First came the classic novel. Then the cameras started rolling, resulting in several films and a six-part television miniseries. The only wonder is that it has taken so long for “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen’s tale of nuptial intrigue in 19th-century England, to become a ballet.
Translating “Pride and Prejudice” into dance might give a choreographer pause for several reasons, not least of which is the novel’s extensive roll-call of characters. The heroine, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, has four sisters all eager to wed while the pool of eligible bachelors in fictional Meryton includes an entire regiment. Parents, neighbors, cousins, aunts and uncles further tangle the web of relationships. Yet with such a juicy romance ripe for the picking, Douglas Martin, the artistic director of American Repertory Ballet, courageously brushed aside concerns. And so, on Friday, ARB gave “Pride and Prejudice” its balletic premiere at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton (The work was also presented on Saturday).
In this theatrical form, “Pride and Prejudice” resembles an epic more than a novel. With costume and production design by internationally known artist A. Christina Gianinni, additional scenic design by Omar Ramos and lighting by Christopher Chambers, the ballet represents a huge undertaking for ARB. Divided into two acts, it has a seemingly endless number of brief episodes. The plot travels with the speed of gossip ricocheting back and forth among various country estates, invading meadows and circulating freely through ballrooms, bedrooms and a parsonage. When Martin runs out of time, he splits the stage, showing us two scenes side-by-side. There are also scenes-within-scenes, as dancers in the background pantomime the content of a letter or a conversation. Each change in location is announced in advance, the place names appearing in pretty, oval frames like antique portraits; projections supply luxurious Regency settings. Even so, cast members and stage hands are continually scurrying to rearrange furniture and potted garden shrubbery.
Martin does a terrific job cramming the whole plot into a single evening (“Nicholas Nickleby,” the play, required two), focusing our attention amid the bustle and, amazingly, keeping the story absolutely clear at all times. That is, it will be clear to initiates. In the absence of program notes, any duffers who have not read the novel will flounder helplessly. Never mind that the performers act convincingly and have been rehearsed to perfection.
Inevitably, Martin has made some adjustments to the plot — omitting, for instance, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s invalid daughter and exaggerating, for comic effect, Miss Mary Bennet’s attraction to the imbecile pastor, Mr. William Collins. Dancer Karen Leslie Moscato does a giddy turn as Mary, turning her into a Sadie Hawkins type of man-chaser. Whether by choice or of necessity, Martin also downplays the darkest aspect of Austen’s story: the fact that the Bennet sisters will become destitute outcasts if they fail to wed. That fear makes the novel as much a melodrama as a springtime romance, while Elizabeth Bennet’s surprising reversal of fortune becomes a symbol of the Romantic revolution as well as a personal triumph.
Also inevitably, perhaps, the need to tell this complicated story overshadows the dancing. Buried under an avalanche of narrative incidents, some as slight as the exchange of calling cards and sidelong glances with raised eyebrows, barnstorming choreographic showpieces are few. While Martin arranges some pleasant ballroom divertissements, the dancing in this “Pride and Prejudice” is at its best when it defines the characters and advances the story.
So, for instance, the soldiers of the regiment display their heroism by throwing their besotted lady-friends up in the air. Dancer Austap Klymko, as Pastor Collins, spouts nonsense with both hands; declares his passion for Elizabeth in a kind of spasm; and his crabbed “pas de chat” make him an object of ridicule. In the memorable scene in which Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, he stands with his back to the audience, feet apart, and clutches himself in anguish. He rolls his head, sobs and flings himself into a turn. As Mr. Darcy, dancer Mattia Pallozzi has a smoldering presence that will definitely rattle some teacups. In the scene where Elizabeth first sets eyes on Mr. Darcy’s country estate, Pemberley, her sustained arabesque turn on pointe suggests feelings of admiration that expand to fill the landscape. Monica Giragosian plays Elizabeth, a mite too smugly at times.
Other notables include Lily Saito as the sweet-natured Miss Jane Bennet, whom Aldeir Monteiro’s energetic Mr. Charles Bingley keeps waiting far too long; Nanako Yamamoto’s foolishly impulsive Miss Lydia Bennet; Erikka Reenstierna-Cates as an imperious and scheming Miss Caroline Bingley; and Shaye Firer, giving a soulful account of the fate of Miss Charlotte Lucas, who ultimately marries Pastor Collins. The scene in which Lucas stands mournfully gazing out the “window” of the parsonage marks a turning point in the ballet, the place where it ceases to be a fussy period piece and becomes a human drama. Nor would this list be complete without mentioning Mary Barton’s overdressed and absurdly frivolous Mrs. Bennet; and a masterful performance by Kathleen Moore Tovar as a haughty, brusque and thoroughly exasperated Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra, under John Devlin, accompanies this production live, playing a score judiciously assembled from music of the 19th century. Especially well chosen were Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song,” which earned a laugh when combined with Pastor Collins’ ridiculous gallantries; Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, setting the tone for Charlotte Lucas’ musings in the parsonage; and Schubert’s Impromptu #3 in G-flat Major, expressing the wonders of Pemberley.
Clearly Martin is counting on Jane Austen’s many fans to overrun the theater like an army of zombies. And so they may! Since Austen’s characters are already old friends, local audiences may come to cherish this ballet in all its richness of detail.