WASHINGTON – From the moment the music swelled and the curtain rose in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, Septime Webre’s adaptation of “The Sun Also Rises” charmed its audience.
More a multimedia production than a ballet, the performance Friday night gracefully walked many fine lines — between a ballet and a play, between the dancers onstage and the interactive videos and maps behind them, between a sensual interpretation of Ernest Hemingway’s characters and an accurate representation of his terse, muscular prose.
Turning the novel into a performance presents many challenges, not least of which was how to represent that prose. The book is revered more for its writing style than for its plot, which is semi-autobiographical, and Webre admitted in an earlier interview with WTOP that some of Hemingway’s masterpiece would have to be distilled in order for the novel to be expressed as a ballet.
For a quick refresher, the general idea behind the novel is that Jake Barnes, the narrator, sustained a battle wound in World War I that has rendered him impotent and unable to win over Lady Brett Ashley, the woman he loves.
Instead, he revels in his friends’ lives and the Parisian parties of the 1920s to distract himself. In the second half of the book, he and his friends travel to Pamplona, Spain to see the annual Running of the Bulls and the bull fights. Jake can never totally pull himself out of the isolation and sadness caused by his war memories and his injury, though. It haunts him even as he tries to forget.
Beautiful multimedia elements, present from the start of the show, more than made up for what a ballet lacks in genre-specific storytelling capabilities. At times, the singers, maps, videos and quotes made it feel almost like a silent film, which is fitting both for the era and for storytelling within the performance. The performance began by projecting what Gertrude Stein told Hemingway about himself and his compatriots onto a set piece suspended above the dancers’ heads: “You are all a Lost Generation.”
That set piece disappeared and reappeared throughout the performance, adding Hemingway’s subtle, nuanced prose in moments where dance steps would have stopped short of conveying an intricate interaction between characters or a specific internal observation made by Jake.
The swirl of dancers using languid, sustained movements and the whimsy of balloons and actual videos of city life projected at the back of the stage echoed the choreographed chaos of Paris, while boxing scenes with Jake’s friend Robert Cohn featured punchy motions that seemed to exist outside the limitations of a typical sequence of ballet steps.
Webre mixed dance genres even further by adding swing partner moves with specific dramatic pauses to the extravagant spectacle of the club scenes. The women changed dance partners easily, just as they did in the book, and there were so many lifts flowing in direct sequence that their feet hardly touched the ground.
The performance’s transitions are fluid, even as large props like bars and beds are wheeled on and offstage, and the splendor of the large ensemble scenes could draw even the most skeptical audience member into the performance.
But it is the sparse scenes, the ones where Jake’s loneliness is front and center and there are few materials onstage, that pull out the primal human need for contact and love.
When Jake and Brett act and dance together in the car scene toward the beginning, the unfulfilled longing is palpable, even if the story behind it isn’t fully explained until Jake’s vivid, tense war dream in a later scene.
The effect of their relationship on Jake’s perception of Paris is noticeable afterwards, as Brett’s quote projected above them dubs their interaction “Hell on Earth.” the dancers’ energetic motion of the earlier club scenes transforms into empty, floppy movements that lack the spirit they once possessed. It is here that Jake’s disenchantment and detachment takes hold, even as the audience dives deeper into the story.
In the scene where Jake bathes after a frustrating encounter with Brett, he is centered onstage in a metal bucket filled with water. As he moves, the water splashes up intentionally around him, scattering higher and higher as his frustration mounts until he hits a sudden final pose and the stage’s lights and backdrop turn red.
At that moment, Jake and the audience both get a much-needed break from the intensity and loneliness of Paris. Jake’s war buddy Bill Gorton goes on a fishing trip with him as they travel to see the bull fights in Spain. Webre interprets the scene, which does little to forward the plot but adds a good deal of characterization, as an easygoing, fun pas de deux between the two friends. As Jake begins to collapse in on himself and fall back to his loneliness, Gorton lifts him out of it.
The scenes in Spain are vibrant with an explosive energy not present in the Paris scenes. Along with red triangular set pieces and lights suspended from above, this energy defines the difference between Paris and Pamplona.
Hemingway’s love of bull fights and champions is brought forward in Pedro Romero, the handsome and talented bullfighter who steals Brett away from Jake and all of his friends who want her, too. Romero is able to finish what Jake couldn’t, performing a sensual pas de deux with Brett that ends with her on top of him in bed, and sweeps her off to Madrid.
Ultimately, however, Brett and Jake are both left alone, ending the ballet with the last words of Hemingway’s novel projected above the dancers: “We could have had such a damned good time together.” “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”