Atlanta Ballet takes on tricky Tennessee Williams in ‘Camino Real’

Tennessee Williams is known for creating empathetic characters — Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie,” Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In the playwright’s “Camino Real,” it’s Kilroy, a Golden Glove boxing champion who had to stop his career due to an enlarged heart.

“If that isn’t a metaphor,” said choreographer Helen Pickett, “his heart’s too big for life.”

Pickett is preparing for the world premiere of “Camino Real,” a new ballet based on Williams’ play. Produced by Atlanta Ballet, it is Pickett’s first evening-length work, the culmination of a three-year term as resident choreographer, and part of a series of four ballets exploring story and text. “Camino Real” opens Friday and runs through Sunday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

While “Streetcar” and “Glass Menagerie” have previously been adapted for dance, Pickett’s is the first known ballet based on “Camino.” Perhaps this is because its first 1953 production wasn’t considered successful; or because the play departs from theatrical realism, with a somewhat surreal, nonlinear plot, social commentary on tyranny, and a lengthy roster of characters drawn from history, literature and the playwright’s imagination.

But it is considered Williams’ most poetic writing, said Pickett, who sees it more as an “ode to the spirit of good and evil.” She aims to make the work “touch down” with audiences by presenting it as a hero’s journey with love stories between five empathetic characters, “peppered with text,” starting with Kilroy, an all-American fighter with a heart of gold.

Williams based his hero on World War II-era graffiti, said by some to have started when James J. Kilroy, a Navy shipyard inspector, began chalking “Kilroy Was Here” on ship bulkheads to show he had inspected them. Those words, and a crudely drawn image of a long-nosed figure peering over a fence, became a slightly subversive inside joke among American servicemen and appeared almost everywhere they went. It became a symbol of hope, boosting morale and solidarity as they headed into battle.

Dancer Heath Gill plays Williams’ hero, the former boxing champ. Clad in gold prizefighter’s robe and sporting golden gloves, he shadowboxes his way down the aisle. Bobbing and weaving, he throws hooks and jabs to the sounds of triumphant music and a roaring crowd.

In his mind, he’s reliving his glory days in the ring. But in the reality we see, Kilroy lands in the town square of Camino Real. In this vaguely Latin American port city, the rich and destitute are equally hopeful and desperate, specters of death lurk in the shadows, and iron-fisted authority crushes anyone with optimism or the “spark of anarchy” in his spirit.

Kilroy’s arrival jump-starts an antagonistic relationship with Gutman, a hotel proprietor whose will is brutally enforced by military police. Three demonic Cleaners appear whenever someone dies, warning Kilroy that his number’s coming up.

Despite his heavy circumstance, Kilroy finds camaraderie with Jacques Casanova, an eternal seducer who experiences both betrayal and enduring love in Marguerite Gautier, a fading courtesan. With Esmeralda, a young prostitute held captive by her wheeling and dealing Gypsy mother, Kilroy ultimately finds intimacy that’s tender and sincere.

Along the way, Gutman tries to crush Kilroy’s spirit, forcing him to be the town patsy. “But sure enough, the spirit says no,” Pickett said. “He rallies.”

Pickett has choreographed chaotic chase scenes through the audience, in keeping with Williams’ stage directions; Pickett said “Camino” was one of the first times, if not the first, that an American theater production broke the fourth wall. She will extend the idea to the theater lobby, where period-dressed characters, including cigarette and gum vendors and a sandwich-board advertiser, will roam the foyer before the show.

Pickett hopes to transport audiences to the time when Williams wrote the play — the height of the McCarthy era, when the country’s creative atmosphere was stymied by news of blacklists, hearings and the Hollywood Ten.

1953 was the same year Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible,” a play Pickett recently adapted for ballet while developing “Camino Real.”

“Both are about persecution,” she said, “about silencing the voice. But it’s funny — I find this play so shiny and full of hope, and full of the enduring spirit that will not be pushed down.”

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