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SCRUTINY | Sonia Rodriguez Dazzles In Her Farewell Blanche DuBois

By Paula Citron on March 3, 2022

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in A Streetcar Named Desire Photo: Johan Persson)
Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in A Streetcar Named Desire Photo: Johan Persson)

The National Ballet of Canada/A Streetcar Named Desire, choreographed by John Neumeier, Four Seasons Centre, Mar. 2 to 6. Tickets available here

Sonia Rodriguez is the longest serving principal dancer in the history of the National Ballet of Canada — 32 glorious years, to be exact. Always up for challenges, for her retirement vehicle, Rodriguez has chosen the role of Blanche DuBois in John Neumeier’s 1983 notoriously complex ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire, based on Tennessee Williams’ classic play. In other words, Rodriguez is going out the hard way, and is revelling in the difficulty.

American-born Neumeier is the long-standing artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, and I’m a great admirer. While other gifted choreographers are adept at creating brilliant movement, Neumeier is able to go one step beyond, and enshrine character in dance. The National has always taken to Neumeier because it is a company of acting dancers, and Rodriguez is among the most expressive. Her Blanche DuBois is nothing short of astonishing.

Neumeier’s narrative structure is unique, to say the least. He sets act one in the asylum, which is the end of Williams’ play. This allows Blanche to take us into her mind and explore what led to her mental collapse at the family’s Belle Reve plantation. The second act takes place in New Orleans, where events ultimately destroy a Blanche who is hanging on by a thread.

Just look at what Rodriguez is asked to do in this ballet. First, she must always make us aware of her fragility, both mentally and physically; yet, the dancing that is required is absolutely tortuous.

Thus, in act one, we see her troubled husband, who is gay (Spencer Hack), kill himself because of his divided feelings for Blanche and his male lover (Ben Rudisin). The men’s homoerotic coupling is witnessed by a horrified Blanche. She also has to deal with her needy relatives and the ultimate loss of her beloved Belle Reve plantation.

Neumeier has also thrown in three alpha males (Christopher Gerty, Larkin Miller and Kota Sato) who are menacing sexual partners of Blanche, who has shown nymphomaniac tendencies after her husband’s suicide.

In this act, Rodriguez is the consummate Southern belle, full of lyrical grace. There is a tender duet with her tortured husband, contrasted by an unbelievably difficult pas de quatre between Blanche and her erstwhile sexual partners. Some of the positioning for the ballerina, particularly in the lifts, is absolutely mind-boggling. Yet Rodriguez never loses sight of who Blanche is — someone who believes in beauty and poetry, and the delicate things of life.

The second act is set in New Orleans. Having lost Belle Reve, Blanche is forced to throw herself on the mercy of her sister Stella (Jillian Vanstone) who is sexually enthralled with her mega-male, vulgar husband Stanley Kowalski (Guillaume Côté). A saviour, of sorts, appears in the form of Stanley’s gentle friend Mitch (Brendan Saye). And of course, the three predatory men from the first act are there to haunt Blanche’s memory, as Stanley gleefully tells Mitch the gory details of Blanche’s sordid past.

The main events in this act are three very different pas de deux. Blanche’s encounter with Mitch is coy and flirtatious, not to mention desperate, as she reverts to Southern belle mode. Her obvious disdain for Stanley is shown in a pas de deux where she fearfully recoils from his loutishness, while he shows his anger at her superior attitude. Then, of course, there is the notorious rape scene where Stanley gets his revenge.

Again, Neumeier has created mind-blowing movement to encapsulate these shifts and turns in Blanche’s fortunes. The last 15 minutes or so are absolutely harrowing, from the rape to a return to the opening scene in the asylum.

At the end of the ballet, I looked at the astounding Rodriguez during the rapturous curtain call, and registered just what she had done to breathe life into Blanche DuBois. Neumeier had given her the movement tools, but Rodriguez took those tools to build a portrait of a doomed woman that was absolutely unforgettable.

Blanche’s complicated journey required her to be a delicate Southern belle, a grieving relative, a traumatized bride, a sexual predator, a fearful sister-in-law, and a destroyed spirit. Rodriguez, the consummate acting dancer, managed to juggle all these personality balls in the air as she drew us in to her cruel and twisted world. And lest we forget, there was also the body-breaking physicality that she had to execute.

The company performed splendidly around her, and when the National mounts Streetcar again, that will be the time to talk about the ballet as a whole. This time around, however, it was Rodriguez in the spotlight, and her portrayal of Blanche DuBois was masterfully crafted, richly detailed, and utterly heartbreaking. What a gift she has given us in her parting.

There is one note I’d like to add, however. Two principal ballerinas are retiring this year. Jillian Vanstone’s hour in the sun will come in the mixed program, which opens Mar. 9. But, how wonderful it was to see Rodriguez and Vanstone perform together as Blanche and Stella. They are two sterling talents who will be much missed.


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Paula Citron
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