Barn Dance Minus the Barn
Bright Star Set-less
What does no set look like?
A ballet. That is the one live performance genre that more often than not opts for nothing nothing nothing on stage, except a drop that can be lit a variety of ways. Maybe some wings to run off into. When the companies roll into town they sometimes have all of their own lighting equipment, and the theater lays down fresh marley on the floor for them.
In 1957 George Balanchine, who began his life as the European kind of Georgian and later became a New Yorker, choreographed an American Square Dance. I am told that many ballet choreographers have dipped into “folk” dances for material and inspiration. All of the recent productions of this production that I have found look anything but “folksy”. They eliminate everything vaguely “extra”. Except the socks. They keep the white sport socks with the ballet shoes on top.
Those productions are hypnotic. I saw a trio of Balanchine dances at the Met a few years ago. The live symphony, plus the rhythm and repetition of movement, and the simplicity of floor + bodies + backdrop — drop you into the meditation part of your mind and make you breathe differently. If you didn’t look at the title to this one, Square Dance, I wonder if the effect would be exactly the same as it was for those “classical” ballets. Even on the computer screen the 7 year old was mesmerized.
The 1957 Balanchine caller, a man named Elisha, sounds like he is freestyling ‘Rapper’s Delight’ style and calling a play-by-play; there is a lot of ‘low on the heel and up on the toe!’ with the lead dancer dancing in time with him, and the company doing it in time with the music. What a wildly different effect from the contemporary performances of that dance. Entertaining! I like being told what the dancers are doing. And the rhythmic rhyming calling layered on top of the symphonic music is lush and fun.
The staging and cameras of this production take advantage of that balcony-level view that would allow you to see the formations you get in square dances and ballets. Every single shot is framed by the band, dancers or spectators. Those strung lights complete the picture frame around the action.
When you think of staging a play with performers that can’t quite synchronize like the New York City Ballet corps; it makes sense to think that would be plainly bad. Even the highest tier companies struggle with those moments when the only thing onstage is the humans, and they are not quite balanced or synchronized. Even this New York City ballet 1957 production is notably sloppier than the contemporary ones.
For most shows, but especially Bright Star, when I say ‘no set’, I want us to think like George Balanchine. Remove the wings, wheel in those risers from the choir room and borrow the milk crates from the kitchen Stack the band on the bleachers and seat folks all around them like at the football game. Arrange the folding chairs with sight lines in mind, but don’t worry about giving the audience or performers distance from each other.
The happiness, raucousness and dancing abandon of the images above has not at all to do with the barn rafters and all to do with the funky sight lines you get at a club.
The string lights do bring down the ceiling a bit - which is why Balanchine included them as well. and we should all follow suit. Borrow your neighbor’s string lights….String lights don’t count as a set.