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The Scottish Ballet dances its way into ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Since its debut in 1947, Tennessee Williams’ scorcher of a play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” has been made into an iconic film starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, received countless stage incarnations around the world, became the source of an opera by Andre Previn and even inspired a couple of ballets.

But when it comes to dance interpretations, it is the Scottish Ballet’s 2012 production — choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (who was raised in Europe, the daughter of a Colombian father who worked as an engineer, and a Belgian mother), and conceptualized by Nancy Meckler (the American theater and film director best known for her work with Britain’s Shared Experience company) —  that has grabbed hold of the imagination most fiercely. Chicago audiences will be able to see what all the excitement is about when the Glasgow-based company presents its award-winning “Streetcar” for three performances, May 7-9, at the Harris Theater for Music Dance.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, choreographer of the Scottish Ballet production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Recalling the ballet’s genesis, Ochoa said it was Ashley Page, Scottish Ballet’s artistic director from 2002-2012, who paired her up  with Meckler and suggested three possible stories that might be turned into a full-length ballet.

“The choices were Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina,’ Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ and ‘Streetcar’,” said Ochoa, whose previous work was largely abstract, though shot through with emotional connections. “Until then I knew the play only from seeing a clip of Brando crying ‘Stella!’,” Ochoa confessed. “But once I read it I immediately decided, ‘I want to do this drama,’ and I wondered why I hadn’t seen it in dance before. I went to Paris to see a production of the play, and watched the movie, and then met with Nancy [Meckler] in London to work on the adaptation.”

THE SCOTTISH BALLET IN ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’  7:30 p.m. May 7 -9, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph. $10 – $95. Visit HarrisTheaterChicago.org

Williams’ steamy tale, with a Depression-era New Orleans backdrop, features a trio of powerfully drawn characters  — Blanche DuBois, the aging, penniless, self-delusional Southern belle who has traveled from the family’s bankrupt mansion to stay with her earthy sister, Stella, and Stella’s brutishly sexy husband, Stanley Kowalski. And the story’s erotic charge, primal emotions and inevitable spiral toward tragedy is truly worthy of a sort of dance of death.

“There is no past tense in dance, so everything Blanche reveals about her past — including her marriage to a young man she realizes is homosexual, and to the way Stella left her family to marry Stanley — had to unfold in a direct, linear way from the start,” said Ochoa. “And all the characters had to have strong emotional connections. In the second act I also wanted to give the sense of Blanche, who was drinking heavily, living more and more of a fantasy life. And yes, there is a poker game for four men. And there is a rape scene.

“… Nancy had directed the play 15 years earlier and knew it inside-out. I devised the images I knew were essential. Then there was the third collaborator — our composer, Peter Salem, who has scored many plays, television series and films. The one thing I knew was important was to have a musical theme for each of the characters. I wanted the sound of a streetcar passing by. And I kept hearing the song ‘Paper Moon’.

“Finally, there was the design,” Ochoa said. “I like object theater, so I turned to set and costume designer Niki Turner who created a wall of 200 beer crates that can be moved to create everything from Blanche’s crumbling Belle Rive mansion [which also is a metaphor for her inner state], to the furniture in Stella and Stanley’s cramped little two-bedroom apartment. And we’ve got that bare bulb effect by way of lighting designer Tim Mitchell.”

The Scottish Ballet in choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Eve Musto (center), as Blanche, in the Scottish Ballet production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Photo: Andrew Ross)

The Scottish Ballet production, already widely seen in the U.K., and the recipient of the Critics’ Circle Award (Best Dance Production) and South Bank Award (Best Classical Choreography), toured to New Orleans and a couple of smaller southern cities about a year and a half ago. The positive response led to the current tour that is starting in Chicago and will then stop in San Antonio, Houston, Pittsburgh, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and Washington, D.C’s, Kennedy Center.

Now under the direction of Christopher Hempson (with dancers trained in Britain, but drawn from many countries), the Scottish Ballet has a solid history of performing narrative ballets, so, as Ochoa noted, “the dancers’ acting skills were right there, and they understood this is a piece in which acting is even more crucial than technique.” Dancing Blanche will be Eve Musto, who originated the role.

Sophie Martin as Stella and Tama Barry as Stanley in the Scottish Ballet production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Photo: Andrew Ross)

Ochoa laughed as she explained she was initially sent to study at the Royal Academy of Flanders because her mother hoped it might tame her tomboy impulses, adding: “I immediately liked the expressive aspect of dancing, and the music, and that also is why I stopped dancing at age 32 and turned my attention to choreography.”

Two additional story ballets are already on Ochoa’s schedule: The U.S. premiere, in February, of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” the French Baroque tale of passion and betrayal, to be danced by Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet, and “The Life of Frida Kahlo,” one of three new works by women choreographers to be debuted by the English National Ballet in April 2016.