A creative genius with a tortured soul, brilliant, ecstatic, and anguished: Vincent van Gogh is easy to caricature. What’s far harder is to paint the story of his life with nuance, steering clear of sentimentality. With his current production of Starry Night, New York choreographer William Soleau lands somewhere in the middle.
This ambitious multimedia performance blends ballet with spoken word, video projection, and music. Soleau premiered the show in 1989 and first brought it to State Street Ballet (SSB) in 1999. In the interim, our small-town company has grown some serious chops, and technological advances have allowed for new effects. The result is a dazzling blend of virtuosic dancing, evocative lighting, scrims that appear and disappear soundlessly, and panels that float across the stage without a sound. Gary McKenzie, the SSB ballet master who played Vincent in the original 1989 production, is back at it here, looking only a bit older than the requisite 37. He’s got the most demanding role by far, alternating between dancing and speaking. Meanwhile, actor Michael Daniels plays Vincent’s brother Theo, who strides on and off to deliver his eulogistic reflections in a rather commanding tone.
While Vincent’s existential ruminations are drawn from surviving letters written to his brother, Soleau wrote the script for Theo, who is at once Vincent’s sole patron, his concerned brother, and our narrator, guiding us through the increasingly troubled landscape of Vincent’s life. When Theo fretfully describes the famous ear incident, cacophonous music nearly drowns out his voice. There’s a similarly melodramatic moment to represent the artist’s hallucinatory breakdowns — a series of elastic straps extend from his body into the wings, leaving him like a wriggling fly trapped in a spiderweb. And, of course, there’s the mental asylum, where dark figures moan and stomp and clap their hands to their heads. This is the place where Vincent painted the starry night outside his bedroom window — a horizon of rooflines and steeples beneath a wildly kinetic, swirling sky.
In the end, it’s not the tragedy of Vincent van Gogh’s life that moves us most, but the beauty of the work he left behind. Unsurprisingly, the strongest scenes in this show are those that serve as an homage to the art itself. A projection of an early sketch shows a naked woman huddled in misery. In a white unitard, a single dancer (Bonnie Crotzer) brings the image to life, creeping along the floor with her back hunched in a deep contraction, then twisting herself into painful contortions. Later, small sections of van Gogh’s paintings are enlarged and projected so that the entire stage is bathed in abstract dabs of saturated color. Beneath these brushstrokes, dancers in flowing white dresses surge and circle, like birds flocking or a field of wheat being tossed by the wind.