The Last Unicorn…a ballet?

7 Oct

In continuance with Reader Appreciation Month, I present to you an entry on the topic of turning Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn into a ballet.  This idea was put forth in the Twitter-verse by user Fleegull, who I’m not saying was the first to think such a thing, but is the first to share it with these ears of mine…and I couldn’t agree more!  The Last Unicorn would make an extraordinary ballet, and due to recent radical ideas of becoming a professional impresario (which wouldn’t be so radical if I could just inherit a billionaire’s estate), I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to imagine what I would do if I actually had the resources to make this happen.

Mundane as it may sound, a monumental task requires a checklist.  I’ll need a libretto, a choreographer, designers of many ilks (sets/costumes/lighting, etc.), and of course dancers.  The libretto is more or less set and I actually think such an endeavor would be a momentous chance to create a full length, narrative ballet in the classical tradition that is in a way, distinctly American.  There really aren’t many American story ballets, with the most prominent being of the Western genre, with works like Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and Fall River Legend, neither of which are full length.  Unfortunately the Western genre may indeed be too American because I don’t think de Mille’s ballets are performed regularly abroad and I’m willing to bet there’s little interest by European companies to do so.  When it comes to story ballets, America does seem to be stuck on a one-way street where it’s okay to perform ballets with Eurocentric librettos and folklore, but exporting an American ballet just isn’t happening.  This is not to say Europe is evil, or life is unfair, etc. only that historically, that’s been the norm.

I should note that The Last Unicorn has made a transition to the theatre in a couple of productions, including one that Beagle himself wrote the script for in 1988, for Intiman Playhouse of…Seattle!  I didn’t research this thoroughly, but apparently Pacific Northwest Ballet was involved in the musical production, and there was choreography by Kent Stowell.  However, I’ve heard some critical views on Stowell’s choreography, including a stranger at a bus stop who started a conversation with me because of my New York City Ballet tote bag; she flat out said that she didn’t like Stowell’s choreography (she did however love Balanchine, and actually used to live in New York during the glory years, regularly watching the likes of Suzanne Farrell).  Finding a video of Intiman’s production is not a priority for me since it’s not technically a ballet, but credit is due for what must be the first attempt at expressing Beagle’s writing in movement.

In terms of a choreographer, what The Last Unicorn needs is a Frederick Ashton and actually, despite the novelty of having an “American ballet,” the truth is that it’s more suited for a British choreographer and audience.  Balanchine’s influence on modern ballet here is perhaps too great; the aesthetic tends to be sleek, streamlined and “new.”  The chances of finding a better suited choreographer in the UK is much higher thanks to the influence of Ashton, because this kind of mystical, charming story is exactly the kind of thing he was known for and only he took choreographing animals seriously.  One might think that sticking a horn on a ballerina’s head and making her walk on all fours would be a ridiculous sight indeed, but that’s taking it too literally.  When Ashton choreographed dancers as animals, there was always a special attention paid to capturing the essence of an animal’s movement and not simply reproducing an animal with a human body.  Dances like the chickens in La fille mal Gardée, Bottom in The Dream, and of course the ultimate, The Tales of Beatrix Potter and it’s vast array of woodland creatures showcase his ability to create ingenious and technically brilliant choreography for “animals.”  To anyone who may still find the idea of animal choreography silly, I have two words for him (because it’s most likely a man who would think such a thing)…Swan. Lake.  Women certainly don’t have wings or the proportions of a swan but it’s all about the interpretation and the quality of movement that makes them believable as swans and cygnets (come to think of it, there are actually a number of parallels between Swan Lake and The Last Unicorn).

Well, fingers crossed that a choreographer can be found…but perhaps more challenging would be finding a composer.  The state of classical music composition is even direr than ballet I think, let alone classical ballet scores.  Still, someone out there must be capable and need only the chance.  Although I haven’t seen Blancanieves (Spanish for ‘Snow White’) in its entirety, it’s an example of a newer ballet (premiered in 2005) that did have a new score, written by Emilio Aragón.  I’ve watched extracts from the ballet because it was choreographed on Tamara Rojo and it does have some wonderful musical moments and while it may not achieve the legendary status of a Tchaikovsky score, it’s a relief to know that the genesis of a ballet score can still be done in this modern age of…how do you say, neglecting classical talents?  I was horrified though that Aragón included enough music for Tamara to do forty-eight fouettes…but this may have been a request by the choreographer as opposed to a musical choice because I find it impossible that so many counts could be considered musical.  At any rate, a score for The Last Unicorn would have to be mysterious, yet elegant, capricious at times and stylistically…how do you say, French?  Le sigh…this whole ‘American’ thing isn’t working out, is it?  I hear in my mind something very Camille Saint-Saëns.

