Q&A: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa on turning ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ into ballet

As Nashville Ballet prepares to become the first American company to perform a new ballet version of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Alexander Report speaks with choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to discuss the challenges of turning Tennessee Williams’ greatest play into dance.

by Andrew Alexander
October 24, 2019

Featured image: Jon Uplegger and Julia Eisen in the Nashville Ballet’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

“There’s no past tense in an arabesque,” says choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, summarizing one of the central challenges of turning A Streetcar Named Desire into ballet. The past looms large in any Tennessee Williams work, but especially in the tragic story of the haunted and doomed Blanche DuBois.

The Report turns its gaze to Nashville this week as Nashville Ballet prepares to become the first American company to perform Lopez Ochoa’s choreography for A Streetcar Named Desire. The work had its world premiere with Scottish Ballet in 2012. The Report spoke with the acclaimed Amsterdam-based choreographer to discuss the process behind transforming Tennessee Williams’ greatest play into dance.

How did the original Streetcar for Scottish Ballet come about? Was it something they approached you with? Or was it something you had wanted to do and then found the opportunity?

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa: I had never created a narrative work before. Ashley Page, the former director of Scottish Ballet, wanted to experiment with a work created by a choreographer and a director working on the same level …  She found Nancy Meckler to direct and suggested three stories for us: Anna Karenina; Mary Shelley creating Frankenstein, with all the writers telling stories in a contest; and Streetcar Named Desire. When I finished Streetcar, I thought. “Why isn’t this a ballet?” I decided I wanted to tell that story. I loved that the characters were so complex and had so many layers. We started digging into the story of Blanche DuBois and Tennessee Williams. 

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa says that creating a ballet of A Streetcar Named Desire was far more challenging than it first seemed. (photo by Photo by Gregory Miller)

You said immediately after finishing the play you were somewhat mystified it wasn’t already a ballet…

Lopez Ochoa: Then I found out why! It’s a very hard story to tell. First of all, it has seven characters, and there are no scenes that can involve the whole corps de ballet. The first thing we thought: we’ve got to make it for the 26 dancers of the Scottish Ballet. We evolved a chorus telling the story, a chorus of male and female energy.

And then, there’s no past tense in an arabesque or piqué turn. In the play as in the movie, Blanche’s past is revealed. I thought it would be difficult to do flashbacks all the time. We decided to start with the whole backstory, to show where Blanche comes from. When we first see her, she’s 16, she meets a young man, she gets married … What we realized in this telling is that we could call on the empathy of the audience, when you understand the wounded soul that she is, that she made a mistake when she was young. 

Thomas Edwards and Victor Zarallo performed in the Scottish Ballet’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The work begins with the story of Blanche DuBois’ past. (© Andy Ross)

One of the most memorable aspects of any Tennessee Williams play is the poetic language. Was that difficult, telling the story with no language at all?

Lopez Ochoa: That’s why it was great to have Nancy Meckler as director. Having her as part of the team was so valuable: she knew exactly what had to happen in each scene. In many of the scenes, there’s less “dance,” and it’s more about what happens. The thing is: Between people, we have unspoken body communication. When you talk to actors, they really know how to physically embody a character. They go through a physical transformation. Some of the scenes are like silent movies … Through sound and music and movement, the audience understands exactly what’s happening.

Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois with Company dancers in Nancy Meckler and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s A Streetcar Named Desire for the Scottish National Ballet. Ochoa says the corps became a chorus of male and female energy for the ballet version of Tennessee Willliams’ play. (© Andy Ross)

All plays have a setting, but the setting of New Orleans in Streetcar is so important, it’s almost like another character. Did you try to bring that into the ballet?

Lopez Ochoa: I think most of that is in the music: languishing, jazzy, sensual. You will hear that. For me what was important was that there was a different form of music and a different way of moving in the deep South. There’s a different way of behaving towards one another.

I was interested to read about your work with the physical theater and dance collective called Fantasten. Can you talk about your work with that company and how it shaped your choreography for Streetcar?

Lopez Ochoa: I worked with two young actors who studied physical acting. There are a lot of plays without words in Holland. I’m used to going to see them. For us, it’s not such a big deal. On the contrary, some actors really try to keep the sentences and the text to a minimum. Working with them at the time, it prepared me for the narrative work in the ballet I’m doing now. It taught me how you approach a process: you don’t start from dancing or movement first. You start from a situation, and the situation has to be clear before you put fancy movement on it. That really educated me and prepared me for this part of my choreographic career. As a choreographer, a lot of times, I take movements away. I feel movement is in the way of telling the story. Stillness is where the drama and tension happen. It’s always finding that right balance between the act of dancing and the stillness, allowing the audience to receive that moment.

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.

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