Dell Hall, Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin, Texas, February 10, 2017
“Belle Redux,” choreographed by Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills and premiered by the company in 2015, is a dark reboot of the 18th-century French fairytale “La Belle et la Bête” (Beauty and the Beast). The two-act ballet was commissioned by the 3M corporation as part of a program to fund innovation in the arts (as part of his research, Mills met with 3M researchers and engineers), so it’s no surprise that it is unlike Mills’s other story ballets. Those ballets, including “Taming of the Shrew” (2004), “Hamlet” (2000), and “Cinderella” (1997), are updated and streamlined versions of the classics, but they retain the “package” of a continuous narrative, with nuances and a general reverence to plot. But in Mills’s “Belle,” the tale is stripped to its most essential elements, with the narrative largely focused on reinforcing the juxtaposition of good and evil. The arc has an unexpected shape, and the momentum is largely delegated to the production’s sophisticated set, video, and costume design.
As might be expected of a fairy tale, the world of “Belle” was organized in poles: good and evil, black and white, give and take, hard and soft. Michael B. Raiford’s production design, enlivened by Tony Tucci’s lighting, dove into these extremes, creating an arresting, severe environment. The multileveled and layered set shaped-shifted often, with a rolling staircase to a second level and narrow screens for video projections, among them solitary candles leading the way, one by one, to Beast’s castle and a stark, leafless tree (the video was designed by Colin Lowry and Jeff Kurihara, with cinematography by Eric Graham). Mottled-mirror walls represented Beast’s castle: there, the characters were shut off, closed in. The roses that Evil, danced by Elise Pekarek in a beautiful white romantic skirt and teased wig, bestowed on the boy who was to become Beast, manipulating his fate, were blood red, as were the thick stripes, down the face and torso and around the throat, that depicted the mark of evil in all the main characters, revealed by a hall of mirrors in the second act. Belle’s mean sisters wore twin voluminous black wigs, sheer black tights, and piercing black pointe shoes. The male ensemble, a quartet of Horses and a trio of Dark Figures, were bare-torsoed, with black, face-obscuring hoods. Much of the costuming seemed inspired by S&M-wear or something more sinister: chillingly, the hoods, in the back, ended in points.
In stark contrast, Belle, danced by Jaime Lynn Witts in this performance, wore soft shoes and a simple, floating green dress, with her natural blonde hair bouncing gently around her shoulders. Her first duet with Beast, danced by Edward Carr, was tinged with electricity, mutual anxiety, and cautious excitement, as though trying to puzzle their feelings into their hostile, uncompromising world. But despite the considerable dramatic capabilities of these artists and the richness of the design, it seemed at times that the polarity had exhausted its utility. Since the elements of good and evil themselves were the story, rather than being mere undercurrents of the story’s fabric, the effect was something like flour bleached of its nutrients and then, to fill the resulting emptiness, “enriched.”
But the music, a recorded score commissioned from prolific Austin composer Graham Reynolds, seemed malnourished, too. There were some exceptions, such as a buoyant string movement for a female ensemble of Roses, but overall, despite diverse ingredients—gut-rumbling bass, eerie pizzicato, blunt percussion, haunting electronica and strings, lullaby-type motifs, and gentle piano—the score lacked the dynamism and complexity needed to carry off a story ballet. In parallel, Mills’s choreography moved characters between the plot points well enough, but it often relied on balletic vogueing (splayed arms, kicks, poses stricken), and the calculation required for some complicated partnering sequences, with Belle tumbling over groups of men, resulted in movement that felt plodding and predictable. Although Mills has collaborated with Reynolds before, his best works are driven by Glass, Mozart, and baroque music. As much as I would have liked “Belle” to prove deep-seated expectations of ballet music unnecessary, this music seemed better suited for a genre (film, performance art, animation) that has slightly less stake in it.
Then again, if the intention was to create a disturbing, stagnant world, devoid of spontaneity or breeze, the elements of the ballet succeeded. Only in the final scene, in which Belle and Beast united in a tender, human duet, did subtleties emerge to suggest a way of being beyond “good” or “evil,” an authenticity that subverted the prescriptives of categorizations. In this scene, starkly different from those that preceded it, Belle and Beast appeared alone onstage, in the center of a stage-sized piece of fabric, bathed in warm red light that suggested either a refuge from or a relenting to the evil of the world outside. In this final duet, Witts and Carr were relaxed and inquisitive, tentatively playful as they slid gently and noiselessly along the fabric, exploring its expanse, their expanse. In the end, Belle perched at a corner of the swath, and Beast, at center, pulled the fabric to bring her to him. They played this game until the fabric, rumpled and twisted like a giant bedsheet, enveloped them both.
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