Theater Review - Atlanta Ballet takes on Tennessee Williams with 'Camino Real'

The Atlanta Ballet recently debuted a new narrative piece based upon the Tennessee Williams play Camino Real, and it delivered the energy and enthusiasm that is the company’s most notable trademark. From the dazzling set design to the action taking place throughout the orchestra section of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, the ballet delivered an exciting and entertaining evening.

When you consider that most narrative ballets are based upon fairy tales or well-known Shakespeare plays (think Sleeping Beauty or Romeo and Juliet), the choice to develop a work based upon one of Williams’s lesser known and more opaque plays was a gutsy one. One can more easily imagine a dance translation of A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example. Camino, with its dreamlike atmosphere and hazy storyline, is a less obvious choice.

In an online chat before the ballet’s premiere, choreographer Helen Pickett noted that she streamlined much of the fantasy element of the play and chose to have the surrealism represented in the astonishing set designs, which include a Dali-esque central staircase. As Camino is known as one of the first plays to break the Fourth Wall, it was important to Pickett to incorporate this interactive mentality into the ballet. From the very beginning of the work, certain characters enter and exit the stage from the stairs that extend into the audience, and several of the dancers have spoken lines during the performance.

The vocalizations work more successfully in some instances than others. For example, they are helpful in introducing characters like Kilroy and Casanova, as audiences new to the play might otherwise not understand why the merchant marine is carrying boxing gloves. But in other moments, the spoken passages were difficult to understand or somewhat unnecessary, as when Esmeralda states that she is “caught” while being carried away. After all, if the complicated story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be conveyed without spoken words, it would seem that the plot of Camino should be similarly translatable to dance.

Pickett also eliminated some characters, such as Don Quixote, who would only appear in the prologue and the finale, as, being a former dancer herself, she didn’t want to sentence a performer to such a small part. Of the remaining characters, the couple of Marguerite and Casanova most effectively conveyed an energy of wasted, yearning desperation familiar to fans of the playwright. The leggy Christian Clark has a sexy elegance that was well complemented by the tragic beauty of Nadia Mara. The trapped desperation of Marguerite was palpable, as was Casanova’s fear of losing her and joy at his new friendship with Kilroy.

As Kilroy, Heath Gill bounded impressively throughout the orchestra, over the sets, and up and down the central staircase, and at all times he embodied a masculine, taut optimism, despite the character’s dire circumstances. Of course, it’s difficult to take focus off of John Welker as the villainous Gutman, especially as he was garbed in a shirtless, sequined ensemble. With the spoken passages and a score that occasionally echoed Leonard Bernstein, the ballet came of much like a classic musical in the style of “On the Town.” The passion of all parties involved was apparent and infectious.

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