Unusually for a ballet, the piece incorporates a spoken word narration, delivered by the piece’s arguable villain, Lord Henry Wotton (James Zager), which helps to transition the story from Wilde’s heavily intellectual original into the realm of dance and movement.
The production is updated to the 1920’s, which works well. In the opening, we see people at their diversions: chiefly drinking, dancing, and flirting. We first see Dorian Gray (Timothy O’Donnell) posing for the portrait painted by Basil Hallward (Alexandre Ferreira), while Lord Henry stands by. Praising the portrait, Lord Henry flatters Gray, telling him “the world belongs to you—at least for one season.” This injection of spiritual venom brings Gray to make the fatal wish—to exchange his soul for eternal youth.
Lord Henry takes Gray to a party of his set, who fawn on Gray as though he were a Roman Emperor, or Pharaoh. A golden halo of light surrounds him.
Acting a proper Mephistopheles to Gray’s Faustus, Lord Henry leads Gray to the young actress, Sybil Vane (Nicole Teague), and paves the way for him to meet her. The two fall in love, an affair which ends when Gray brings Hallward and Lord Henry to see her perform. Having the three men in the front row breaks Sybil’s concentration, and she is heckled off stage. Lord Henry delivers the judgment: without her acting genius, she is “nothing.” The following day, Lord Henry reads out from the paper that her body has been found in the river. Her death is ruled a “misadventure,” but Gray is stricken with guilt.
Lord Henry takes Gray to yet another party. Providing Gray with a box of hashish pastilles (or something similar). Gray performs an Unholy Communion, distributing the drugs to openly worshipful partygoers, again bathed in golden light.
As the second act begins, fifteen years have passed. We see the people from the beginning of the first act, now sunk deeper into their individual debaucheries: more gluttonous, self-absorbed, perverted, violent, and even murderous. Gray appears, looking exactly as we last saw him, haunting his dust-cloth shrouded rooms like a ghost.
Lord Henry and Basil Hallward visit. Basil, who loves Dorian, is tortured by his behavior. Lord Henry gets Gray to reveal the portrait to Basil, who is struck with horror. Gray then kills Basil to keep his secret.
Lord Henry takes Gray to a ‘tea dance’ hosted by the Duchess of Monmouth (Susan Gartell), who comes on strongly to him. They go to bed together but are interrupted when Gray is haunted by the vision of Sybil.
Lord Henry counsels Gray that the memory of old sins can only be wiped out by new ones. Gray ends up in an opium den, but Sybil haunts his drug-dreams as well. Sybil’s vengeful brother, James (Garrett Glassman) also intrudes into the dream, which becomes reality, when James attacks Gray intending to take revenge for Sybil’s death.
James backs off in confusion when Lord Henry comes to Gray’s rescue, urging him to look at Gray’s youthful face, declaring that Gray couldn’t possibly be the same man that destroyed Sybil. Once Gray has escaped, Lord Henry taunts James with having been fooled, since Gray has sold his soul for eternal youth. Again hunting Gray, James breaks the line at a shooting party, and is killed by a hunter’s shot.
Being the cause of a second “accidental” death drives Gray into another paroxysm of guilt. Lord Henry tries to distract him with his perfection and what he could do in the future. Despairing at the prospect of an eternal life of horror and degradation, Gray attacks the portrait, and falls dead.
Given the nature of the story, there aren’t a lot of set-piece dances or lengthy ensemble numbers. The dancing that there is, is powerful and effective. Gray’s solo dances of grief and guilt are very athletic and quite dazzling. Dorian and Sybil’s “love duet” is dissonantly echoed in their breakup, with Sybil trying to recreate the prior moment while Dorian tries to push her away. Gray interacts with the frame of the never-seen portrait, making it clear that it is a trap.
There are also some nice moments for the long-time followers of the ballet. The play that Sybil Vane appears in is “Romeo and Juliet,” and the actors’ dancing alludes to Pink’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet, especially the Knight’s Dance. (Also, Marc Petrocci dances “Mercutio” in both productions--.) When Sybil Vane reappears after her death, her initial movements hark back to the appearance of the murdered villagers in the recent “Giselle,” letting us know that she is indeed a ghost.
The simple setting, consisting mostly of translucent swags of drapery and a doorway that serves multiple purposes, was enlivened by the wonderfully evocative light plot so that the set pieces changed color and solidity as the lighting changed to follow the story. The costuming was both mostly period appropriate and evocative of character. Dorian Gray’s shiny silver satin suit also took on coloration from his surroundings. (Mirrors and reflections are a continuing theme in the production.)
The score by Mr. Feeney did not tend to have memorable tunes, but was very listenable, evocative, and effective as music to dance to. Conductor Pasquale Laurino lead the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra with skill and power.
We were very happy to have seen and enjoyed this new, unique, and exciting ballet.
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