West Australian Ballet presents a story you love, but perhaps not as you know it.
It’s a tale as old as time, but curiously, unlike the vast number of other children’s fables brought to life on stage through the artistry of narrative ballet, this particular story is a relative newcomer to the art form. It is, however, a story that most people know and love nowadays, thanks to Disney’s popular 1991 animated film: Beauty and the Beast.
Just a handful of choreographers have interpreted this 18th-century French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve through ballet, but not one of these productions has made it to Australian shores, until now. West Australian Ballet will have the honour of being the first company to bring an en pointe Beauty and the Beast Down Under, and this particular staging is one of the finest on offer, created by Canadian choreographer David Nixon for the UK’s Northern Ballet in 2011.
“David is such a talented storyteller,” West Australian Ballet artistic director Aurelien Scannella explains. “This is a modern ballet, of course, because it’s only a few years old and it has a very contemporary feel, but the language of the choreography is a beautiful, neo-classical style, which is the perfect way of communicating a narrative as old as this one.”
With the ever present shadow of Disney’s film iteration hanging over the story, crafting something unique that is still capable of connecting with people’s affection for Belle and her beastly Prince is no easy task. Nixon’s solution has been to consciously guide the aesthetic of this production down a completely different path, one that reconnects it to its French roots. By tapping into the sleek, flowing lines of the art-nouveau and art-deco movements, with a musical selection featuring the great French Romantic and Impressionist composers – including Saint-Saëns, Debussy and Poulenc – the cultural origins of this story are brought to the fore, albeit guilded with a burnished patina of modern innovation.
However, music co-opted for dance, especially narrative forms, can be problematic, insisting upon its own structure rather than serving the story. The selection of pieces that Nixon has hit upon has a natural synergy because of its shared cultural DNA, but it is also highly emotive music that effortlessly marries to dance, Scannella believes. “This is a very musically intelligent choreographer,” he explains. “Each scene uses a different piece, often by a different composer, but David has been very smart about his choices. Each piece perfectly suits the part of the story that it’s accompanying, and it makes the whole production remarkably strong. If the music is wrong, it can destroy the whole piece, but personally, I think he did very well!”
While the enchanted universe of Beauty and the Beast shares many similarities to the magical stories common within the canon of narrative ballet, it has one notable difference that poses another interesting conundrum for a choreographer. The poise and elegance of ballet is not immediately suggestive of the brutal savagery of a man turned beast. Honing the physical vocabulary of this character to communicate a wild, untamed strength while still being rooted in classical technique, is a delicate balancing act. “It’s a very powerful role and one that relies on the individuality of the dancers. Each time it is performed it is going to be slightly different, because the characterisation needs to have that freedom,” Scannella observes. “The choreography is still extremely technical and precise, so you need a good dancer with grounded, focused abilities. But it’s an extremely demanding part – it’s not just about steps and music. You have to tell the story and bring this character to life.”
Despite the obvious departure from Disney’s modern classic, the essence of the story is sure to be a big draw for new audiences, Scanella believes. “It’s the perfect first step for anyone who has never been to the ballet before. It may not be exactly like the Disney version, but it’s still telling this wonderful story in a truly beautiful way. It’s something anyone could sit and watch for two hours and never feel board,” he says. “But that’s not to say our existing public won’t also love it. This is an Australian premiere and an Australian exclusive of a fantastic work, so those who are already familiar with what we do are bound to recognise that this is an exceptional opportunity to see something new.”
West Australian Ballet presents Beauty and the Beast at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth from May 13-28