Addressing the elegantly dressed audience at the Eissey Campus Theatre on March 20, Ballet Palm Beach’s founder and choreographer, Colleen Smith, said she thought about creating a ballet from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby last season.
Written about the excesses of the years after World War I, Smith felt Fitzgerald’s story was really about the American Dream, in that Gatsby took five years to build up wealth enough to pursue Daisy Buchanan.
In telling the story in dance as Gatsby, she has fashioned a score that includes Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, four songs mentioned in the novel (“Sheik of Araby,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” etc.), British composer Terence Thompson’s City Scenes, and songs by Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller and Paul Whiteman.
Smith gave her dancers the freedom to experiment, drawing on a large vocabulary of movements, and built this beautifully choreographed ballet around them, dance by dance. Act I has six scenes. Each scene is headed by a quote from the novel, which the dancers use as a guide to their emotions and movements. Act II has three scenes, also using quotes for each scene taken from the novel.
This ballet troupe has the best-looking young women in the corps de ballet that I have ever set eyes on. Every one could have been a target for Gatsby’s affections, but it was Daisy who caught his eye. Danced by French ballerina Jessica Dandine, her Daisy was lithe and alluring, with all the charm and beauty one associates with the haute couture of French fashion houses, plus a winning personality, too. Her every dance move was perfection.
As the corps opened Act I to Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” their moves across the stage were smooth, effortless and very graceful. The costumes, by Elisa Saether and Paige Sleve, were 1920s flapper-style, made of gauze-like material that allowed for freedom of movement. Head bands were in order too. Ending Scene 1 with a group Charleston, the spirit of the Roaring Twenties was quickly established and the expectations of what was to follow were heightened.
Scene 2, at the Buchanan household, established without fuss by a member of the corps delivering a couch, two chairs and a table, sees Daisy and her lovely friend Jordan Baker, beautifully danced by Leah Heller, entertain her husband, Tom, danced by the handsome Aaron Melendez, whose spiral leaps were exceptional.
Daisy’s charming cousin, Nick Carraway, danced by the delightful Reinhard von Rabenau, was also present and was obviously expected to link up with Baker, which he does, the two of them dancing exquisitely. Nick doubles as the spirit of Fitzgerald, occasionally using a typewriter in the corner of the stage: a nice touch, since Nick really is the best observer of what Gatsby is up to. Smith believes Fitzgerald meant Nick to portray himself in the novel. It certainly works well in this ballet. And von Rabenau’s delicate features and light-as-a-feather classical dance moves were neatly done, almost ghostlike.
Scene 3 introduced Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, danced by Madeleine Miller. Myrtle wishes to escape her humdrum life with garage owner George Wilson, and Miller conveyed this wonderfully well with moves that were fetching, delightful and captivating.
In scenes 4 and 5, played out in front of a beautiful New York skyline designed by Smith’s engineer husband Scott, Tyveze Littlejohn made his appearance as Gatsby. He was the epitome of the character he portrayed with excellent leaps and fine partnering with all the girls. I noticed a repeat movement of Nick and Gatsby that became quite obvious, a sort of signal of their friendship: three quick lower leg moves, like a horse pawing its foot along the ground, followed by two or three heel movements in grinding motion with the same foot.
The five male dancers have their moment with cleverly worked choreographic moves, leaps, twists and spins, all working nicely together and very disciplined. Littlejohn got a little ahead of the others on occasion as each dance direction changed. Was this to lead or show off that he was the alpha male? In Scene 6, Gatsby and Daisy meet. He takes her to his mansion, shows her his wardrobe and exultantly throws clothes in the air from his dresser drawers. Daisy is captivated. There follows a beautiful pas de deux where Dandine and Littlejohn echoed the great professionals of old; their pairing was dreamlike and inspiring.
Act II opened with some wonderful corps dancing, with five pairs in the ballroom doing a tango, and then, to the tune of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” the men of the ballet, in college straw hats, take to the floor and hit it off together, with each movement perfectly timed.
There’s a confrontation between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan about his making moves on Daisy. Melendez made some incredible jumps in the simulated fight scene; he is very athletic and at the same time so ballet-centered in every move he makes.
In the following scene, Gatsby takes Daisy for a drive in his new car, only she does the driving. The cars on stage were very effective, done in shadow and created using darkness and two headlights. Myrtle is knocked down and killed, and her husband George, dramatically danced by Richel Ruiz, grieves at her side in a very touching scene. Next came Littlejohn, accompanied by the Copland concerto, in a dance of exquisite beauty and suppressed anguish; he danced superbly.
In the last scene, the innocent Gatsby enters in swimming shorts and a bath robe. Witnessed by the hidden and outraged George Wilson, it appears to him as a callous act. Already carrying a gun, he takes it out and shoots Gatsby. This scene happened all too suddenly. I think it needs more stalking of Gatsby by the grieving husband before he decides to shoot.
All in all, Gatsby is a very clever and skillful adaptation of the Fitzgerald story. I would love to see it a second time to capture the more refined intricacies of the dancing in this work. Brilliant though this ballet is, a prior knowledge of Fitzgerald’s novel could enhance the tragedy. Perhaps, like they do before opera performances, a spokeswoman could take the audience through the plot before the ballet begins.
After the curtain calls, the corps de ballet reprised one of the livelier scenes from Act I, leaving the audience in a happy frame of mind as they left the Eissey Theatre.