Ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald penned The Great Gatsby in 1925, the strange American fable filled with liars and excess has been assigned reading and reinterpreted in film and on stage.
In 2010, Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, with a half-million-dollar budget, presented an extravagant full-length ballet at the Kennedy Center. A suave and curly-haired Jared Nelson danced the role of Jay Gatsby, the super-confident hero chasing a dream. Nelson is now living a dream as artistic director for California Ballet Company.
“I came to San Diego in 2015 to teach the choreography for ‘Gatsby,’ he recalled, “and I stayed. It’s a great ballet filled with romance, tragedy, and scandal. That staging for California Ballet was so well received that we are presenting four shows this weekend (Apr. 6-8) at the Civic Theater. There’ll be dancing on the big lawn and a live jazz band and two singers.”
While reading Gatsby may have been a chore in high school, watching dancers transform into characters is magical. Wigs and elegant costumes combine with dance technique and expression–and poof.
Zachary Guthier, who danced the adult Billy in Billy Elliott, becomes Jay Gatsby. The romantic con artist throws huge parties on Long Island and tries to reconnect with a woman but ends up dead in a swimming pool.
“All of that is retold through dance and creating believable characters,” Nelson said. “It becomes art when there is chemistry in partnering,” and how he rolls to the floor and reaches for his Daisy.
Reka Gyulai takes the role of Daisy and dances three pas de deux, duets.
“They are classical ballet but jazzy, and they have modern accents,” Gyulai said. “The first two dances are romantic and soft, and the third is sexy and intimate. They all have difficult turns and lifts and require a lot of acting and expression, not pantomime as in most ballets.”
There are no tutus in this ballet, but Daisy dances on pointe shoes. Gyulai says she becomes Daisy when she wears classy yellow gowns from the flapper era and hears the jazz.
“I love it all, and I’m so pleased with my partner, Zachary,” she said. “We danced a little bit last year, but this is our first big time together, and he’s the perfect height. I’m fortunate because our partnering is classic and intimate.”
If your high school Lit days are fuzzy, try to remember that Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, a privileged brute who commands attention and is proud of his affairs. Principal dancer Trystan Merrick as Tom is a villainous snake in a dark wig and mustache. Of note, Merrick is a dynamic and theatrical mover who soars in ballet and modern genres. In this ballet, he collides with everyone and cheats with Myrtle (Ana da Costa) who is married to George (Isaiah Bindel).
The story’s narrator Nick Carraway (Jeremy Zapanta) rents a house next to Gatsby’s mansion in the make believe town of West Egg. He’s Daisy’s cousin and has the hots for Jordan Baker (Tess Lane) but becomes disgusted with the socialites.
Now in its 50th season, California Ballet was founded by Maxine Mahon in 1965. Nelson plans to expand the repertoire, including a new Cinderella with a twist next year. Gatsby is not recommended for young children.
Audiences will see toe shoes, tap shoes, stomps, kicks, and leaps onto a table. They’ll hear songs such as “Sugar in my Bowl” and “He May Be Your Man, But He Visits Me.”
“The jazz band rises from the orchestra pit,” Nelson said,” and the original arrangement taps the Jazz Age. There are lots of tuxes and fringe, Charleston and jazz. Having Lisa Hightower sing and improvise, well, that takes ballet to another level.
“Watch for the partnering. It’s very physical and my dancers make high-flying lifts and tosses look easy. I have a deep connection to this ballet and I’m thrilled to pass the torch to new dancers. I’m lucky to coach them and can’t wait to see where they take it.”
California Ballet Company presents The Great Gatsby at the Civic Theatre. April 6, 7,8, 2018.