Rarely does a ballet begin in a mental institution

Sonia Rodriguez in National Ballet’s new stunner A Streetcar Named Desire


Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté star in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

For every Nutcracker and Cinderella, the National Ballet of Canada offers the flipside of the tutu coin. This month, it’s the Canadian premiere of the explosive ballet A Streetcar Named Desire, choreographed by John Neumeier. A production that could come with its own warning for graphic subject matter.

The ballet, based on the Tennessee Williams’ play, features Jurgita Dronina, Svetlana Lunkina and Sonia Rodriguez dancing the role of Blanche DuBois.

It opens where the play ends, with Blanche in a mental institution. Through her character, different aspects of the story are revealed through a series of flashbacks.

“In his [John Neumeier’s] ballets, it is an impression of what the play is for him,” says Rodriguez.

“It’s not like watching the play. It’s his version of that, his imprint. The whole ballet is through Blanche’s eyes.”

With the ballet, because the focus is on Blanche, there is a back story to her life we don’t get in the play.

“You do have some idea who she is and where she comes from,” says Rodriguez. “There is a lot more depth to what her life was like and how she got to be who she is when the play starts.”

Rodriguez was born in Toronto and as a child moved to Madrid, Spain, where she first learned to dance. She joined the National Ballet of Canada in 1990 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2000. She lives in Forest Hill with her husband Kurt Browning and family.

One of the reasons she was excited to set to work on A Streetcar Named Desire was the opportunity to work with American choreographer John Neumeier, recently awarded the Prix de Lausanne Life Achievement Award.

“He’s one of my favourite of all time,” Rodriguez explains. “I tend to always hope to be in his ballets when we get a chance to have him.”

What the ballet offers dancers is the opportunity to hone their dramatic chops. It’s not just about physical movements. It’s also about conveying some serious emotion.

“What’s wonderful about working with ballets that John has choreographed is that there is always meaning and a reason for every single step and movement that you do,” she explains. “Any action, any step, any gesture, it comes from an emotional place. There is always an intent before you even move.”

One might think there is some risk to adapting a story with names such as Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh firmly attached to its history. 

But given the nature of the story and how it unfolds differently in the ballet, audiences should be open minded.

“It’s not a copy. It is different and it’s about her experiences,” Rodriguez says. “He could have picked another character with the same story, and it would be a very different ballet.”

The play is divided into two acts, one more nostalgic, the second, when the story shifts to New Orleans, Rodriguez describes as “more hectic and distorted.”

She also says the ballet is “very graphic,” suggesting that the company is likely to issue a warning for younger audiences.

“The play is very raw, and he did not hold back at all with any of the subject matter,” says Rodriguez. 

“It is a very explicit and graphic ballet, so that is something to keep in mind. There are some shocking scenes happening.”

A Streetcar Named Desire runs June 3 to 10 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

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Ron Johnson is the editor of Post City Magazines. Follow him on Twitter @TheRonJohnson.

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