Sensual, stormy, and steamy — that’s Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” in an alliterative nutshell.
Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for the play in 1948, and it has since been adapted countless times on both the stage and screen. This year at Spoleto Festival USA, the Scottish Ballet will perform its own version of “Streetcar” at the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre. A vibrant blend of dance and drama, the ballet is a collaborative effort between theater director Nancy Meckler and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. This marks the Scottish Ballet’s return to Spoleto, where it made its American debut in 1986 with “La Sylphide.”
Meckler and Ochoa’s “Streetcar” is set to a sultry, jazzy score by Peter Salem, and can be easily understood even by those unfamiliar with Williams’ prose. It’s also recognizable to anyone hoping for a memorable spectacle. “Streetcar” follows aging southern belle Blanche DuBois, who moves in with her sister Stella in New Orleans and clashes with Stella’s boorish husband Stanley. Instantly suspicious of his sister-in-law, Stanley sets out to expose Blanche’s true identity.
The chemistry between these characters sizzles, as sparks fly and bitter words are exchanged. The Scottish Ballet’s challenge was in expressing those emotions with movement.
“I love observing human behavior through body language,” Ochoa said. “It’s pretty incredible how much we speak without words.”
Of course, the ballet kept one particular utterance from the play’s most iconic scene: “STELLAAA...”
Williams’ original production featured seven performers, but the Scottish Ballet has 26 dancers, so many group scenes that were only spoken about in the play were brought to life for the ballet. The company also devised a clever way to relay backstory: by allowing the audience to enter Blanche’s head.
“We’re in and out of Blanche’s head from the beginning,” artistic director Christopher Hampson said. “Some of it is memory, some of it is really happening, some of it is make-believe. That’s where dance does have a strength — it can show the space between words.”
Revealing Blanche’s history up front enables spectators to understand what she’s trying to hide.
This version of “Streetcar” is especially sympathetic to Blanche’s predicament. Elia Kazan’s 1951 Hollywood film starred Marlon Brando as Stanley (he also starred in the Broadway production); but because of his dreamy movie star status, Brando’s character had to be appealing, and by contrast, Vivien Leigh’s Blanche seemed unusually hysterical.
“Blanche is a woman who grew up in another era, and she’s forced to live in this new world,” Hampson said. “She doesn’t fit. I think that comes through quite strongly in this production.”
In many crossover translations, parts of an original story are altered or cut entirely. Stanley’s implied rape of Blanche is made less explicit in Kazan’s film. Similarly, the homoerotic undercurrents of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” were excised from Richard Brooks’ 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. According to David Kaplan, curator and co-founder of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, dance audiences tend to be more sophisticated.
“What really is Tennessee Williams about, if it’s not about the wisdom of the body?” said Kaplan. “That is something a dance audience shares, but that’s not always what a film or mainstream audience shares in the theater.” Since dance is less commercially accessible than film, it might be more daring or true to the source material.
To successfully embody the weepy turbulence of “Streetcar” with physicality, Meckler and Ochoa first had to study and appreciate the play.
“A choreographer’s challenge is not to translate the words into movement, but to understand the essence that the playwright has captured,” said Kaplan.
But can a well-worn story like “A Streetcar Named Desire” stay fresh?
“When we were last in the USA, we opened it in New Orleans,” said Hampson. “I was nervous, but it was so well-received. I thought, ‘My goodness, this city must have seen how many productions of “Streetcar”?’ If it works there, it can work anywhere.”
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.