Writer: Leonard Bernstein and Khadijah Ibrahiim
Director: Matthew Eberhardt and Dane Hurst
Choreographer: Dane Hurst
The brevity of the pieces that make up Opera North’s new production: Bernstein Double Bill requires some contrivances to create a full evening’s entertainment. Act one is Bernstein’s single-act opera Trouble in Tahiti; in the second, Symphonic Dances, Phoenix Dance Theatre perform extracts from West Side Story and the two are linked by a dance to a short, spoken word piece Halfway and Beyond from Khadijah Ibrahiim.
Bernstein wrote the libretto and score for Trouble in Tahiti; a sour look at the American Dream. Sam (Quirijn de Lang) and Dinah (Sandra Piques Eddy) live an apparently ideal life in the 1950’s American suburbs. However, their marriage has become stagnant; Sam being happier with the role of breadwinner than father and husband and Dinah is taking therapy as her dreams suggest she is brooding on lost opportunities. Perhaps the couple can only find happiness in the fantasy offered by the movies – one called Trouble in Tahiti has just been released.
Director Matthew Eberhardt blends the classic with the modern. A contemporary vocal trio from a radio advertisement (Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton, Nicholas Butterfield) serve as a classic chorus- setting the scene and articulating the inner musings of the characters.
Bernstein’s score is highly varied. Blaring horns and brass, recalling the hustle and bustle of city life are balanced against the melancholic moments of Dinah pondering her situation. The jazzy/scat vocals of the trio are a knowingly over-cheerful depiction of an ideal American lifestyle.
For an opera Trouble in Tahiti is low key and avoids grand emotions. The conflict experienced by the characters is personal – they have achieved financial success and cannot understand why happiness is elusive. Charles Edwards’s set, in which the walls are made of advertisement billboards, illustrates the superficial solutions offered as a means of contentment and which the characters have already found to be unfulfilling.
The characters are sharply drawn. Quirijn de Lang’s Sam has few redeeming features; preferring to spend time playing sports than at home. When his secretary confirms he once made a pass at her he menacingly demands she forget it happened. Sandra Piques Eddy’s Dinah is unhappy to the point of being neurotic; her aria There Is A Garden a desperate expression of longing.
Charles Edwards’s set is moved to split the stage in half giving a child’s eye view of division and unification for Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Halfway and Beyond. It is not easy, when dancers perform to a spoken word backing, to determine if they are representing the images described or moving to time with the percussive music. Tonight, the former seems to be the case; descriptions from Khadijah Ibrahiim’s poem- throwing stones, flocks of birds – feature in the dance.
With Symphonic Dances director and choreographer Dane Hurst makes the daring decision to move West Side Story from the melting pot of New York to apartheid South Africa. The geographical move is not the only change- the original musical featured racially fuelled gang violence whereas Hurst’s choreography suggests community cohesion and opposition to injustice.
The only conflict shown between the characters arises from emotions such as jealousy- as misplaced letters promote concern or love is unrequited. In the main the community is united, and conflict is caused only during interaction with an oppressive authority as the dancers are forced against walls or engage in protests. In a striking moment a stark blank wall becomes a sudden blaze of graffiti colour.
The running order of the pieces in Symphonic Dances is not as set out as in the original musical. Somewhere appears much earlier in the sequence and the dance ends with a very moving sense of questioning and loss.
The construction of the Bernstein Double Bill is a bit too uneven to be completely satisfying but it remains a highly imaginative use of a classic score and a chilly reminder of the limits of the American dream.