When rendering a well-known tale, the craftsman at the helm must carefully tread a fine line between tradition and modern adaptation. Artistic Director Michael Wise does just this, offering us an enchanting balletic version of The Beauty and the Beast.
Originally published in 1756, La Belle et la Bête, written by French authoress Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, tells the story of a virtuous and beautiful young girl who is capable of loving her shallow sisters, her hapless widowed father, and a strange beast all with the same ardor.
After reading Beaumont's tale and seeing the Charleston City Ballet's performance, I asked myself: is this a love story or a moral lesson? Are we to walk away wondering at our own virtue, or are we to walk away in a daze, struck by the love which each character carries in his heart? A question, it seems, that only a magic fairy could answer
Enter Anna Porter Wilkes-Davis, the long-limbed dancer who plays an old woman turned ethereal Fairy. Porter Wilkes-Davis, not to be confused with Journy Wilkes-Davis, her husband who plays the handsome prince turned hideous beast, commands the stage with movements both graceful and full of force. The ladies of the ball and the courtiers float to the edges of the stage as the Fairy casts her spell: the prince will roam the kingdom as a beast until he can find someone who will love and accept him.
Wise includes all of the basics. After the prince has been cursed and banished we are introduced to a poor merchant and his daughters. There are three sisters — the two older sisters are greedy, not evil necessarily, but vain and always wanting. Thanks to the clearly astute costume designer June Palmer, we see this vanity in the glimmering and ornate gowns the sisters wear. The simply dressed younger sister is Belle, played by 20-year old Emma Stratton, a petite dancer possessing an earnestness and energy perfectly suited for her role. And then there is the widowed father, played by Wise, who must go off to seek his fortune so that he can provide for his daughters. Unsuccessful after a long journey, the wearied father spends the night in a lush and inviting garden before returning home.
But Wise goes beyond Beaumont's basic story structure. Between each scene change Wise has brilliantly added the character of the Book Elf, played by Tevfik Vatansever. The Book Elf dramatically turns the pages of the giant storybook, interacting with the audience and inciting laughter with his antics (he throws kisses to one audience member, then rescinds these and throws them to someone else). This humorous addition brings a lightheartedness to a tale often tinged with dark realities.
And then of course there is the Fairy, who meets the sleeping merchant in the garden and places a red rose in his hand. The Fairy carefully manipulates situations in the name of ... love? Or is it for the sake of virtue? Dressed in shimmering, multi-colored rags, the Fairy appears when the characters, beset with woe, need her most. The fairy in Beaumont's original tale is merely a convenient answer for any extraordinary occurrences, but here she is the behind-the-scenes instigator. The Beast finds the sleeping merchant and accuses him of stealing roses from his garden. In exchange for his life, the merchant must send one of his beautiful daughters to live with the Beast. The Fairy crafts this exchange, and we wonder if it is wicked or sly or simply one piece of a larger puzzle.
The despondent father returns home and explains the plight to his daughters. As Belle considers what to do, the Fairy drifts onto the stage several paces behind her. Porter Wilkes-Davis, who stands about a head taller than Stratton, mirrors her movements, guiding the young girl with her presence. It is in this moment that I decide the Fairy wants the best for Belle. She becomes the mentor, the mother for the motherless girl, the virtuous and wise older sister. Encouraged by the Fairy, Belle offers herself as the sacrifice — she will live in the palace with the Beast.
All of the dancers are beautiful, all of their costumes are gorgeous, all of their movements are fluid and graceful. But this is not enough to convey the pain, the tragedy, the magic, the love that this story embodies. The dancers become poets — their faces are constantly expressing emotion; their bodies rise and fall in response to the good and bad before them. The Charleston City Ballet does not simply present the story of the young Beauty and the outcast Beast; it is the story. And the dancers are each letter, each word, dramatically building sentences and scenes, until they finally reach the denouement.
It is during the penultimate dance, the dance between Belle and the Beast, that I find the answer to my question. After spending several happy months with the man turned monster who she has grown to love, Belle must leave to visit her ailing father. She stays away in the country for over a week, long enough to break the Beast's heart. The Fairy visits Belle and tells her to return to the palace. When she returns she finds the Beast weak in the garden. Belle rushes to his side. Her return gives him enough strength to rise and dance with her, holding her waist and lifting her high above his head. We know the story. Soon the love of the virtuous girl will transform the Beast back into a handsome prince. But I don't want or need the transformation. It is the Beast who Belle loves, despite his visage. The Fairy has led us here, to the final dance between two disparate but loving creatures, and I will call this not a fairy tale, but a love story.