It's rare when both a company and its audience rise to the occasion. But Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre brought John Neumeier's daring balletic version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" to a boiling point in its American premiere at the Benedum Center on Friday night.
More surprisingly, the audience, particularly one raised on a traditional menu of ballets such as "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake," responded mightily to the decidedly raw emotions on display, baring sex, homosexuality and mental instability as if under a microscope.
It wasn't easy. Alfred Schnittke's score for the second act could be termed Charles Ives on steroids, an aurally shocking patchwork quilt of symphonic music, ragtime and sometimes grating improvisation. But it was brilliantly appropriate, providing an uncompromising look into Blanche's mental state and its slow deterioration.
Mr. Neumeier remained faithful to Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, yet turned it on its head by starting at the end, with Blanche staring blankly for several uncomfortable minutes in a mental institution. That gave way to her memories at the Belle Reve plantation and her marriage to Allan, whose homosexual affair with a "friend" was witnessed by Blanche, which led to an argument and Allan's subsequent suicide.
Everything was heightened by Mr. Neumeier's uncompromising vision, a starkly lit scenic design with white floor and a bank of distressed plantation shutters along each side that gave the production a surrealistic aura. The first act featured a backdrop of the majestically columned Belle Reve, which slowly melted, a symbol of the disintegration of the Deep South.
The second act continued that symbolism, with a set of streetcar tracks at the back and only two beds, one for Stella and Stanley's apartment and the other for the sanatorium. To his credit, Mr. Neumeier extended the stage over the Benedum's orchestra pit and placed two more doors, allowing more of the action to take place literally in the audience's face.
There were so many levels at work here. It was a magnificent study in contrasts, including the slow, mannered ways of the South, with dancers drifting across the stage, versus the cacophony of jittery dance in New Orleans' emerging Industrial Age.
There was the use of Prokofiev's atmospheric "Visions Fugitives" at Belle Reve, then the jarring stabs of Schnittke's first symphony. It had a jaw-dropping depiction of violence, yet tempered with a poetic flow.
And even though the story was familiar, Mr. Neumeier molded the emotionally driven movement in such a way that we simply did not know how he would arrive there.
But this artistic balancing act was really defined by the connective tissue to be found in the direction and choreography, how the ensemble sometimes echoed the movements of the principal characters. Or were those characters a product of that environment, of the times? Then there was the return of Allan in New Orleans because he still invaded Blanche's thoughts.
It was a transformative ballet for a company that often markets ballets primarily to garner popularity, but never more so than with the dancers here. Eva Trapp (Blanche), noted for her abstract contemporary work at PBT, was a wounded butterfly, but strong enough to shoulder a ballet built around her. Robert Moore, always so handsome and elegant, reached deep to find the primal nature within Stanley.
They received unflinching support from Alexandra Kochis, an ingenue ballerina who found Stella's sexual transformation, Christopher Budzynski's multi-faceted Allan, and Stephen Hadala's Mitch, so accommodating in his loneliness, but most of all the ensemble who brought the decidedly individual characters of a distinctly American literary classic to life.