“Twist, spiral, and dip. Yes, all at the same time,” says choreographer Kirk Peterson, explicating the multi-dimensionality he wants to see as dancers execute a complex curving movement from his new “Beauty and the Beast” ballet.
Rehearsing in their Princeton studio, the professional dancers of American Repertory Ballet — joined by second-stringers from ARB 2 and trainees from the company’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School — dash across the floor performing challenging classical ballet movements at supersonic speed. Women in pointe shoes do double pirouettes, grand jete leaps, huge leg-fanning rond de jambes, and fast, flashy footwork as they cross lines, make diagonals that peel off into circles, and get lifted overhead by male partners who charge through the space with electrifying energy.
“That arm needs to be a little lower,” Peterson reminds one ballerina, showing meticulous concern for classical ballet’s precise and harmonious sense of line. Though imbued with the exciting attack and athleticism of contemporary ballet, Peterson’s sculptural approach to the ballet vocabulary caps strong lower body actions with curving torsos and rounded arms, a pleasant change from the leggy linearity and extreme extensions that characterize the influential modernistic ballets of the game-changing, 20th-century neo-classicist George Balanchine.
Premiering on Friday, May 10, at 8 p.m. at the State Theater in New Brunswick, Peterson’s evening-length “Beauty and the Beast” ballet will be danced to live music played by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
Because of the expense it’s unusual nowadays for small ballet companies to perform to live music. “But it is so much more inspirational and interesting than to dance to recorded music,” says Peterson, ARB’s resident choreographer. “It brings a different level of energy and spirit when you have a full orchestra. It changes the whole atmosphere.”
The music accompanying the new ballet is a compilation of lesser-known compositions by Tchaikovsky, chosen and assembled by Peterson. “If you’re very familiar with Tchaikovsky,” he says, “you may recognize some of the selections, such as some pieces I took from the scores of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake.’ But they’re not the famous waltzes or anything that widely known.”
Peterson first got the idea to make a “Beauty and the Beast” ballet about 50 years ago, when he saw the 1946 Jean Cocteau film “La Belle et La Bete.” Based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont published in 1756, it tells the tale of a young woman’s unusual capacity for empathy. Her ability to see past a creature’s beastliness to the goodness within proves magically transformative.
“When I was about 18 I went through a period of watching a lot of foreign films,” Peterson says, “and the Cocteau film really grabbed me as a possibility for a ballet. It embodied a wonderful old kind of fairy tale — and of course there are so many fairy tales that have been transformed into ballets. I thought of making a one-act ballet that was a little bit surreal, something very much in Cocteau’s world.”
Though other choreographers have created ballets based on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale, Peterson says, “They were not very interesting to me. I didn’t find them to be magical or unusual enough to pique my interest the way the Cocteau film did. So when the opportunity came for me to make this ballet, I revisited the film, and also read the original story and a number of treatments based on it. But I departed from my original idea. I moved away from the surreal and toward making something that would fit into the canon of big, full-evening classical ballets. Technically and stylistically, I wanted it to live more in the realm of the story ballets of the 19th century, so it would feel familiar to audiences used to seeing “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” The foundation of my technique is traditional classical ballet, so there’s nothing ‘21st century’ in this, if you know what I mean.”
Classical ballet is a formal, 500-year-old, highly stylized, theatrical dance form that embodies hierarchical traditions reflective of its aristocratic roots in the courts of Europe. There is always a prima ballerina, supported by her “handsome prince” and framed by ladies and gentlemen of the court plus ensembles of peasants, or lower-ranking folk of some sort, who perform in strict unison, never getting out of line or out of sync.
The beauty of classical ballet’s orderly aesthetic reinforces the ideals of a delineated social class system. Even offstage, hierarchy rules, as ballet companies typically employ a tiered roster of dancers — principals, soloists, and corps de ballet members — who are cast in roles according to their ranks.
