Last weekend I had the pleasure of going to the ballet. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre always puts on a stunning performance technically, and this evening was no different; usually when I review their shows I’m forced to comment on the plot of the show itself rather than the performers. (Let’s face it—I’m no ballerina, so I don’t feel qualified to say anything besides “Those jumps and lifts and spins were fantastic!”)
Today is going to be a little different, in that I’m going to look at both the performers and the story. The Moulin Rouge story they performed was superficially similar to the Baz Luhrmann film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, in that it featured an artist in love with a Moulin Rouge dancer and a story that ended in tragedy, but that’s about as far as the similarities went. The ballet’s male lead, Matthew, was a painter, and the female lead, Nathalie, was a laundress plucked from obscurity and tossed into the spotlight. They sneak around Nathalie’s jealous manager Zidler but are eventually caught, and Nathalie is shot accidentally with a bullet intended for Matthew.
These characters could easily dissolve into flat stereotypes, but the dancers who played them really brought their A-game and fleshed out the parts. Nathalie, as played by Christine Schwaner, was young and poor but street-smart and headstrong; Luca Sbrizzi’s Matthew was naive and a bit bumbling but very earnest, and proud of his skills as a painter. They really made me care about the characters and get invested in the show in a way I haven’t been invested in a ballet for a long time. Joseph Parr was also great as supporting character Toulouse-Lautrec, (yes, the famous painter). He was funny and interesting, but also three-dimensional and invested in the progression of the story and what happened to the characters. He had a bunch of humorous gestures and cues that were specific to his character, without being too much of a caricature.
I’m always wary going into a show or movie where I know the female character is going to die. I had real issues with Giselle because the title character was basically fridged to provide angst for the male leads. This story, however, didn’t frustrate me. It may be because Nathalie’s character was so much more well-developed, and because her death was tragic for the other characters and the audience without only being there as prop for the male characters’ plot progression. It was also very different from a lot of the fluttery, tragic deaths women in ballet usually get—they actually used stage blood to show where she had been shot, and instead of just falling into the hero’s arms and collapsing, she stormed around the stage for a full five minutes or longer, forcing Zidler to look at the consequences of what he’d done and smearing the blood on his coat.
The sets and costumes were also stunning, as per usual, and the music, all individual instrumental pieces cobbled together into an overarching theme, brought me to tears at some points. My only real complaint is that the show portrayed Roma people as pickpockets/thieves. Can we move away from this racist cultural shorthand, please? It was tired a long time ago.
All in all, Moulin Rouge, though admittedly tragic and depressing, was a very enjoyable way to spend my Saturday night; kudos to PBT for such an excellent performance.