Brandywine Ballet - Beauty and the Beast Review
If you have been a West Chester resident for any length of time, you may have noticed that the borough has become a mini-city in terms of its events and entertainment options. I've been here since the mid-1990s, when people joked that tumble weeds might bounce down the streets at night.
Earlier this spring I had a chance to see the kind of professionalism that has come to town with the opening of the new 327-seat Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (housed, as everyone should know, in the old Armory – it was a project that was years in the works). But to get to the point – and to evoke a sense of urgency considering performances are this weekend at West Chester University – I was still taken aback to learn that a nonprofit, community-based group such as the Brandywine Ballet is to use an old `90s term, as good as it gets.
Part of the appeal is that company is devoted to presenting full-length story ballets – now a rarity in the suburbs – such as this weekend's Beauty and the Beast. I perhaps don't need to tell you the premise of this fairy tale classic, especially in light of the recent, somewhat controversial Disney remake of its 1991 animated film.
But forget I brought that up – the Brandywine Ballet's version is a case study in explaining why two-act dance dramas have endured. Judging from what I experienced during yesterday's rehearsal (the final one after months of work), Beauty and the Beast will draw you into an emotional landscape that is the best form of escapism. (There's a place for shorter works, especially in outdoor venues like Brandywine Ballet's upcoming Rose Tree Summer Festival, but that's another subject).
I grew up on ballet and by adulthood no Christmas was complete without seeing The Nutcracker, another long-form production. It's also the staple the Brandywine Ballet, which has its beginnings as a dance center founded in 1979 by the present artistic director, Donna L. Muzio.
Beauty and the Beast is presented by the Brandywine Ballet Theatre, the professional arm of the company, but also includes students in a certificate in dance program at West Chester University (where they have performed at Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall for at least 15 years)
There are other dance groups – the young “pre-professionals” and the even younger “Elites” – who dance alongside the professional principal dancers, many of whom have been with the Brandywine Ballet for decades.
Rehearsal photos of the ballet
Perhaps most impressive is the work of Nancy Page, the resident choreographer. She has taken the classic framework of the original French story and has added a range of entertaining character types including the four jealous sisters of “Beauty” (the new name for the traditional “Belle”).
Plotted to present “light” and “dark” elements (e.g. a troupe of bats and wolves that surround the Beast's castle), Page is a master at moving the narrative along while presenting whimsical vignettes.
My favorites included the four sisters asleep on a tiny bench while Beauty sweeps all around the stage and then later, Beauty being lifted by the house butler to retrieve a book from the high shelf of a library bookshelf. She then dances on pointe with an open book in hand.
As a classically-trained dancer who grew up with the mentoring system at the Brandywine's Dance Center, Page obviously knows how to include everyone in a production. They range from the young “trainees” who contribute to the “crowd” scenes and the “Elites” who are given special demanding roles. French maids dance with a dusters; white-capped bakers twirl with trays of baked goods; and the castle guards dance with swords.
There are also several “paired” dance sequences. Beauty’s mirror image, for instance, is a “Celestrial Being” while the Beast is given “fight” dances with Beauty's down-on-his-luck father. Oh, if you can't follow all this, there's an unseen narrator who tells the story.
Preview snapshots of the show!
The stage design is an intriguing blend of Art Deco features (the castle gates and surrounding forest) and a Hansel-and-Gretel scary quaintness. The final village scene when dozens of dancing groups come together is worth, as they say, the price of admission.
To sum up: the village dancers, with their red and black folk skirts, seem to weave in and out of entire stage, as do my favorites, the dozen bakers – or perhaps they were a Bakers' 13 – and
the bronze-toned “statues” who are first seen in the shadowy depths of the Beast's castle before they came to life.
Best of all were the pint-sized cottage “mice” who managed to look as though they were scampering in tiny ballet slippers around Beauty.
I hope you don't miss this final full-story production for the season. Or else you'll have to wait till next year!
Here's the details for the Beauty and the Beast shows:
May 20 - 12 p.m. & 4 p.m.
May 21 - 2 p.m.
Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall
700 S. High St., West Chester, PA 19383