It was the theater management that selected the team to create story ballets in 19th-century Tsarist Russia. Then a librettist would choose which scenes from a novel or epic poem would be stage-worthy, a composer would write music, designers would create sets and costumes, and the choreographer would focus solely on making the dances.
The contrasts between those imperial resources and our 21st-century need to create with a small budget helps anyone understand why the 15-minute plotless ballet with minimal costuming and sets has come to dominate ballet presentations.
But audiences still love a full-length ballet with a story. So would creating a brand-new full-length ballet using a story many people know and love be a great idea — or just something wild and crazy?
Ask Douglas Martin, artistic director of American Repertory Ballet. He just choreographed the first ballet based a work by Jane Austen and mobilized a team to see it to its premiere, Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, at McCarter Theater in Princeton as a co-production with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
“The idea of using ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as the plot of a ballet had been in the back of my mind for years,” Martin says, “but it was a lunch meeting with a friend about six years ago that started me thinking about it as a real possibility.” Martin acted as his own librettist: “Distilling down the story into its key scenes forced me to understand why you would do this as a ballet at all.”
Austen’s 1813 British comedy of manners novel chronicles the young, witty, and judgmental Elizabeth Bennett and the young, rich, and aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy, who fall in love — despite her prejudice and his pride.
The book is one of the most popular in the English language and has been retold on the stage, screen, and television.
To realize the production, Martin had more tricks up his sleeve than just choreography. His many years as a leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet Company in its glory days in New York City gave him connections to costumers and designers, and he also has developed good relationships with many key players in Princeton’s serious music community. He has now been with ARB for nearly a quarter century and has been artistic director since 2010.
Far from the world and era of Austen’s novel, Martin was raised in San Jose, California, in the 1960s. His father ran a car dealership, and his mother, Patsy Martin, was involved in the arts, serving as president of the Council for the Arts for Santa Clara County and the chair of the board of Ballet San Jose where — before moving to Lawrenceville six years ago — she helped create costumes.
This family involvement, plus watching his sisters having a good time studying ballet, led to Martin’s epiphany: “My brother and I played sports while my sisters took ballet. But I had a great interest in ballet, watching my sisters. After I broke my leg in a football game during junior year in high school, I can remember waking up with the cast on, and my first thought was ‘Now I can take ballet!’”
With Martin handling the libretto, what about a composer? There has never been a ballet with a Jane Austen plot before. Martin spent about two years listening to music for the project. He considered the music from various movie and television treatments of Austen works, but “none of them had to actually explain the narrative,” says Martin. They were merely incidental music for some of the scenes, such as the ball.
Then in early 2015 he had the idea to start listening not to music written to accompany Austen’s work on screen, but to music that Austen herself listened to. He found collections of her music and, essentially, her playlist — lists of her favorite composers.
Martin says she loved “Ignaz Pleyel, an Austrian composer who was working in London during the time Austen was writing, and who was somewhat of a superstar in his day. Unfortunately, much of his music is forgotten or unpublished in modern form. I didn’t have trouble finding digital recordings of his music, but once we started looking for modern versions of the written score we ran into a wall. Some of the music information on the CD jackets was incorrect — either giving the incorrect catalog number or getting the name of the work wrong.”
For many choreographers, having access to the recordings would have been adequate, but meanwhile this project had expanded into a collaboration with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. By March, 2016, negotiations were underway with PSO and with McCarter.
The result: Marc Uys, executive director of the PSO, worked with ARB to help make the project a reality, and PSO’s John Devlin will conduct the two premiere performances — marking the first time that the PSO performs at McCarter.
“Providing live music for ballet is an important role for an orchestra and adds a vital artistic layer to any dance production, enhancing the experience not just for the audience, but for the dancers, too,” says Uys. “One of our goals at the PSO is to constantly find new ways to enrich our artistic offerings to the Princeton community, and this collaboration is a perfect vehicle for that.”
The effort of creating a new work was assisted by the expertise of two other individuals: Jonathan Benjamin and Taras Pavlovsky. Pavlovsky, dean of the library at the College of New Jersey, is a former music librarian with a background in musicology. His two children have studied at ARB’s Princeton Ballet School. Prior to coming to TCNJ, he had worked at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School and developed skills that helped him identify written scores for the excerpts Martin wanted for the production.
