Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tom Sawyer: An American Ballet

So why was I in the ghost metropolis of Kansas City, Missouri, marveling at the intact bronze-work and the lack of excrement in the flowerbeds? Why, to attend the world premiere--and inaugural performance in Kansas City's new opera house--of the Tom Sawyer ballet!

I've only ever seen one full length ballet, and I've seen it many, many times: The Nutcracker Suite. Every year at Christmas time in Hawaii, we'd go to the Aloha Theater to see the community ballet troupe perform the perennial classic, usually because we knew the little girl who was playing Clara. I always looked forward to it because I could hum all of the tunes. (I feel the same way about opera: if I can hum the tune, I'm interested, otherwise I'll probably fall asleep.) So I don't know as much about ballet as I do about, say, feminism or Batman, but I know just enough to get myself in trouble. In true Tom Sawyer fashion, I'm going to just charge on ahead and pretend like I know what I'm talking about, and we'll see what shenanigans ensue. That's the American way!

This is the the first full-length American ballet based on an American story, composed and choreographed by Americans. Ever. (Suck it, Russia!) I love the eminently-quotable Mark Twain--"Clothes make the man; naked people have little or no influence on society." He's considered the first truly American writer, so it's entirely appropriate to base the first American ballet on his classic "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." So much of the beauty and genius of Twain lies in the words themselves, so I imagine it was a challenge to adapt "Tom Sawyer" to an art form totally devoid of words. Look, Mum, no lyrics! I'd say the ballet succeeds in this goal, particularly in the second act, where Tom and Huck spend the night in a graveyard and witness a violent murder. All of the best dances come in the second act. Muff Potter's "Duet for a Man and his Flask" is my particular favorite. Why can't I look that graceful when I'm lurching around drunk in a cemetery? I'm also fond of the fight-dance between Injun Joe and Doc. It made me wish someone would make a Batman ballet, just so I could see more classy, violent men brawling and dying in a most beautiful fashion. From a technical standpoint, however, I'd have to say that the Dance of the Stone Angel is probably the highlight of that act. The music and movements are so perfectly aligned in their eeriness that even a layperson like myself can tell how truly original and inspired it is. That said, really all of the second act is just outstanding: the tombstones coming to life, the fireflies, the ghosts, the Sprite Circus, the zombies (the program says they're goblins, but when a gray stiff-limbed fellow clambers out of a grave and menaces a teenager, that's a damn zombie). This is the act that other ballet companies will choose to perform when they can't do the full-length version.

The highlights of the first act are the opening scene--Tom tricking his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence, possibly the most famous moment in all of American literature--and Tom and Becky's pas de deux in the school classroom. Appropriately, Tom and Becky's other pas de deux in the cave is the highlight of the third act. We heard a lot of the music for this ballet before we saw any of the choreography, and Big Sister said of Tom and Becky's theme, "I can just picture that part of their dance when they're across the stage and fluttering their fingers as they run toward each other." And that's exactly what happened in the ballet! Good call, Past Big Sister.

I feel nice and patriotic about joining the international ballet scene with a traditional American ballet of our very own. As for hum-worthiness, that prize goes to the Mississippi theme, or as I like to think of it, the Great American West song, appearing as the overture for the third act and reprised in the final number. If I was slightly more tech-savvy, I'd post a sound bite for everyone, but I don't know how to do that, and writing, "da-da-da-dada, da-dadada-da-da-DADA!" doesn't really capture the breadth and majesty of the music. You'll just have to wait until it comes to a city near you!

And now, the after-party! Here we all are, Big Sister, her Fiance, Mum, and Big Island Rachel in a halter dress and my great-grandmother's rhinestone jewelry. That dress I'm wearing may look nice, but a week later I've still got a bruise on my neck from the halter-bra I had to wear with it. Oh, the trials of the well-titted woman!

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