His images of sunflowers and starry night skies are among the most frequently reproduced paintings in history, and he was one of the single greatest influences on 20th-century art. Yet during his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh was virtually unrecognized as an artist. One of his only fans was his brother Theo, an art dealer who supported Vincent financially, and to whom the artist wrote more than 600 letters over the course of two decades.
Thursday October 6, and Sunday, October 9, State Street Ballet (SSB) presents Starry Night, a multimedia performance about the man behind the famous paintings. New York-based director and choreographer William Soleau premiered the original ballet in 1989. Ten years later, he brought it to State Street Ballet, beginning a long-running collaboration with the company. Now, SSB is reviving the ballet in an updated production at the Granada with a cast of more than 20 dancers and actors, costumes by A. Christina Giannini, and music from composers Bartók, Dvořák, Fauré, and others. Last week, Soleau spoke to me by phone about his fascination with Van Gogh, building a ballet from scratch, and the challenges of bringing this show into the 21st century.
What made you want to create a ballet about Van Gogh? In college, my major was art history, and I actually specialized in Van Gogh. All through college, I was also dancing, and after graduation, I became a dancer and eventually got into choreography. I always wanted to create something about this fascinating character, but I didn’t really know what to do. How could you describe his life? So I put the idea aside. Then I was creating work for Ballet Florida, and one of their dancers was a young man with red hair and a scruffy red beard. He was the perfect Van Gogh.
It isn’t a traditional theme for a ballet; how did you go about structuring the story? Starry Night was really my first full-length ballet, and because nobody had done this ballet before, I had the luxury to create my own story. I knew I wanted Van Gogh’s brother Theo to be a kind of narrator who could lead the audience through Vincent’s life. I had letters written from Vincent to Theo, but not the other way around, so I wrote Theo’s script, and chose an actor to play the role. It starts with Vincent’s death, and then moves back to revisit various scenes from his life.
Of course, people know a little about Van Gogh already: They recognize paintings like his sunflowers, and they know about the incident with his ear, but they really don’t know the pathos and the character of who he was. He wrote to his brother three or four times a week throughout his life. In the letters, he talks about his feelings, as well as what he was working on. The letters are incredibly passionate and poetic: the way he describes the stars, or the hue on the fields. He writes about his loves, losses, instability, and deliriums, so you really get an inside look at this guy that you don’t always get with iconic characters like this.
What are the challenges involved in a multimedia production like this? It’s a complicated show. When I brought it to SSB in 1999, we used more than 150 projections of Van Gogh’s paintings and sketches—and they were all analog slides. In the years since then, everything has gone digital, so in order to bring it back, the whole show had to be digitized. Everything’s much more advanced now, and we can get some really interesting effects. There are sections where Vincent is painting and the dancers are all in white, so the projection hits their bodies, and the dancers seem to become the paint as he applies it to the canvas.
State Street Ballet performs Starry Night at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Thursday, October 6, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 9, at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.