In December 1947, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire rocked audiences with its brutal portrayal of a young southern widow's tragic life. At the Broadway premiere, the theater fell utterly silent after the curtain closed, before the audience erupted into a 30-minute ovation.
Since its creation, Streetcar has won numerous awards and provided inspiration for a plethora of adaptations. Now, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's balletic version is making its U.S. company debut at Nashville Ballet November 1–3. As a female choreographer with an interest in telling women's stories, Ochoa is championing a new era of narrative ballet, and she wants audiences familiar with Williams' story to see the protagonist's arc in a new light.
Streetcar was Ochoa's first full-length work; it premiered at Scottish Ballet in 2012. "I chose this story and I couldn't understand why no other company had chosen it, but as I was making the piece I understood," she explains. "The characters are complex and very layered, and the story leans on secrecy and psychology."
Ochoa's version retains the play's major plot points: The audiences witnesses Blanche DuBois's life unfold, and see the brutal abuse she suffers at the hands of people she depends on. But Ochoa worked with theater director Nancy Meckler to restructure the complex narrative for ballet. "Flashback is very hard to convey in dance. There's no past tense in movements, no words, so I thought the best way would be to tell the story as chronologically as possible," says Ochoa.
Julia Eisen in rehearsal
Lydia McRae, Courtesy Nashville Ballet
Throughout her choreographic process, Ochoa sought to challenge her own initial reading of Williams's play. "My first impression was, well, [DuBois] deserves it," she says. "She's a nymphomaniac, she lies, she drinks; of course she's going to get into trouble." But by devoting more time to DuBois' backstory, Ochoa is asking the audience to understand the character within her historical context. She and Meckler want the viewer to empathize with DuBois, and see her as a woman surviving trauma, not as a slattern to be scorned.
Costumes and sets by Niki Turner and lighting design by Tim Mitchell bring this post-war New Orleans world to life, but the production relies most heavily on the acting chops of its lead performers. Nashville Ballet dancer Julia Eisen will play DuBois on opening night. In addition to reading the play ("three to four times") and watching the original movie ("more times than I can count"), she and the other leads have been coached by Meckler. Eisen finds DuBois' character devastating to embody. "She's gone through the worst case scenarios you can go through as a woman," she says. "It brings up a lot of dark emotions, but I think it's so important to tell this story."
Even 72 years after the play's debut, Streetcar's themes still resonate: physical and sexual abuse, perceptions of homosexuality, alcohol addiction, the struggles immigrants face and mental illness. When it comes to the last, Ochoa pulled from very personal experience. Fifteen years ago, her mother suffered a mental episode and was interned in a psychiatric institution. Ochoa has the distinct memory of looking at her mother in a garden behind metal bars. While she remembers feeling sad, she says that her mother was "the happiest I had ever seen her in my life, because she was completely delusional." Ochoa tapped into the dichotomy of these emotions for DuBois' final scene. "I wanted that ending, for the audience to feel sad, looking at someone completely crazy and happy," she explains.
For Ochoa, Streetcar is just the beginning of what full-length story ballets can be in our modern age. "As a female choreographer, there are only a few of us that are given a platform to do big ballets," she says. "We try new ways of telling stories, because we want to portray the woman differently—not always elegant, always in pointe shoes, always pretty. For me it's a very personal piece, because it's my way of showing that we can move on with the narrative."
Nasvhille Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Polk Theater November 1–3.