I read The House of Mirth for the first time about 10 years ago. At the time, I was artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada and always on the lookout for possible narratives that could work for large-scale productions. This was a beautiful, moving discovery.
The ambiguity, the inexplicability of the heroine’s actions seemed familiar, and very human. A woman at the height of her allure, her power – and her bad decisions, society turning its back on her. Lily’s drift to the bottom, and sad, inevitable end, even after paying her debts. “Miss Bart will not be returning to the yacht.” With that line, it is all over for her.
It turned my stomach, as Edith Wharton is so good at doing in her best work. It haunted me. It was also too complicated to get at in 19th-century full-length ballet terms.
There is really no love in the book. Marriage and status, yes, but I don’t think the word love is even used in terms of a relationship in the text, if it is used at all. Ballet loves a good erotic duet or two; there was no place for that in this. Lily Bart is not the whore with a heart of gold that makes for a good juicy opera or ballet heroine like Violetta Valéry or Manon Lescaut. No virginity is lost in The House of Mirth. No promise of sexual awakening. Just choices, good and bad choices.
And these choices all have to do with money and power. Balanchine said there were no mothers-in-law in ballet and basically eschewed any complicated narrative in favour of a “see the music and hear the dance” philosophy. His ballets celebrated women, but his women never seemed to have the problems that Lily Bart has in his plotless celebrations of femininity. Facing the challenge of making a theatrical work based on The House of Mirth meant finding a way, beyond props and scenery, to get across the idea of wealth and its close relative, debt. The presentation would have to somehow get the financial challenges across which allow the narrative to take hold, and Lily’s slow loss of all that she hoped for personally and in society to begin taking her down.
I continued to think about the book. And eventually, I came up with a concept that I thought would cover the undanceable and also allow for expressionistic choreography when that could do a better job at the story.
In the summer of 2009 I met with Laurence Lemieux and Bill Coleman of Coleman Lemieux Compagnie to present my idea – which I didn’t think I could realize except with an organization willing to do new things in unusual places. A ballet company would not be open to the hybrid I was imagining. I didn’t imagine an opera company would take a pitch like this seriously from a choreographer, since in my observation and experience, dance is considered well below singing in that world.
My colleagues at CLC are trusting, and knew that I would not present an idea to them that was not dear to me, and they know I like to create personal challenges for myself. Perhaps, indeed, had they known more about what I was up to, they might have pushed back. But it was clear between us that being attached to them as an organization meant that I would use the organization to do the kind of work I couldn’t do anywhere else.
I began talking to composer Rodney Sharman. We agreed to the basic idea that half the characters would sing and half would dance: To keep the narrative on track, and to keep the story accessible, we needed to use text. We also came to the decision that there would be male singers and female dancers. I like my creative assignments to be tidy and clear-cut and I thought that Lily could have an identity choreographically while, for a simple example, needing money could be spoken of by the man giving the loan. It was a hunch on my part, an intuition that having the four male characters drawn from Wharton’s novel handle the narrative plot points and the women represent the layers of women in a gilded-age home – the young, the unmarried (Lily), the married, and the matriarch – would serve as a good toolbox for telling the story in a simple, straightforward way.
(To say any more about intuition, hunches, luck, trusting the process, vision would be next to futile. What I have learned in my years of making dances – and making narrative dances in particular – is that, like the pragmatist, you have to know what you are trying to accomplish; but like the idealist, you have to be open to many ways of getting there. In other words, I have to be both my own king and priest at the same time. Rule and serve at the same time. You have to look like you know what you are doing but you have to make sure that you don’t. That is when the process becomes the most fun. And believe me, it takes years to perfect this. But that is where the inspiration lies, somewhere between knowing and not knowing.)
There was talk of having a dancing and singing Lily – which, apart from Anna in Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, is usually not a very attractive device, and even in that work, doesn’t always gel – but in the end, we stuck to the plan. And if it was restricting for the composer to have only male voices, it was equally restrictive for me to have only female dancers.
Next in importance to build the creative team, I had to find the librettist. I was put on to Alex Poch-Goldin, and after a summer of his first libretto writing and then Rodney’s composing, we began a series of workshops.
With each workshop, we heard more, staged more of the work, and learned more about how this story could be stripped down to a series of scenes with varying combinations of performers, and then linked together to form a narrative chain, echoing Edith Wharton’s novel without trying to play out every scene in it. We used the musical term “song cycle” to get ourselves away from the idea of a play-by-play of scenes from the book.
As the work evolved with the mix of singers amongst the dancers, each discipline’s ability to weave the narrative tapestry has been inspiring. At no point, despite early fears, does it seem as if the women are weaker than the men. They have a particular voice through the choreography and staging and have whole scenes to themselves besides.
The intent was not to make the undanceable danceable. If anything, my intent is to broaden my abilities. To learn to work with singers as well as to see them move and expand on that. The company of singers and dancers does a movement warmup together before every rehearsal session. It is wonderful to watch. I am very fond of untrained performers and I like pedestrian movement as an artist likes a certain type of pencil for a certain effect. Their gestures are simpler and more human. And my goal was to make a theatrical version of a very beautifully told story. To pay tribute to Wharton’s novel with another work of art. If it takes dancers and singers and musicians to do it, that only makes it more interesting and stretches some boundaries.
The work is meant to be seen from a close vantage point, ideally in a site-specific gilded-age space – ballroom, library, great hall, parlour. The audience should be seated on the same level as the performers, curved around the playing area, players in the play. The instrumentalists are a chamber orchestra in a grand home at an evening salon. The characters come out of this world and create the story in front of you with no more than their salon setting and rich clothing to take you into their world.
I asked the costume designers, Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell of Hoax Couture, to create a palette for the women’s clothing based on money, on gold, on incredible wealth. Lily in a shiny, cooler tone, turns colourless and grey as she loses her footing in society.
“No one will ever know the cost of beauty,” Alex has written in his libretto. Except Lily Bart, who pays dearly for having it, and needing it and losing it.
From the House of Mirth runs at the Citadel, 304 Parliament St., Toronto, from May 9 to 13.
Special to The Globe and Mail