Meanwhile, Princeton Ballet School’s principal pianist, Jonathan Benjamin, helped translate these excerpts —by hand and with the computer program Sibelius — into a score playable by the orchestra. On the topic of Austen’s playlist, Martin says, “She also collected music by Mendelssohn and John Field, who was sometimes referred to by contemporaries as the Irish Chopin. In choosing music for the ballet, I’ve also added excerpts by Franz Schubert as a complement to the other works.”
Occasional modulations and brief transitions between some of the Pleyel excerpts have been created by both Benjamin and Pavlovsky. In the case of some chamber music excerpts, Benjamin has also orchestrated the excerpt to be able to include more of the full sound of the PSO. In one segment left as chamber music, the intimate pas de deux when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy first realize their love, Benjamin will perform as a guest soloist with the PSO, playing the piano part in the minuetto from Schubert’s “Sonata for Piano and Cello.” The cello part will be played by guest artist Michael Katz.
Since no ballet could attempt to represent Austen without well-costumed dancers, Martin reached out to one of his Joffrey-era contacts, A. Christina Giannini, an internationally recognized figure in dance costume and production design. She also worked previously with ARB, most notably on Septime Webre’s “Romeo and Juliet” and the Edwardian-era production of “Swan Lake.”
Conversations with Giannini started almost a year ago, and costume construction has been ongoing since last summer. ARB wardrobe supervisor Janessa Urwin and her assistant Allison Bonin have been coordinating an additional team of five for the construction of more than 75 day dresses, ball gowns, jackets, and high waisted pants for the men.
The results are evident, as seen in the session when Martin rehearsed Monica Giragosian (Elizabeth Bennett) and Mattia Pallozzi (Mr. Darcy) in that pas de deux. The lush romanticism of Schubert music was a striking contrast to the dancers’ sometimes humorous handling of the material of Elizabeth’s day dress, in its first trial run.
Rather than constructing backdrops, Martin shows the English countryside and Darcy’s well-done home through digital projections, created by southern California video and lighting designer Omar Ramos. They’re done in soft focus water color effects similar to the type of drawings that the sisters in the story might have made while on a picnic, but also blow ups of invitations and letters.
For Martin, the music is always the generator of the movement, and once he had it lined up, he could start choreographing — with the medium of a room full of international dancers. And using a scene that any dancer would understand, Martin dives right into a ball scene to help the dancers find their characters within the English country dances.
During a recent visit, it was obvious that the rehearsals that started in January had advanced to include running scenes and incorporating hats and “performance hair.” While opera companies regularly rent wigs for their singers, most female dancers become skilled hairdressers and master various period styles to match the style of the ballet being performed — with detailed instructions about historically correct face-framing curls and high buns posted on the dancers’ call-board. McCarter’s resident wig stylist, Carissa Thorlackson, is dressing wigs for the four mature female characters, as well as overseeing the individual efforts of the dancers playing the younger generation.
Guest concertmaster Michelle Ross, and the cello and piano soloists, Katz and Benjamin, have recently started rehearsing directly with the dancers, with Benjamin’s role also including retaining the tempi, a situation which is keenly important for the dancers. The stage management team of Lauren Parrish, Rachel Jacquin, and Sara Mahoney are marking the stage and learning cues, and lighting designer Chris Chambers is developing his lighting plot.
All this is leading up to the orchestra and ballet company meeting on stage at McCarter on Wednesday, April 19, for the “tanzenprobe” — or the “dancing trying” — when the full orchestra and cast work through the ballet together for the first time. By Friday night, the fruit of all their labors will be realized with the world premiere of the first ballet treatment of a Jane Austen work, “Pride and Prejudice.”
Pride and Prejudice, American Repertory Ballet, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, 8 p.m. $20 to $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org. For more on ARB, go to www.arballet.org.
Mary Pat Robertson is a professional dancer and dance instructor who was director of the Princeton Ballet School, the official school of the American Repertory Ballet, for 30 years.