It's a well known fact that making a dance work out of a play is notoriously tricky. For many, the movement from language to steps is associated with a loss of directness, details and, finally meaning. George Balanchine famously said that with dance one cannot say that they hate their mother-in-law. Well, choreographer Marianna Venekei clearly manages to convey “I hate and desire my sister-in-law” in her version of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. A world première and Venekei's first full-length work for the Hungarian National Ballet, this close adaptation of William’s 1947 work, is a pearl not to be missed.

A Scene from <i>A Streetcar Named Desire</i> © Szilvia Csibi
A Scene from A Streetcar Named Desire
© Szilvia Csibi

Full of juicy details for those who know the play and still comprehensible for those unfamiliar with it, the work opens with a flashback to Blanche and Stella DuBois' infancy: two young well-to-do girls in white bouffant dresses are seen playing on stage. The scene quickly recedes to a lonely figure in white, waiting at a tram station at night. It is Blanche who has just arrived in New Orleans to visit her sister and who, with the rhythm of jazz, is directly plunged into the city's bright nightlife. Similar to Williams’ fluidity in the use of inside and outside scenes, the dance plays with the depth of the stage, presenting at the front the interior of Stella’s and Stan’s home and in the back, with a switch of lights, the street. Venekei and composer László Dés have maintained several other details, so we see Stella’s white fur and tiara but also her addiction to the bottle, and the stairs leading to the neighbors' where Stella and Blanche take refuge after the poker night. We also see the confrontational relationship between Blanche and Stan and Stella’s ambivalent attitude towards the two. West Side Story influenced group scenes are interspersed with flashback sections where Gergely Zöldy Z’s stage design allows for a retelling of Blanche’s past that is necessary for the understanding of the storyline – in the original, these are narrated. Bianca Imelda Jeremias’ wonderful costumes also contribute to re-creating Blanche’s memories and fantasies. We see her partnered by a group of men – her ex-lovers – in grey suits, her fantasy of being saved by a prince charming in white and her final descent into madness and death. In the form of a forties version of a ballet blanc, this can be seen as an homage to other famous ballet madness and death scenes.

A Scene from <i>A Streetcar Named Desire</i> © Szilvia Csibi
A Scene from A Streetcar Named Desire
© Szilvia Csibi
The idea for the production came some years ago and Venekei and Dés have been working on the music for at least three. The time invested in preparing the work can be seen in the continuous attention to detail, the perfect balance between movement and mimed scenes – that are clear and informative without being obvious or trite – and the relationship between music and dance. This is the first full-length score for dance composed in a while and Dés worked with the opera orchestra and jazz musicians to record the soundtrack. Working as he would a musical, Dés composed a varied, multi layered soundtrack that recreates the Southern big band jazz mood of a New Orleans neighborhood in the forties, but it also features symphonic parts. As in Williams’ play the alternation of the rhythms, or leitmotif, follows the characters and the situations. Similarly, the changes in the lighting designed by Balázs Csontos are crucial for the rhythm of the action and the characterization of the figures (in line with Williams' play), moving from Blanche’s dreamy, escapist atmosphere to a stark neon light that reveals every little detail of the stage and characters - this light is associated with Mitch, Blanche’s would-be boyfriend. Most importantly, the timing of the scenes is captivating, at times almost too quick – as the too brief suspense waiting for the first shot. The only moment I felt it the action could have moved faster was with the final struggle between Stan and Blanche; by the end of it, she is exhausted and so are we, so great are the realism and brutality of the scene. In the text, this sequence is elegantly glossed over for the reader to imagine. A particular mention goes to the brilliant cast: Jessica Carulla Leon offered a magnificent interpretation of Blanche’s concealed fragility whereas Balázs Majoros was a brutally vital Stan.

A Scene from <i>A Streetcar Named Desire</i> © Szilvia Csibi
A Scene from A Streetcar Named Desire
© Szilvia Csibi
There is the tendency in dance, for various reasons, of producing shorter works, with fewer choreographers venturing into full-length evenings. Venkei’s work is thus a great surprise, accurate in every detail. Should you be planning to visit Budapest, this is a production not to be missed. The memorable scenes of the dance battles between Blanche and Stan and the terrifying simplicity of the final image of Blanche in a bathtub will stay with me for some time. With that in mind, I look forward to Venekei’s next production.

Katja's trip to Budapest was sponsored by the Hungarian State Opera.