Now assuming I was this billionaire impresario that could lure artists (particularly of the Royal Ballet) with million dollar contracts, I would cast the principle roles as follows (in order of appearance):

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea……….Sarah Lamb

Schmendrick……….Bennet Gartside

Molly Grue……….TBA

Prince Lír……….Steven McRae

The Red Bull……….Thiago Soares

King Haggard……….Edward Watson

*All images are ©ITC Entertainment

Unicorn/Lady Amalthea

Sarah Lamb is the perfect Lady Amalthea…she has a wonderful, elfin look with beautiful, big eyes and an ethereal touch to her dancing.  When I watched her in The Sleeping Beauty DVD as the Bluebird, I couldn’t believe how delicate she was.  While I can’t comment on her abilities in grittier roles, I do think the Lady Amalthea is one that offers great acting opportunities.  She is not simply a unicorn that is turned into a human and falls in love with a man—she must deal with additional adversity as she searches for the other unicorns and the realization of loneliness.  It’s a loneliness that begins as solitude from being the last unicorn, and takes on new meaning when she is forced to relinquish her love for Prince Lír.  She begins as a rather cold and indifferent creature, and when she is turned into a human while she eventually learns to love she is at first horrified as she comes to grips with her mortality.  I think there is more acting potential here than Odette/Odile.

Schmendrick

The unicorn is the opposite of Schmendrick, who in becoming a fully-fledged wizard actually becomes mortal—a fact that is only known to readers of the novel.  As well as the movie does adapt from the book (about 92% I’d say) this was one detail that was left out.  It actually gives Schmendrick another dimension and makes him less of a buffoon (although a lovable buffoon).  It’s an interesting juxtaposition against the Unicorn’s revulsion of mortality, in that Schmendrick would rather live a mortal life as that which he wishes to be rather than immortal with sporadic magical powers.  I would cast self-proclaimed funnyman Bennet Gartside as the magician, as I know him to have a healthy sense of humor, which is essential for a good Schmendrick.

 

 

Molly Grue

Now Molly Grue is a fascinating character, perhaps my favorite (hence my difficulties in casting her).  For a ragamuffin she is incredibly intuitive, bold and passionate.  She is unafraid of sassing people and being straightforward with the truth.  She scolds other characters regardless of their status, including the unicorn herself, who she held in such high regard.  This was one of my favorite scenes of the film (which by the way, later DVD versions edited because of her swearing…but to edit “damn” is awfully prude. Damn damn, damn damn damn damn. Damn…damn.)  As I said, I wouldn’t know whom to cast because Molly needs to have an earthy, intelligent, rough around the edges portrayal…in fact, I think she should be barefoot just like she is in the movie (only the unicorns should be on pointe).  Ideas, anyone?

Aforementioned scene with Molly:

Prince Lír

As mentioned before, the movie is incredibly close to the novel.  The only character that is cheated is Prince Lír, as the town of Hagsgate (part of King Haggard’s domain) is Lír’s birthplace, and there was a prophecy that foretold King Haggard’s fall would come at the hands of one born in Hagsgate.  At the end of the novel, we see more about Prince Lír’s character as he bitterly pines for Lady Amalthea, as well as an interesting scene when Lír (now king) meets his birth father.  Unfortunately, a ballet may have to be edited similarly to the film because the third act necessitates a dramatic finish.  Still, Prince Lír is naïve but chivalrous and would be wonderfully portrayed by Steven McRae, whose vibrancy would give great energy to the dashing prince.

 

King Haggard

I struggled with whether King Haggard should be a character role or danced role because he is so…haggard and decrepit, but I realized that King Haggard must absolutely be danced because of his interactions with the unicorn (which would make for a very haunting pas de deux).  Furthermore, he is very much in the same vein as Von Rothbart, in that he wants to own the unicorns.  I don’t think it’s ever made known why Von Rothbart has trapped Odette though, while it is revealed that a chance sighting of two unicorns, one resting its head on the back of another was the only thing that ever made King Haggard happy.  Although he is the selfish, frightful antagonist of the story, he’s not entirely sinister—he technically never harms anyone, which makes him a fascinating villain to me.  Such emotional depth and regality requires the talents of Edward Watson, who with the right make-up would look positively ghastly…in the good way, of course.

