What a difference a cast can make. When Houston Ballet brought Ben Stevenson's Peer Gynt to Fort Worth years ago, it struck me as dark and dreary, and my assessment didn't change much eight years later when Texas Ballet Theater revived it.
Friday evening, however, just casting a different Peer turned things around, and while still dark and troubling, it was no longer dreary. Peer is hardly a likable character—headstrong, irresponsible and selfish—but as portrayed by Lucas Priolo he becomes more complex, more human, and worthy of redemption.
Our first view of Peer is as a playful and lazy youth, ignoring his long suffering mother's admonitions to get to work. He turns on the charm, and she gives in. He may be lazy, but he has big dreams, eager to leave the confines of his tiny Norwegian farm and see the world.
He tries his charm on the delicate Solveig (Carolyn Judson) and after much grasping her of her hand and swinging her around, he almost captures her affection. But that doesn't keep him from flirting with Ingrid, the bride of a local merchant, who finds her new husband repulsive and eagerly runs off with Peer.
His world, as it turns out, is wild and fanciful, beginning with the rowdy wedding—youths stamping and leaping on a high platform, the groom growing tipsy, villagers reeling and churning in ever faster circles, giving the unhappy bride and Peer a chance to run off. In no time he abandons the hapless bride—quite heartlessly—only to find himself in a bigger orgy of trolls, monsters and goblins.
It is in these big scenes of weddings and trolls—and later a caravan in the Egyptian desert and an insane asylum—where our hero either skirts danger or gets into real trouble. And it is in these scenes, too, where Henrik Ibsen's story and Edvard Grieg's tempestuous music give the tale its sinister and bigger-than-life atmosphere.
Like every profligate, Peer seduces and is seduced, working his wiles on Solveig and Ingrid, and in turn captivated by the lovely daughter of the Mountain King (Betsy McBride), the Egyptian temptress Anitra (Katelyn Clenaghan), and simply bewildered by a madwoman.
As Peer, Mr. Priolo gets a vigorous workout, appearing in just about every scene, but it is the women who get the prize roles. Ms. Judson's touching solo performed after Peer has run off with Ingrid is a study in wistful longing, expressed sometimes movingly by a simple pause on pointe or a gaze into an empty field. Ms. McBride, clad in a diaphanous green dress, moves like a sprite in the forest, while Ms. Clenaghan in bejeweled emerald green tutu is sultry throughout with angled arms and sustained balances.
Still more riveting are the big scenes of orgies, wild village dances and the bizarre lurches and dazed stumbles of the crowded asylum. With music so provocative and stirring, a Peer of force and contrast, dancers of such power, this ballet can hardly go wrong, and so the only thing missing is live music.
There are four more performances, Oct. 26-28 at the Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas. The cast rotates for each. Priolo plays Peer Gynt 8 p.m. Friday and 8 p .m. Saturday, Oct. 26 and 27; Carl Coomer plays the role 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27 and Alexander Kotelenets plays Peer 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.
◊ Click here to see our review of Peer Gynt at Music Hall at Fair Park, with Carl Coomer in the title role.