Ballet Arkansas

Ballet Arkansas’s ‘The Great Gatsby,” playing through Sunday afternoon at UA Pulaski Tech’s Center for the Humanities and Arts with two alternating casts, is the company’s first indoor performance since it put up “Cinderella” on the very same stage in February 2020. That doesn’t mean the dancers haven’t been busy. Take a look at the company’s schedule over the last year and you’ll find they’ve staged free outdoor performances in local parks, workshops for adults and children and, last winter — just when ballet lovers were facing a season without “The Nutcracker” — an inventive “Winter Wonderland,” in which downtown Main Street became home to a series of snow globe-like ballet scenes that passersby enjoyed as a drive-through experience while playing Tchaikovsky’s beloved score on the car radio, broadcast simultaneously on KABF-FM 88.3.

I’m guessing after all that tireless reinvention, it must have felt pretty good for the artists to return to the cozy trappings of an indoor theater, and to have been afforded the visual accompaniments that come so easily with that territory. Video projections from Cranford & Co. as a backdrop, for one, a feature that’s come to be signature for Ballet Arkansas productions. (The historic Magnolia Mobil Gas Station near Central High makes a picturesque appearance or two in “Gatsby.”) Those slick video vignettes do a lot of exposition work for a plot as complex as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.” They do a lot of visual work, too, eliminating the need for a host of fussy props which must be constantly ferried in and out between scenes — and be avoided as the dancers careen around the stage. Free of those constraints, the dancers of Ballet Arkansas aced intricate duet work and proved that they probably spend a lot of time thinking about dance styles outside of, and peripheral to, classical ballet.

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It sure felt good to be in the audience. My memories of reading “Gatsby” in school (or at least enough to fake it, should the late and formidable Bentonville High School English teacher Holly Southern decide to pop a quiz) were faint, but sufficient enough to raise questions: How would I, or those who hadn’t read Gatsby, or who remembered it even less than I did, know what was happening and who was who? (The answer: Voiceover narration!) How would the ballet nod to the book’s bleak themes of late stage capitalism/The American Dream as artifice? (The answer: neither emphasized nor ignored. Hinted at! It’s ballet, not English class. Note, though, as long as we’re talking about the book’s dark stuff, that this ballet production does involve a prop gun — or at least it did on opening night. While an inexorable part of F. Scott’s tale, the headlines that broke nationally while we were watching the ballet have now prompted theaters everywhere to rethink their approach. I’d imagine Ballet Arkansas is thinking about it carefully for remaining performances.)

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Would we be able to appreciate the athleticism and elegance of the dancers’ movements if they were hidden under flapper dresses? (Turns out, yeah! Also: wow, these costumes. Pitch perfect — gold sequins and fringe and low waistlines and gorgeous ’20s bathing suits.) How would ballet dancers — whose movements we expect to be grand and long and sweeping — grapple with stuff like the Lindy Hop or the Charleston, which so often incorporate wild movements of the arms and legs in minimal square footage? (The answer: beautifully!)

The other cool part: This is actually a world premiere. Ballet Arkansas Executive and Artistic Director Michael Fothergill did the choreography. The soundtrack, whose relationship to the action changes depending on what’s happening in the scene, includes numbers from Bob Wilson and His Varsity Rhythm Boys, George Bruns & His Rag-a-Muffins, Johnny Guarnierni, Robert Farnon and His Orchestra, Fapy Lafertin Quartet & Hadi Mouallem, Hill Bowen and His Orchestra, plus music by Pascal Roge, Eric Parkin, and Francis Poulenc.

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