The Red Bull

Not much for words, the Red Bull is the prison guard of the unicorns, the manifestation of their worst fears and the creature that keeps them at bay, cowering in the sea.  When I was younger I didn’t think much of him…he was simply King Haggard’s monstrous beast.  However, the novel has given me further insight that makes him a far more interesting character.  For one thing, the movie never mentions the fact that he’s blind but the most fascinating line about the Red Bull is omitted from the film.  Towards the end when the Red Bull enters the sea and the unicorns escape, the Red Bull seems to give up, something I didn’t notice before and it’s Schmendrick who explains this in the book: “The Red Bull never fights…he conquers, but he never fights.”  The Red Bull actually has a sense of pride and honor that isn’t so obvious in the movie.  Thiago Soares is my pick for this role, because of his smoldering performance as the hunter Orion in The Royal Ballet’s DVD of Sylvia.

There are also many potential solo roles, like Butterfly (who is indeed male!), Captain Cully, Autumn Cat, Skull and character roles like Mommy Fortuna and Mabruk.  Hell, if you go by the novel there’s even a Bluebird pas de deux!  Lots of great options here, but the most spine tingling scene is perhaps reserved for the corps de ballet, when the herd of unicorns come rushing out of the sea.  I think it could go down as one of the most iconic corps de ballet moments:

They'd have to wait until Act III juuuuuuust for this...

I think the only major challenge in terms of production values for The Last Unicorn would be the scene of Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival.  There are animals that have illusions cast on them to appear as things they are not (a lion as a manticore, an ape as a satyr, etc. and actually much more in the book than is shown in the novel as Mommy Fortuna puts herself in an exhibit as well) so the challenge would be whether to show the animals as they are, or as their illusory counterparts, or to edit them out somehow (the Unicorn must still be captured by Mommy Fortuna though, because that’s how she meets Schmendrick).  Speaking of spells there is also the matter of transforming the Unicorn into Lady Amalthea on stage…a horn is easily removed but there’s the decision of whether she should appear nude when she is transformed into a human leave her in her white Unicorn costume (which I imagine to be a pretty simple white leotard/short skirt combo…her beauty needs to be told in her steps and gestures) and leave the rest to poetic imagination.  There’s going to have to be some smoke and mirrors, but this is far from the most difficult illusion ever attempted on stage.

Conclusion?  The Last Unicorn ballet needs to happen.  As soon as this impresario gig works out for me, I’ll get on it if someone hasn’t beaten me to it.

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7 Responses to “The Last Unicorn…a ballet?”

  1. Fleegull October 7, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    Oh wow! Thank you so much for writing all of this up and making far more sense out of it than I ever could. I’m blushing and dancing here!

  2. Fleegull October 7, 2010 at 10:51 pm #

    Molly! I would not be averse to getting a modern dancer for this part, as you said she needs a grounded, earthy quality and modern dancers have that in spades. From the classical ballet world, and I’m totally biased because I love her, ABT’s Misty Copeland could be a wonderful Molly, she has the ability to get low in her movements and there is a ripeness in her movement that would bring lovely nuances to the character.

  3. Fleegull October 7, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    I should type up my feelings elsewhere lest I co-opt your comments but the other day I was talking about King Haggard who, as you said, is a villain who never harms anyone. I pointed out that he is a classic addict, he had one great high when he saw those unicorns as a young man and he was chasing it ever since….it’s such a tragic fall and yet anyone who has seen someone go down the path of addiction, it’s sadly familiar. I would hope, that like Swan Lake, there is a prologue wherein we see the young King seeing those two unicorns and losing himself to that sight, they say an addict never quite recreates his first high, but he will happily kill himself trying to get that feeling one last time.

    • youdancefunny October 7, 2010 at 11:26 pm #

      Glad to dedicate a post to you!

      I never thought of King Haggard as an addict…fascinating! There definitely needs to be a vision or prologue of some kind (perhaps kind of like the vision of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty) otherwise King Haggard’s obsession wouldn’t make any sense.

      And Misty Copeland is an excellent choice! Although, depending on the style of movement, and the fact that the character doesn’t dance on pointe, I wonder if retired ballerinas could be coaxed to come back to the stage. Molly is supposed to be older(ish)…can you imagine if Alessandra Ferri came back to portray her? Swoon!

  4. robin October 8, 2010 at 3:41 am #

    brilliant.

  5. Bill Conville November 3, 2010 at 5:43 am #

    Please add me to your e-mail list.

    Great writing!! Fascinating and informative !!

    Many thanks!

    Bill

    • youdancefunny November 4, 2010 at 11:27 am #

      Hi Bill! Thank you so much for commenting and complimenting! I’ve added an e-mail subscription box on the column to the right, so you can enter your e-mail address and receive updates when new entries are posted.

      Many thanks,
      -Steve

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