May 8, 2019

“Beauty and the Beast” Inspired by Cocteau Film

LOVE STORY: Kirk Peterson’s interpretation of the classic, 1740 French story “Beauty and the Beast” will be performed at the State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick, accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, on Friday, May 10 at 8 p.m. Peterson, left, shapes a scene with lead dancers Journy Wilkes-Davis as the Beast, and Nanako Yamamoto as Belle.

By Anne Levin

Kirk Peterson first got the idea for a ballet of the 1740 French story Beauty and the Beast  five years ago, when he saw the 1946 French film of the same title by Jean Cocteau. The resident choreographer of American Repertory Ballet, Peterson has created a full-length work that gives a nod to the film while gaining inspiration from the works of 19th century  choreographer Marius Petipa, creator of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and other well known classics.

Beauty and the Beast is on stage Friday, May 10 at the State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick, accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor Nell Flanders. The music is by Tchaikovsky. The ballet tells the story of a handsome prince who falls under the spell of an enchantress and is transformed into a hideous beast. He remains a beast until he finds love with Belle, who sees the beauty inside of him. The spell is then lifted.

“When I saw the film, I immediately thought it would make a wonderful ballet,” Peterson said during a break in rehearsals this week. “It is a fairy tale, a tragedy that turns into a happy ending. It is a fairy tale that I wanted to make relevant as a ballet today. I first thought of it more in Cocteau’s vein — a little bit surreal. But as time went by, it evolved. In a sense, it’s a nod to the 19th century classic ballets in the way I use some mime in the first act. There are a few homages here and there. But it’s neo-classic, really.”

Peterson is especially enthusiastic about dancers Journy Wilkes-Davis, who plays the Beast, and Nanako Yamamoto, who plays Belle. “Journy is very tall, which lends itself to the threatening character of the Beast,” he said. “And Nanako is just lovely and perfect for what I want to convey as Belle. All of the dancers have been brilliant, a pleasure to work with. It has been very easy to give them an idea and watch them go with it, developing the characters accordingly.”

As a member of American Ballet Theatre, the San Francisco Ballet, and other companies, Peterson had a distinguished career as a dancer before becoming a choreographer and artistic director. He led the Hartford Ballet for five years and was resident choreographer of the Cincinnati Ballet for six. His choreography has been performed by the San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and several other troupes. He is also a repetiteur (coach) for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust.

Having the Princeton Symphony Orchestra play the score live adds excitement for the dancers and the audience. “It’s fantastic,” Peterson said. “Nell Flanders is a wonderful conductor, and she has been very hands-on and collaborative. Some conductors don’t have the interest, but she has come to many rehearsals and really gotten involved.”

Peterson tells most of the story in the first act, and the second act is “mostly an excuse for some great dancing,” he said. “It’s kind of like Balanchine’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that way.”

The ballet, he hopes, will appeal to everyone. “There is a lot of challenging dancing and emotional content,” he said. “It’s a great story to tell.”

Beauty and the Beast is at the State Theatre New Jersey, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, on Friday, May 10 at  8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$65. Visit