August 2023


Hamburg Ballet Festival
A Streetcar Named Desire
from Prague   

Renate Stendhal

On a summer visit in Hamburg I chanced upon the Hamburger Ballett-Tage, a yearly festival that revisits works by John Neumeier. This year falls under the celebrations of Neumeier's 50-year jubilee as the renowned choreographer and ballet director prepares to retire. His ballet A Streetcar Named Desire, created in 1983,  was performed by one of only two guest companies, the Czech National Ballet, with the original costumes, sets and lighting devised, as usual, by Neumeier himself.

The ballet is based on the famous 1947 play by Tennessee Williams (that won him a Pulitzer Prize) and was created twenty years after the award-winning movie version by Elia Kazan with Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando. Neumeier created it for the Stuttgart Ballet and its superb dancer-actors Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun. Neumeier's intention was not a faithful rendition, but to express his personal impression of the play.

The one and a half-hour ballet is divided into two parts. Act I shows the past of Blanche in the Confederate South, and Act II continues where the theater play begins, with Blanche's arrival in New Orleans, at the dilapidated flat of her sister Stella and husband Stanley Kowalski. The opening of Neumeier's Streetcar reverses the order of the play and begins with its end: Blanche sits on her bed in the mental hospital, dressed in the frilly pink and white dress of her youth, with a little suitcase at her side. For a long time she stares at the audience without any movement or sound, giving us time to imagine the well-known drama in her memory. It's a powerful moment that evolves into hand-wringing and nervous titters, accompanied by Prokofiev's Visions fugitives. Soon enough, though, the ghosts of the past, in the shape of men, appear from under the bed and the curtains behind her. The men don't court her, they pursue her aggressively. The suitcase falls open, a white feather boa appears, and the scene shifts to Blanche's childhood home "Belle Rive."

We are in the old South, indicated by louver sidings and over-head fans. There is a party, perhaps a wedding party, with genteel couples performing repetitive genteel dances. A bridal veil appears, then a bouquet of flowers. Blanche dances with different men as the party goes on and on, interrupted by sudden sounds of shots. It is unclear who is who. Is this the sister Stella or just another bridesmaid? Is this the husband or just another suitor? The women are all dressed in white and pink like Blanche, all identical in their repetitive, polite cotillons. One man in black seems to be the husband, who suddenly brings the party to life by dancing with another man. Their long -stretched movements don't bring them close in this pas de deux, but the notion of a broken rule keeps one's eyes glued to them. So far, the only gravitational pull of the story lies in this brief homosexual episode. Blanche watches their dance, angrily reprimands her man, but carries on with him with the same conventionality as before. Suddenly, one of the shots we kept hearing has struck him dead.

Then a group in stiff black Confederation garb, looking like ancestors, sits stiffly at the back in a little circle and starts dying while Blanche hovers unhappily over them. This apparently is the demise of the family. Blanche loses her relatives and her home, symbolized by walls and roof caving in. The party is over.

Do we care?

A main problem is that Blanche, danced by Nikola Maraova, is a pretty and technically perfect dancer, but doesn't manage to become a character, a person one could develop a feeling for. With the same unflattering wig, she never appears as an innocent, vulnerable young woman who marries an illusion and (in the play) is wrecked by guilt over her boyish husband's suicide. The ballerina doesn't shows a development. We don't see her being broken by her continuous illusions about one rapacious man after another, slowly getting degraded and ostracized by a rigid society. I began to wonder: was it only the dancer or also the choreography that failed the complexity of the character?

Onc can't think of Blanche du Bois and not see Vivian Leigh in Elia Kazan's brilliant film rendition of the play. Leigh's Blanche is a woman torn up by hysteria, self-loathing, self-pity, and violent hatred for men, all underneath the tattered veneer of feminine wiles. What makes her so touching is her fragile beauty and a childish hope for redemption from a cavalier in shining armor. How would ballet – with its already exaggerated femininity – express the outré charms of the Southern Belle that made Blanche du Bois a favorite for transvestite shows?

In the ballet world of the early eighties, Pina Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal had already shaken up Germany with their violent body language of extreme femininity and masculinity. The year 1983 might have been a bit early in Germany to access the sensibility of "camp" – even for a gay choreographer picking up the play by a gay author.

