche’s wedding and the overall picture of New Orleans nightlife, that a sparser cast can only imply. It’s in the group dance numbers that we see the cohesiveness of this troupe, holding fast in lockstep through elaborate routines. But even within the shared, full-cast numbers, nuances of the plot carry the story forward.
During Alan and Blanche’s wedding, we first see the torn, confused agony of Alan as he acknowledges his love for another man. Moments later, Blanche’s striking eyes and a graze of her cheek to his shoulder demonstrate her trust and dependence, underscoring the breakdown that’s about to occur for both characters.
Props, although sparse, are used to excellent avail. Wooden milk crates serve as a bed, seats on a train, a radio, and the façade of Blanche’s estate — and a symbol of her well-put-together life that literally crumbles on stage, leaving her to fall into drunken misery in a dark hotel room as she is (also literally) tossed from one man to another.
Once in New Orleans, a score heavy with period jazz dictates the mood and counters or accentuates the tense energy that accompanies most of Blanche’s scenes with Stanley. The social background from which Stanley emerges is set by a Sharks-and-Jets-style showdown at a bowling alley, the genius of which lies in the fantastic dancing celebrations when a team member rolls a strike. Raucous, fun scenes like this, and a closing array when Blanche recounts her past lovers — culminating in a tiara-and-boa-adorned ride around the stage with a cowboy in a bathtub — are underscored by sadness as we watch her gradually lose her mind and succumb to the graphic flashbacks of her deceased husband’s final moments.
Both sex and violence are rendered with incredible realism by the dancers. In the rape scene — which is quite graphic and not simply implied, as in other productions — we witness the same motions that, before, conveyed grace and beauty, now depicting a squirm-in-your-seat grotesqueness. It’s powerful, and not for the faint of heart.
Williams did not write a happy story, but where appropriate, the Scottish Ballet has fun telling it. After the intermission, however, hope begins to fade for Blanche. We see her reputation destroyed, her body and dignity abused. She is left abandoned on her own.
Every nuance of this devastating destruction of a character is conveyed through movement, and in that, there is grace. The Scottish Ballet has taken a story without hope — one where the world is literally crashing down on all sides — and made it stunningly beautiful.