Starstruck – Gene Kelly’s Love Letter to Ballet
Glasgow, Theatre Royal
23 September 2021
Such is the pull and hoofing excitement around Gene Kelly’s work, come the end of the Starstruck premiere there was a standing ovation – at least up on the Dress Circle of Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. Clearly for many it’s the perfect ending one wants for a ballet that steps well outside of the ordinary in several ways, and yet my heart wasn’t with them. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that such approbation seemed premature, and it would be good to see Starstruck later in the touring run when the company have hopefully absorbed more of jazz dance’s snap, crackle, buzz and outright exciting precision that seemed to be rather absent on Thursday night. The Scottish Ballet (SB) dancers can certainly let their dancing hair down and I remember a fabulous Charleston routine they did at a fundraising gala, and which genuinely brought the house down for us all.
Back in 1960 the idea of Gene Kelly turning the Paris world of classical ballet inside out with an injection of all the oomph of Hollywood musical jazz dancing must have shocked more than a few and even now the idea intrigues. It certainty garnered good headlines at the time as well it might because Kelly had an awful lot of dance and musical intelligence that made his style impossible to pin down – he was a magpie and one with amazing energy. His Pas de Dieux for Paris Opera Ballet was 45 minutes long and one critic noted it as “a leggy, sexy, modern ballet that shook the crystal chandelier”. Sadly, a video of the 1960 production is not available on general release.
The new version, extended to 55-60 minutes and appropriately renamed, is courtesy of Christopher Hampson (the SB Director) and Lez Brotherston (well-known designer and man of the theatre) in collaboration with Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly. The additions come in the form of an earth-bound prologue for the choreographer and Star Ballerina, leading into Kelly’s original work which starts on the Clouds of Mount Olympus and features Aphrodite, Zeus and Eros – yep, it’s just as ‘away with the fairies’ as any classical ballet story can be. The original Gene Kelly work has a complex plot and lots of scenes as the Gods come down to earth, interfere with mortals and fight out petty jealousies. The new extensions are all about reorienting the ballet away from just being a crazy narrative work and instead makes it about Kelly and his creation of the work, which you then see – real world and make believe mixed up.
I have to say such are the story twists I got rather lost at times and the additions didn’t really make anything simpler, if they come with some gentle Chopin that delineates them clearly from the 20th century dissonance of the Gershwin that Kelly used. Not following every bit of the action is not perhaps of the highest consequence – it’s a ballet about dancing fizz and if that connects with us then its work is really done.
There are some impressive group numbers (it’s a whole company piece) that nearly achieved the polish of a West End or Broadway musical, and they do thrill. But the shining star by far is Sophie Martin as the Star Ballerina, the diva role at the centre of things, who gives us a masterclass of acting and Kelly’s style. And the designs of Lez Brotherston, as they do for any production, lift the spirits.
Covid has dealt theatre in Scotland a hard hand with no half-opening as has been seen in England over the last year (if patchily implemented) and terrific of SB to be bouncing back after 18 months with a new work, if it’s a shame a second crowd pleaser could not be included to make the night last longer than an hour. But we’ve not seen all there is to see of the Starstruck project. Currently we have the live tour, but a feature film will also emerge and be streamed across the world from 26 November – 5 December. As with last Christmas’s show The Secret Theatre (★★★★★ review) this is no mere recording of a stage show but conceived as a pukka film from the off. It will certainly be interesting to see what different perspective this might bring to Kelly’s work and the SB additions.