It was his first ballet, and as the curtain lifted on the stage at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, my six-year-old son, a veteran theatergoer with a number of Broadway shows and high school musicals under his belt, sat back expectantly. As I watched, enchanted, as the sylphs played in the forest of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, he leaned toward me, and in a fierce stage whisper, asked, “Why aren’t they talking?” “It’s a ballet, sweetie,” I whispered back. “They’re not supposed to talk.” “Oh,” he replied, sitting back again to watch. A few minutes later, he couldn’t hold back anymore. “But why not?”
The double-bill of one-acts, “Midsumer Night’s Dream” and “Beauty and the Beast,” is billed as a family-friendly program. And it captivated my entire group, including my 14-year-old and 11-year-old daughters — dancers themselves — my six-year-old son, and his nine-year-old friend. The same program comes to the State Theater in New Brunswick, on Wednesday, April 13.
From my son’s perspective, the second act made more sense. Graham Lustig’s world premiere of “Beauty and the Beast,” opens with Princeton dancer and teacher Helena Froehlich reading the fairy tale to a group of children gathered at her feet. Her narrative is interspersed throughout the production. Lustig, artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet, wanted to put his personal stamp on the story, perhaps best known to children through the Disney interpretation set in the 18th century French countryside, featuring the saffron-gowned Belle and her beastly beau.
Lustig’s choreography takes creative license with the setting, the time period, the costumes, and the characters themselves, and yet succeeds in charming the audience with the age-old themes of a daughter’s love for her father, the importance of being kind, and looking beyond appearances.
Lustig’s story is set in the New Jersey Pine Barrens of the early 19th century and is dedicated to the Garden State. His inspiration sprang from a book about the Pine Barrens loaned by a friend. He visited and became fascinated by the legends and folklore surrounding its forests, lost villages, and the New Jersey Devil who supposedly resides there. He already had his stars in mind, company members Peggy Petteway and Samuel Pott. He decided to take the original story of “Beauty and the Beast,” written in 1756 by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont, a governess, and give it a Mary Shelley gothic feel.
To capture the authenticity of the time period, Lustig called upon costume designer Michelle Ferranti, a Princeton resident . They pored through historical books and early American portraits from what is known as the Naive movement. They created patterns to reflect the design limitations of early 19th century fabric printing techniques yet made of materials that can withstand the heavy wear and tear of stage use and multiple washings.
The choreography is set to Giacchino Rossini’s Sonatas for Strings, written in 1804. Lustig says he chose these works, written by Rossini when he was only 12 years old, because of the liveliness and wit that helped him tell the story through dance. In the program notes he writes: “However, at times the music is also profoundly sad, suggesting to me the drama of the intertwined fates of a young man trapped in a hideous form and of the lovely young woman unable to recognize him for his true self.”
Not just the music, but the dance too is filled with liveliness and wit. When he first appears on stage as the arrogant, self-centered nobleman, Pott is magnificent-looking in his crimson coat and cravat. With the help of John Dods, the New Brunswick-based prosthetic and mask maker, the Beast’s face comes to terrible life. His hunched shoulders show the pain of beauty hidden behind hideous form. Petteway as Beauty is long-legged and lyrical in her moves, entirely credible showing her inner battle between her devotion to her father and her growing affection for a creature with a loathsome exterior but lovable heart.
There are playful elements in Lustig’s adaptation of the tale. When Beauty’s father goes away on his fateful trip where he encounters the Beast’s lair, his destination is Philadelphia. Beauty is given two spoiled sisters, along the lines of the Cinderella story.
One of my son’s and his friend’s favorite scenes is the swirling wolf dance in the forest. The wolves are frightening apparitions behind hairy masks leaping about in a cloud of smoke. The moves combine low-to-the-floor crouching with heart-stoppingly athletic leaps. You can imagine the snarls of battle, the vicious clawing.
The climax is the wedding scene. Lustig shows his sense of humor in the dance where the male drinkers of the village, holding their tankards on high, are scolded by their wives. There is a rose-covered trellis where the ceremony takes place, and the celebration includes three rings of dancers reveling in the happiness of the newlyweds.
In the course of his research, Lustig had discovered a portrait of a “Bone Player.” Bone playing was an ancient form of percussion that was used as an accompaniment for dance. Lustig found 89-year-old Joe Birl of Philadelphia, who came to give the dancers a workshop in the art of bone playing. The result is a wedding scene where the dancers kick up their heels with authentic clogging dance steps.
Pott and Petteway are splendid in their happiness, in depicting love requited and the triumph of substance over form. Lustig’s creative adaptation, his eye-catching costumes and choreography, give new dimension to a classic tale and captivates across generational lines.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Beauty and the Beast,” American Repertory Ballet, Wednesday, April 13, 7 p.m., the State Theatre, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $12.50 and $25. 877-782-8311 or visit www.statetheatrenj.org