April 5, 2017

New Ballet “Pride and Prejudice” Is Focused on Relationships

JANE AUSTEN ON POINTE: American Repertory Ballet’s new production of “Pride and Prejudice,” at McCarter Theatre April 21 and 22, is the culmination of five years of work by choreographer Douglas Martin. Shown here are Erikka Reenstierna-Cates, who plays Caroline Bingley; Mattia Pallozzi, portraying Mr. Darcy, and Monica Giragosian as Elizabeth Bennet. (Photo by Richard Termine)

Over lunch with a friend, American Repertory Ballet artistic director Douglas Martin was brainstorming about possible full-length ballets to choreograph for the company. His friend made an unusual suggestion: Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of manners, Pride and Prejudice.

“I wasn’t sure,” Mr. Martin recalled last week. “There are lots of great stories out there, but turning them into ballets isn’t always easy. She had some music from the movie and some past television productions, which she gave me. It wasn’t music that I would use, but it made me start thinking about how I would tell the story.”

Five years later, Pride and Prejudice is a new ballet to be presented April 21 and 22 at McCarter Theatre. Mr. Martin’s choreography is accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which happens to mark the first time the orchestra has performed in that venue. John Devlin will conduct.

The music Mr. Martin ended up selecting is by the composer Ignaz Playel, who was one of Ms. Austen’s favorites. “I researched her and started to discover some of the music she collected and what she liked,” Mr. Martin said. “When I first listened to Playel’s music, it instantly made me feel like she must have been listening to it when she wrote the book. So that made me happy. I was able to find music that was recorded, but had not been published in 200 years. So it was a challenge to find it, but we managed.”

The ballet also includes music by Mendelssohn, Schubert, and John Fields, “the father of the nocturne,” Mr. Martin said. “Mark Uys, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra executive director, helped me find the last piece of music by Mendelssohn, published after his death. That, along with work my team had done to get the music together, made it possible to create an original score. Once I got that, I felt very confident that the choreography would happen easily.”

Mr. Martin’s choreography incorporates period dancing such as reels and minuets as well as classical ballet steps. At a recent open rehearsal in the company’s studios on Harrison Street, each of the dancers playing lead characters was asked to speak to onlookers about their interpretations. From their descriptions, it was clear that they have spent a lot of time and effort getting inside the heads of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, Jane Bennet, Mr. Collins, and other players in the timeless novel.

“I think this process has been a revelation to them,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s a great challenge for the dancers not to rely on their physicality, but on the personalities of the characters. And they are doing a heroic job.”

Mr. Martin’s approach was to figure out the relationships between the characters. “It became evident that there would be four major couples — not just Darcy and Elizabeth,” he said. “Then it became simple to think about, because you have the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy to the other couples. The way it’s been done in Hollywood and on TV has been to focus on the main couple’s relationship. But the book focuses on the other couples, too.”

An Austen fan, Mr. Martin is familiar with all of the author’s novels. “They are my favorite stories,” he said. “Just the language, the dialogue — especially for the main characters — is so lovely, and 200 years later it is still very pertinent. It doesn’t seem to lack any currency.”

More then any other ballet he has choreographed since retiring from performing in 2002, Pride and Prejudice has given Mr. Martin new insights into his craft. “Dance is just a language, right? We use movement to express all the emotions any writer would communicate,” he said. “What was unusual here was the fact that I wanted to honor social mores in the wonderful Regency period in this ballet. So I wasn’t doing a contemporary version where anything goes. I realized I could still keep that language and those mores intact, even though I’d have to have more physical contact than in a play or film. Because I’m explaining the emotion. The choreography just expresses the emotions those characters are going through.”

Sets and costumes for Pride and Prejudice, another key component of the production, are by Christina Giannini. The costumes are meant to showcase the fashions of the English Regency period from 1790 to 1820. Performances are Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$50. Visit www.mccarter.org for information.

“It’s very exciting. We’re planning on locations to perform this again for coming seasons,” said Mr. Martin. “But this is the finale for our current season, and we’re so happy to be having a premiere.”