Eugene Ballet begins the second half of its 2023-2024 dance season with two dance performances both inspired by masterpieces of American literature. Portrait in Glass, the world premiere of a new work by resident choreographer Suzanne Haag, is based on playwright Tennessee William’s domestic tragedy “The Glass Menagerie.” Accompanying Portrait in Glass at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall on February 9-10 will be artistic director Toni Pimble’s Gatsby, inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel “The Great Gatsby.”
Portrait in Glass
“I have wanted to explore ‘The Glass Menagerie’ as a ballet for a long time,” says Haag. “When Toni asked me what I’d like to create to go on the same program as her Gatsby, I immediately thought of pursuing this possibility. The fact that they are from a similar time period and both are inspired by American literature made it seem like the right time to explore this work.”
Williams’ semi-autobiographical play “The Glass Menagerie” is set in a bland St. Louis apartment in the late 1930s and explores the relationships of the Wingfield family. The mother, Amanda, is a former Southern belle abandoned many years before by her husband and left to raise their two children, Tom and Laura, alone. Now grown, Tom is a frustrated poet working at a shoe warehouse to support the family. His sister Laura, who has a limp from a childhood illness, is painfully shy, spending much of her time at home.
“The reason I wanted to turn this play into a ballet is because it is such a human work,” says Haag. “The characters are extreme, but their relationships with each other are so relatable. This is truly a picture of a family—the intense love, tension, and heartbreak that we all experience reflected onto one family.”
For the choreography, Haag does a contemporary spin on classical ballet. The movements set in the present day are weighted and heavy, while, when the characters are reliving memories, the dancing becomes light and lively. All of the women dancers wear pointe shoes except Laura, played by Sarah Kosterman. “Laura only wears one pointe shoe and her other foot is bare to signify that she is ‘different,’ that she has something physical, no matter how slight, that keeps her from fitting in.”
Other principal casting includes Antonio Lopez as Tom Wingfield, Sara Stockwell as Amanda Wingfield, and Joshua Downard as Tom Wingfield’s longtime friend, Jim O’Connor.
Eugene Ballet’s artistic team is creating striking and evocative sets and costumes for both works in the performance. A large focal point of the Portrait in Glass set is the fire escape, which the dancers use to come and go from the apartment. Explains Haag, “This piece is to signify Tom’s need for escape from his life — he begins the ballet on the fire escape. Another striking set piece is the larger-than-life portrait of Mr. Wingfield, a constant reminder that he has left his family — this is a blown-up photo of the actual dancer playing Mr. Wingfield, Sam Neale.
Laura’s prized possession, a set of fragile glass animal figurines, plays an essential role in the story. For the ballet’s audiences, associate technical director Eärendil Biskup has created large resin animals that can be seen from far away and are safe to use onstage.
The ballet is set to the music of contemporary composers Adrian Hollay and Stefan Gregory, who wrote music inspired by the play with the intention of immersing audiences in the sounds of the 1930s. Woven in are popular songs from the 1920s, including record titles that are mentioned in Williams’ short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” a precursor to his play.
In contrast to the intimacy of Haag’s work, Toni Pimble’s Gatsby, based on the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel “The Great Gatsby,” depicts the extravagant, glitzier side of the Jazz Age. Gatsby retains much from its 2016 Eugene Ballet premiere, but evolves with its new interpretation. “There are cast changes and as always this makes a significant change to the look of the production,” says Pimble.
The role of Daisy Buchanan is danced by Hayley Tavonatti, with Mark Tucker returning as Jay Gatsby. Reed Souther, who performed the role of George Wilson in the original production, is taking on the role of Tom Buchanan. Ethan Boresow will dance the role of Nick Carraway and Jade McAnally the role of Jordan Baker. Danielle Tolmie will reprise her role of Myrtle Wilson, joined by Dave Naquin as George Wilson .
The costumes and sets are apropos to the lavish parties and drama of the story. The set design for the Buchanan home has been updated and the Gatsby car, a 1929 Mercedes Benz replica, will be back on stage with a new (and more reliable) battery engine.
The costumes were carefully crafted to reflect the era. “I designed and built over half of the women’s costumes for Gatsby, especially the main characters’ and the ladies’ dresses at the Gatsbys’ party,” says Pimble. “I did a fair amount of research into 1920’s styles, taking them to a more theatrical level designed specifically for dance. The men’s costumes were researched and sourced mostly online.”
As with the 2016 premiere, Orchestra Next is bringing in Tony Glausi, a renowned trumpeter and University of Oregon graduate, from New York to perform the music of Wynton Marsalis, which provides the score for the performance. There are quite a few improvisational moments taken by solo instruments in the Orchestra Next Jazz Ensemble, which the dancers must also improvise. Daisy’s solos in the first act and the pas de deux with Gatsby have moments of improvisation before returning to the thematic material of the full band. “The most challenging improvisation is in the bebop opening of Gatsby’s party,” says Pimble. “The whole company is on stage and it is quite a challenge to keep us all dancing in sync.”
These performances promise to take ballet audiences through a rollicking range of emotions, from our innermost longing to more reckless spaces.
Tickets and information
Portrait in Glass and Gatsby will be performed at 7:30 pm on Friday, February 9 and at 2 pm on Saturday, February 10 at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts’ Silva Concert Hall. Tickets are available on the Eugene Ballet website. Run time is 2.5 hours, with a 20-minute intermission after Portrait in Glass, and a ten-minute intermission between the two acts of Gatsby.