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Camino Real

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Helen Pickett concluded her time as choreographer in residence with Atlanta Ballet with an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real. The premier, which I missed, was in 2015 and received some excellent reviews. I was finally able to see it this year with more or less the cast that danced it when it premiered. It has a very accessible, dance-able commissioned score by Peter Salem, and a striking set (designed by David Finn and Emma Kingsbury) made in large part of metallic bars, with a dramatic narrow staircase ascending upstage center and dividing the set into the two halves more or less as described by Williams--the entrance to a fancy hotel on one side, skid row on the other. Though both sharing in the overall gloom.


Williams' Camino Real is a stylized drama in which many of the characters are named after or based on historical and literary characters from different eras. The setting is supposedly in a Spanish-speaking (presumably Latin American) town in the middle of a desert but it's more allegorical than geographical. A kind of way-station for the dying, controlled more or less by the hotelier Gutman. Over the course of the play three town "cleaners" sweep up various corpses. And anyone who seems to get out of line is shot. There is no happy ending, but the end is still sort of hopeful. The play also uses dance at key points and choreographer Anna Sokolow was an assistant to Elia Kazan when he directed the original Broadway production.  


Watching Pickett's ballet I was rather amazed at how much of Williams' scenario she included in her adaptation. There are over twenty named characters in the program. Plus others. During Act I, I was hard put to see how anyone who didn't know the play (which itself can be rather confusing) could possibly follow the ballet, but at intermission Mr. Drew, who had NOT read the play, told me he found the ballet quite interesting.  Pickett partly guides the audience by having the dancers speak lines from the play at a few key points--notably Gutman who is both ringmaster and villain of the piece. According to an interview the company circulated via social media, the dancers worked with vocal coaches; they are also heavily miked--which I found unpleasant--but on the whole I think the speaking worked or at least made it possible to follow the episodes and themes linking a very large cast and not-very-literal story. A few of the dancers can really act with their voices--notably Nadia Mara (Marguerite in the play) who has to shriek in anguish at one point and, at another, express really visceral anger and despair in words. I did rather wish the Gutman had not opted for a very thick "southern" accent.


Partly echoing Williams' stage directions for the play, a number of the dancers also come out into the audience, or enter through the audience, running up and down the aisles including during some of the most emotionally climactic moments. Even before the ballet had begun the three "cleaners" went around the theater, sometimes taking out measuring tapes to measure members of the audience etc.


Overall the effect is more "dance theater" than "story ballet:" but I found it a pretty compelling evening, especially the second act which felt more cumulative, less episodic than the first. (Presumably because the first was setting pieces in place.) Pickett focuses on two main couples amid the crowd of various other characters: one couple is Marguerite  (as in Dumas's Lady of the Camelias who, in this play, is "living on" ... and aging) and Casanova, also aging, who is in love with her;  the other is Esmeralda (as in Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris) and Kilroy an American Boxing Champ who arrives in Camino Real confused as to how he got there, but determined not to become another victim of Gutman or the town. (In the end he both is and isn't.) But their dramas are never completely separated out from the multitude of other characters and various claustrophobic terrors of the town.


The very fluid way the staging keeps its array of different characters in contact so that the main characters were often interacting in different combinations and even alongside other characters and other episodes, is very impressive, and contributes to the overall feeling of entrapment. The ballet also offers a few moments of respite, notably in the big pas de deux (the second of which is rather brutally interrupted) and an ensemble dance at the end when Killroy is dead but somehow his spirit has reinvigorated everyone and the dried up fountain in the town square starts to flow with water. (Hokey? It's in Williams' play.)  I would really need to see this again to judge what I think of the choreography in particular, but I do think the ballet is an impressive achievement for Pickett and for Atlanta Ballet.


For my taste, the dancers all did a terrific job. Tara Lee, who danced Esmerelda, was giving her last performance before retiring as a ballerina. During curtain calls, the audience and company paid tribute to her--including Nedvigin who brought out a big bouquet and gently pushed her down stage for repeated solo bows. On stage were any number of other dancers leaving the company whether by choice or because their contracts were not renewed (including Heath Gill, whose Kilroy is probably the best performance I have seen him give). I was glad to see them generously celebrate Lee -- she has been with the company for over twenty seasons and, in my experience, is one of their strongest, most consistent, clearest performers. Her big final pas de deux with Gill this particular evening was just wonderfully free and fearless. It was probably the purely choreographic  highlight of the evening...but then as said above I would really need to see this again to judge.

On the subject of dancers leaving: Laura Morton, one of the apprentices whose contract has not been renewed, once again caught my eye--I had also enjoyed her dancing in Bond's Denoument--this time as Prudence, another character from Dumas's novel who turns up as a character in Williams' play. I hope she lands on her feet somewhere, or, on her toes. (If she is joining another company and anyone patient enough to have read this knows where...well, I'd be happy to find out!)

Edited by Drew
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