‘The Brontes’ a moving portrait, passionate rumination on creativity
By Jennifer Poyen
June 14, 1999
The stories of 19th-century Englishwomen are everywhere, these days. Jane Austen’s beloved tales have inspired a rash of films — “Emma,” “Persuasion” and “Clueless,” to name a few. And now, a pair of ambitious stage works are bringing the Bronte sisters to the local fore, as well.
In advance of next month’s American debut, at La Jolla Playhouse, of the much-discussed musical of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” a pair of long-laboring San Diego artists teamed up over the weekend to unveil — with decidedly less fanfare but much artistic fervor — “The Brontes (Concert Version).”
Charlotte Bronte’s fabled heroine has been depicted on stage and screen before, of course. But “The Brontes,” seen in a too-short, two-day run at downtown’s Lyceum Theatre, ventures far beyond that most famous literary character.
Choreographer Javier Velasco and composer Steve Gunderson have spent nine years bringing to fruition this absorbing, passionate merging of lovely songs, sensuous dance and brilliant text, which explores the fantasy lives and real circumstances of last century’s most famous literary family.
The piece tackles, among other subjects, the sublimation of frustrated lives into sublime fiction; the sexual politics of a 19-century family in which the favorite son, a failed writer, is shielded from knowledge of his sisters’ successes; and the operatic, early demise of all four Bronte children.
Using the Brontes’ own words as a springboard, Velasco and Gunderson have conjured a spirit world in which song and dance give voice at once to fantasy and reality. The main characters (siblings Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell) are each embodied by a different dancer and singer, to intriguing, emotionally resonant effect. In the end, “The Brontes” is more than a moving portrayal of four creative people — it’s a potent portrait of creativity itself.
The rich, haunting choreography represents a creative stretch for Velasco, best known for his musical-theater-inflected ballets. The dancing in “The Brontes” is soulful, resplendent in its unabashed passion. And Gunderson has produced a passel of songs and musical compositions that strike a compelling balance between contemporary and Romantic idioms.
Velasco has cast himself as the hapless Branwell Bronte, whose literary and romantic missteps caused him (and his family) great heartache. One of the evening’s highlights paired Velasco, in a wrenching, floor-bound solo, accompanied by Gunderson, who tackled the singing role of Branwell.
Charlotte Bronte surged to vivid life as the wonderful actress-singer Shana Wride and the swan-necked dancer Khristina Kravas paired marvellously to show the easy (but psychologically complex) slip between Bronte’s real-life heartache over a married man and her searing evocation of Jane Eyre’s thwarted love for Rochester. Gabriel Medina completed the circle, appearing as Charlotte’s historical “Monsieur” in one scene and later as Jane’s Rochester, dancing on the moors of Charlotte’s imagination.
There were other wonderful touches as well. Melinda Gilb appeared, hauntingly, as the Brontes’ long-dead mother, a ghost in the sisters’ literary machine. And when Charlotte, who buried all three of her siblings, is left alone to face heartache and creative struggle, Velasco, Ame vanBenschoten (as a restrained, graceful Anne) and Andrea Feier (as a more extroverted Emily) appeared in the Lyceum Space’s rafters, where they continued to dance in Charlotte’s head and heart.
The lovely Sarah Zimmerman and full-voiced Sandy Campbell completed the cast in smaller, though less dramatically rich, singing roles.
For all of its strengths, the piece has an unfinished look. Friday night’s bare-bones show was marred by technical problems, most notably in the sound and pacing. In a bigger-budget, better-rehearsed production, Velasco’s and Gunderson’s creation — and the full scope of the Brontes’ creativity — might finally be given its due.
Choreographer: Javier Velasco. Composer: Steve Gunderson. Sound: Justin Gray. Costumes: Suzanne Jackson, Marcie Averett. Violinist: Catherine Gray. Singers: Steve Gunderson, Shana Wride, Sarah Zimmerman, Sandy Campbell, Melinda Gilb. Dancers: Javier Velasco, Khristina Kravas, Ame vanBenschoten, Gabriel Medina, Andrea Feier.
Copyright 1999 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.