Dallas — Texas Ballet Theater’s spring announcement of its 56th season opener Beauty and the Beast came at an opportune time. Pop culture was still smitten with the live-action Disney version still in theaters and its associated merchandise, and TBT’s marketing photos of Beauty in her iconic yellow dress no doubt drummed up excitement.
It’s better, however, that audiences set Disney associations aside for Lew Christensen’s ballet, performed at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas with The Dallas Opera Orchestra. In fact, many of the company’s social media postings about the production hint at the differences between current adaptations and Christensen’s 1958 creation.
Choreographed for San Francisco Ballet’s 25th anniversary (restaged here by Leslie Young), Christensen takes his cues from Madame LePrince de Beaumont’s 18th-century version of the fairytale. A pared-down form of the story ingrained into our modern minds, the tale begins with a father (Brett Young at the performance reviewed, on Friday) and daughter (Alexandra Farber) wandering through the forest. When they find themselves at the grand home of the Beast (Carl Coomer). Beauty asks her father for a rose, which evokes the wrath of its owner. As punishment, Beauty has to stay as captive while the father is forced leave.
The Beast attempts to coax some happiness out of Beauty with lavish clothing and entertainment, but she’s still horrified by his appearance and attempts at communication. When she leaves, he dies of a broken heart. Later, at his funeral, Beauty realizes her true feelings, and her love transforms him back into the prince he once was.
The evening as a whole produces mixed results, so let’s break it down.
Major components of the ballet itself are simply passable. The synopsis above is about all there is to the story, with little narrative and character development. To be fair, though, Christensen’s version came out long before the Mouse got its hands on it for a 1991 animated release. But still, it seems like the audience is expected to fill in the holes with prior knowledge.
Its structure at times heavily resembles The Nutcracker, which is interesting given that Christensen’s San Francisco Ballet was the first company in the U.S. to stage the Christmas favorite and is credited with making it the annual tradition it is today. Many parts feel like déjà vu, like in Act I when Beauty is being courted by the Beast, he sends lively simians (led by a sprightly Marlen Alimanov), magic flowers, and fluttery bluebirds to entertain her while she sits on a decorative chair with a crown. Act II’s wedding scene finds a rose waltz and courtier dance, ending with a grand finish resembling Nut’s apotheosis, and Beauty’s female solo choreography for the grand pas de deux looks almost identical to the Sugar Plum Fairy movements in some parts.
A huge disappointment is the Beast’s metamorphosis. Instead of an elaborate quick-change scene where he’s magically a human again, we see him take off his beastly attire himself. Dramatic dullness aside, it’s supposed to be Beauty’s love transforming him, not the Beast setting aside his old self.
The vocabulary, however, offers a nice change, as Christensen employs different transitions into traditional steps and partnering and orders them in a unique manner. The many ensemble segments display aesthetically pleasing staging and a variety of ways in which to demonstrate the dancers’ uniform execution and precise timing.
And that’s one of many places where TBT excels. Whatever shortcomings the original choreography contains, they still make it look good.
First, though, a nod to the costume and set designer Jose Varona. His creations for world-renowned opera and ballet companies have earned him international acclaim, and this ballet’s designs come from a commission by Christensen in 1982 for the ballet’s revival. The costumes bear an enchanting sense of detail and intriguing color palette, and while the set is very minimal, backdrops possess the same allure.
Carolyn Judson and Alexandra Farber trade off lead roles, with the latter dancing the heroine on Friday night. Her Italian fouettes are rather stunning, and she fares rather well as the sorrowful young girl.
Judson shines as the lead bluebird in Act I and with Jiyan Dai as a lead courtier in the wedding scene. Newcomer Samantha Pille proves an excellent addition to company, and her duet with Alexander Kotelenets in the Rose Waltz displays a joyful quality and fresh playfulness. It’ll be interesting to see how she does with other roles throughout the season and grows in her artistry.
Coomer deserves recognition, not only for his usual superb performance but the fact that he maintains that level of quality in the Beast costume. Michelle Taylor and Adeline Melcher offer comic relief as the archetypal jealous siblings.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t applaud the company’s commitment to live music and the lovely sounds of Tchaikovsky’s score by The Dallas Opera Orchestra conducted by Richard McKay.
The short running time is also very appreciated, as it lasts about 90 minutes including the intermission. Overall, kudos to Stevenson for choosing something different, off the beaten path, yet still stays within the company’s classical tradition.
» Beauty and the Beast repeats Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, joined by the Fort Worth Symphony