Act II begins with another bed, this time in an empty space, and we see a couple copulating with abandon. This is Stella, Blanche's sister, and her man, Stanley Kowalski. The music is now (and throughout the act) by modern Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (Symphony I), a dissonant mix of electronic sounds. Stanley is presented in unattractive underwear, performing the usual gymnastics of what ballet does with sex. None of it is steamy; it rather comically resembles zoo acrobatics and fails to characterize an obsessive, sado-masochistic relationship. Danilo Lo Monaco , in the role of Stanley Kowalski, initially comes across as a dancer without much male charisma. But Stella, danced by Alexandra Pera, has a sensuous aura and warm temperament that keep one's interest. She is the first embodied "character" who shows up. Finally, the bed rolls to the side and we are in New Orleans, where Blanche emerges with her little suitcase.

Schnittke's abstract music has some jazzy phrases, a man dances a frantic jitterbug at the back, a few Southern types pop up or pass by, some perhaps black, some perhaps poor, and they seem randomly strewn across the deep stage, remaining isolated, not leaving much of a mark. Blanche gets roughly entangled with several men, but finally meets sister Stella. I found myself drawing a sigh of relief that we had finally reached the point where the recognizable drama of Tennessee Williams's play would take hold.

Another bed becomes the focal point of the rest of the ballet. The shabby bed of Stella's proletarian life, soon decorated with flowery draperies by Blanche. The relation of the sisters springs to life thanks to Stella's presence, but all too soon Stella disappears and leaves the space to Mitch, the fourth main character of the drama. Mitch is introduced not at a poker round but as a sparring partner of Stanley's. Danced by John Powers, Mitch is tall and has a brooding personality that makes him attractive and allows some hope for tender romance for Blanche, but one feels his sexual pressure and growing tension as Stanley interferes with obvious scorn and aggression against Blanche.

In the triangle of the two men and Blanche, the dancers suddenly seem to pick up the dramatic suspense and urgency of the story. They slip into character and their body language becomes compelling. Neumeier manages to create a continuously tightening threat against Blanche who appears more vulnerable and touching. When Mitch forces her into the glaring light of truth, revealing her illusions of youth and innocence, it happens on that same terrifying bed, and is violent and heartbreaking. But this is only the start of Neumeier's  endgame. It finally becomes clear what drove the choreographer to this story – the elemental destruction of a woman
by men.

Sexual cruelty has been thematized in Neumeier's ballets with unusual force, for example in The Little Mermaid (performed in San Francisco). In A Streetcar Named Desire it springs to life like a flame eating up a rope toward an explosion. Now every detail, every repetition or delay seems justified, revealing what the play and the movie didn't and couldn't show. The  sexual assault takes the form of an extended torment. Stanley's animalistic drive now is so convincingly embodied by the dancer that he seems to be a different person, a different beast. Blanche becomes a flailing ragdoll under his attacks, accompanied by a dreadful cacophony of sounds and bangs in Schnittke's score. It's the first time that the composition has a dominant rhythm, and it's a rhythm and sound of crashing and pounding beats. The choreography rises to extraordinary violence as the rape of Blanche is executed like a sexual execution. Stanley stomps again and again on her belly and between her legs as if to stamp out her sex once and
for all. It's a shocking, devastating finale, the most daring and quasi graphic rape scene I ever saw on a ballet stage. Just as devastating is the appearance of the doctor, a finely dressed gentleman who raises the crumpled leftovers of Blanche from the floor with the famous "kindness of strangers," and kisses her hand. 

Thanks to the overpowering ending, there was strong applause. The ballerina curtsied gratefully toward the right front of the orchestra, when Neumeier usually sits and watches. A monstrosity of a flower bouquet was dragged onto the stage, Neumeier stepped up and bowed with the guest company. He looked pleased – a small, benevolent old man, surely pleased that young dancers will continue to carry his torch.
Ideally, the performance would have been half its length and performed by dancers who can bring a character to the stage within an instant. But this is perhaps still to come: the 50th anniversary season begins this fall with A Streetcar Named Desire – danced by Neumeier's illustrious dancer/actors. It might be a different story.

Copyright Images@Kiran West


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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. ( is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2023 Renate Stendhal
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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