Yet the 11-member ARB assigns no distinguishing ranks to its dancers, and the warm, informal atmosphere pervading the ballet studio as Peterson works with the company is surprisingly communal. While there is no question that the shared goal is to fulfill Peterson’s artistic vision, the process plays out through a web of teamwork that bespeaks a contemporary blossoming of an elitist European art form transplanted into egalitarian American soil.
As the troupe rehearses “Beauty and the Beast’s” thrilling finale, the guy stationed at the laptop, turning the music on and off, per Peterson’s cues, is actually the choreographer’s boss, ARB artistic director Douglas Martin. The company’s ballet mistress and Peterson’s fellow resident choreographer, Mary Barton, plays secretary, jotting down Peterson’s whispered comments to remind him of the corrections he wants to give to the dancers later. And seated on a wooden stool, also putting in her two cents with corrections for the dancers via Barton’s notepad, is Maria Youskevitch. The daughter of Igor Youskevitch (one of the most esteemed American male ballet dancers of the 20th century), she is ballet-world “royalty” and currently serves as workshop ballet mistress at the Princeton Ballet School.
Yet most strikingly democratic is how freely and comfortably all the dancers — even the pre-professionals — voice their concerns and questions. They repeatedly raise their hands to point out difficulties they are experiencing with spacing, musical counts, or steps they would like to have reviewed or clarified.
Despite his illustrious background, Peterson graciously welcomes everyone’s input.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Peterson began studying dance as a child at a studio owned and operated by his mother and her sister, an acrobatic dance team who toured the nightclub circuit during the 1940s. “I was sort of ‘born in a trunk’,” says Peterson. “They used to take me on little tours with them when I was an infant. When they retired my aunt focused on teaching jazz dance and my mother was a tap teacher. Then my grandmother took me to ballet classes when I was three because she wanted me to have a more well-rounded training. I ended up studying with the same ballet teacher until I was 18 years old. She was an amazing woman named Lelia Haller. She was the first American in the 20th century to be taken into the Paris Opera Ballet.”
Peterson snagged his first professional dance job when he was 16. After stints with the Harkness Ballet in New York and the National Ballet in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s he joined American Ballet Theater — generally considered the top ballet troupe in the country — where he held the rank of principal dancer.
“Then I joined San Francisco Ballet. I’ve moved around quite a lot,” says Peterson, who currently resides in New Hope, Pennsylvania. “I came back east to work on Broadway musicals with [choreographer] Michael Smuin, who asked me to be his assistant on several different productions, including ‘Anything Goes,’ which I restaged in London and Australia. After that I stopped working on Broadway because my true love was ballet, and I started seriously focusing on choreographing. [ABT artistic director] Kevin McKenzie asked me to rejoin ABT, as Ballet Master, so I did, and I choreographed for that company as well. Before that I had also been artistic director of Hartford Ballet, and assistant to the artistic director of the National Ballet of Norway, in Oslo. At this point in my life, however, I’m very selective about where I will go.”
So how did Peterson wind up working here in New Jersey with ARB? “I first worked with the company when I was invited to perform as a guest artist years ago, when I was dancing with ABT. Then when Graham Lustig took over the company he asked me if I would come in and choreograph a ballet. But it wasn’t until Douglas became artistic director [in 2010] that I started also teaching the company regularly.”
Though he has choreographed for numerous dance troupes, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, and Alberta Ballet, Peterson admits, “I’m so appreciative of being involved with this company. Some companies are not what I would call ‘choreographer companies’ because the dancers are not used to working on new choreography. They’re used to having ballets just staged on them, learning ballets that were created elsewhere, or only performing older ballets. But this company works on new choreography all the time. And that’s my preferred kind of company.”
Yet while the ARB team participates so eagerly and equally in the conjuring of Peterson’s choreography, ballet’s courtly origins remain in evidence. When a trio of female trainee dancers gets dismissed from the rehearsal, before leaving, each comes to the front of the room and, observing tradition, says “thank you” as she sweetly curtsies to Peterson. We may be in America, but we are still doing classical ballet.
Beauty and the Beast, American Repertory Ballet, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Friday, May 10, 8 p.m. $35 to $65. 732-246-7469 or www.stnj.org.