It may be serendipity, Divine Providence, or just coincidence that Ballet 5:8’s “Scarlet,” based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” landed on the Athenaeum Theatre stage last night for its premiere run (March 18-19). Whatever the reason, the artistic intersection of dance and faith on view next door to the imposing icon of St. Alphonsus church is not only a manifestation of Ballet 5:8’s mission, but a provocative convergence that begs at least some consideration.
In an almost prophetic juxtaposition of life and art, the audience flowing into the the Athenaeum paralleled the one flowing into the church next door. The moral and ethical stability each group seeks is perhaps a reflection of the need for a clearer moral compass from all sectors of society today—religious, educational, artistic, commercial, and governmental.
Ballet 5:8’s goal, as stated in the program, “is to serve as a catalyst for genuine discussion of life and faith….,” which makes “The Scarlet Letter” a perfect vehicle for Artistic Director and choreographer Julianna Slager’s exploration.
Stay with me here—This is not liturgical dance. Nor is Ballet 5:8 a proselytizing organ of religious dogma, but rather a spunky core of good dancers and their competent students who have something worth listening to. The question for them is how they continue to define themselves through their work and how well they achieve the professional standards to which they aspire.
The strengths in “Scarlet” include impressive lead dancers in Lauren Ader-Cumpston as Hester Prynne and Antonio Fernández as Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Samuel Opsal as Roger Dimmesdale and Stephanie Joe as Silence portray their roles with seasoned confidence and technical refinement. Sofia JaBaay (Young Pearl), and Morgan Kelly Williams ( Grown up Pearl) also distinguish themselves with refreshing innocence and natural grace. The highly creative integration of Preston Miller’s well-crafted film segments with live stage action brings compelling film realism and visual design together in welcome interludes interspersed between extended choreographic segments.
Slager’s adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” is an extremely ambitious undertaking of a complex story with gripping issues. Hawthorne sought to expose the hypocrisy of Puritan rules through its corruption of faith, with central themes of legality, sin and guilt. Slager does a good job sticking to the author’s core message, and Ballet 5:8 is to be commended for bringing these issues, still as relevant today as ever, to the stage with integrity, pluck, and a real commitment to letting the medium drive the message.
There are problems yet to be solved in story adaptation, pacing, and dramatic build. Charles Ives’ music sometimes overwhelms with drama not yet mirrored in the choreography. Long passages of generic ballet vocabulary with too little inventive movement to address specificity of character, relationship, or circumstance need tightening and focus. A prime example of this is in the act two opening solo, where Hester writes in her journal, then dances to the voice-over first-person narrative in lovely balletic form, sincerity oozing, her point work impeccable and full of “feeling.” The choreography, however, is just steps, pretty ones, to be sure, but not a physical embodiment of the text’s wrenching conflict.
I applaud the resurgence of storytelling in ballet, and especially new works from all corners of the dance community that are addressing the pressing issues humanity faces today. We have wonderful models in the 20th- and 21st-century greats of Anthony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, John Neumieir, Christopher Wheeldon, John Cranko, Yuri Possakhov and more. The list goes on. What these choreographers model is manipulation of ballet’s codified vocabulary in service of the body’s innate impulses, Stanislavsky’s psychological gesture physicalized and integrated into the classic nomenclature of ballet technique.
“Scarlet” strives to emulate the traditions of 19th-Century epic ballets. The Puritan women of Slager’s corps de ballet recall Giselle’s Willies, and Hester’s coming unhinged that of Giselle’s mad scene. Truly great story ballets like Swan Lake and Giselle owe much of their popular appeal and longevity to their service as vehicles for breathtaking balletic virtuosity, showcases for the pinnacle of great ballet dancing, unfortunately missing in “Scarlet.”
While pleasingly-staged and nicely executed by the competent but not yet professional student corps, the limitations of choreographic material do little to build dramatic tension or further story movement.
Reverend Dimmesdale’s act two solo sequences and the culminating reconciliation pas de deux for Hester and Dimmesdale gave a glimmering of Slager’s capacity for gripping dramatic portrayal and dramatic build. One would wish for more!
Realistically staged dramatic scenes on film create a spliced mosaic of the story’s key themes and fill in subtext. Thus the film’s strength also underscores the work’s primary weakness. Slager relies heavily on filmed drama to solve many adaptation issues, while the choreography falls short of the task, but the potential is there for a fuller realization of Hawthorne’s complex tale by building on what is already strong in “Scarlet.” Judicious tightening of corps sequences, rethinking musical choices, and more visceral movement invention will all contribute to more effective storytelling and dramatic structure.
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