The story of beauty and the beast has been around for quite a while. Scholars trace its beginnings to ancient Rome. The first modern version of the story of a prince who is turned into a hideous creature and can return to his old self only by a kiss from the woman he loves was written by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740. Since then, the fable has appeared in various media – book, theater, film (real life and animated), and TV.
Lew Christensen, then artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, choreographed a full-length rendition in 1958. The ballet was so successful it was kept in repertory there for 10 years.
The show was revamped in the 1980s and purchased by the Pittsburgh Ballet in 2016. It did another makeover, and that’s the production that Texas Ballet Theater brought to Bass Performance Hall last weekend. While Christensen is still listed as choreographer, the program notes indicate it has been restaged by San Francisco Ballet dancer Leslie Young. How much it now looks like the original is a question mark.
But it’s still a handsome show. I had reservations during the first act, particularly in the beginning, when the choreography seemed repetitive and not very interesting. The stags, who served as the beast’s guards, did a lot of individual wandering on and off stage in the gloomy fortress, slowly repeating their sequences two and three times for no apparent reason. The beauty, Belle (Alexandra Farber), wandered into the Beast’s garden with her father (Brett Young), who cut her a rose just as the Beast (Carl Coomer) came by. In a rage, the monster hauled her into his chamber and sent her father away.
He actually liked her and tried everything to make her comfortable and unafraid. He had servants assemble a throne-like chair for her, with carved duck armrests, and brought her treats to eat. He forced her to dance with him, but she pulled away every time. He brought in dancers to amuse her, a group of six and one of five ballerinas, but nothing worked. In despair, he let her go.
The precision I expected from TBT ensembles was missing in the two groups that performed. Not serious but enough to disappoint. A couple of dancers landed from jumps with a thud, and some had trouble keeping their arms in sync.
The second act began with Belle sitting at home, looking at the rose. A stag came to her door to tell her the Beast had died of a broken heart and that they knew he would want her at his funeral. She hesitated a few moments before discovering she really cared about the Beast and even loved him.
She arrived as the funeral procession, clad in heavy, black, cowled robes, was carrying the Beast’s bier to the building’s main darkened chamber, setting it to rest on a raised platform. After a few moments, she went up to the body, laid the rose she had brought with her on his chest, bent down, and kissed him. In a way, the scene reminded me of Sleeping Beauty in reverse. Here the beauty kissed the prince. But the Beast didn’t come to life right away. Belle sat with the other mourners with her head down.
Suddenly the Beast’s shoulder jerked. Then his head moved. Finally, he was standing looking at his paws. He yanked the fur off his hands and then his arms, and slowly he began looking more and more like a man. As he removed the headpiece, his final piece, brilliant lights came up, and he stood with arms outstretched dressed in solid white –– a stunningly handsome man. It may sound corny, but it was a magic moment.
And there were more to come. Without warning, the gloomy chamber behind him blazed into an 18th-century palace, with six attendants holding candelabras dripping with carved crystals on what looked like 10-foot poles.
Then the serious dancing began. Farber and Coomer danced an extended adagio duet, showing their love and happiness in smooth, gentle movements. Richard McKay led the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the pit, making little-known Tchaikovsky works express the emotions onstage. The orchestra was great throughout. The duet suddenly switched to showoff time with Coomer lifting Farber over his head parallel to the floor, supporting her at the hip and legs and holding her there for a few beats like a weight lifter. She didn’t descend feet first but head first, with Coomer stopping her descent to gently set her upright. Two additional couples, Carolyn Judson and Jiyan Dai along with Samantha Pille and Alexander Kotelenets, danced equally fine pas de deux. The full corps came out with wonderful precision for the finale, and the sold-out house roared its approval as the curtain came down. It really was one of TBT’s shining nights.