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'Hunchback' Ballet Focuses on Drama

Choreographer stages a gritty, tutu-free version of Victor Hugo's classic about the deformed bell-ringer.


BOSTON — Michael Pink knows that even a hideously deformed, bell-ringing hunchback can be graceful.

That's why Pink has choreographed a ballet version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a decidedly gritty, tutu-free version of Victor Hugo's classic 1831 novel that made its debut at the Boston Ballet on Thursday night.

"Hunchback" tells the story of the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo and his unrequited love for the gypsy dancer Esmeralda. Quasimodo's master, the Archdeacon Frollo, is also consumed with lust for Esmeralda even though he is a man of the church. When both learn Esmeralda loves the roguish Captain Phoebus, tragedy ensues.

While many stage and screen incarnations of the novel have softened the ending--including the Disney version, in which Esmeralda survived--Pink's ballet depicts the gruesome denouement found in the novel.

Pink's version uses eye-catching effects such as a bonfire on stage, bell-ringers who achieve spectacular jumps by using bungee cords and a realistic-looking hanging of one of the dancers.

"Most of the style of direction has evolved out of just realizing we can marry principles and values that are more associated with straight theater and the commercial theater and have not been associated with dance," Pink said.

Pink coached the dancers to act their roles as well as complete the proper steps--a technique that was unfamiliar for some of the dancers, he said.

In one scene, Quasimodo finally touches Esmeralda. Though no words are spoken and few traditional dance moves are made by either character, their gestures and facial expressions convey the fear and curiosity experienced by both.

"It's a great way to tell the story," said Adriana Suarez, one of three women who alternate performances dancing the part of Esmeralda. "It's difficult to mix the acting with the dancing, but when you have a motive to what you are doing, it's easier technically."

Pink's techniques aren't the only thing the dancers have had to get used to lately.

Maina Gielgud, who was selected as the company's artistic director in September and resigned in February, cut nearly a third of the company's dancers before she left. The company has yet to appoint a replacement.

The Boston Ballet has been going through a difficult period ever since a dancer died from anorexia nervosa in 1997--a wrongful death lawsuit against the company was dismissed this month by Suffolk Superior Court. And in 1999, artistic director Anna Marie Holmes resigned.

The events greatly affected the dancers, Pink said.

"At the moment, we're battling time. We've got a lot of injuries, and the company, with its current situation, is a little unfocused," he said. "It's doing all the things that human nature decrees it should do when suddenly it's not sure about its future. What we have to do is focus the company so that (when the production is complete), we will have made the necessary journey."

His production of "Hunchback" premiered with the Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds, England, in 1998, to mixed reviews. When the ballet had its North American premiere in Atlanta in 1999, the critics loved it, even though the Atlanta Ballet's orchestra was on strike at the time and the music was prerecorded.

Pink said this production is essentially the same.

"I don't think something becomes a museum piece, ever. It kind of needs to evolve all the time," he said.

Writing in Friday's Boston Globe, critic Karen Campbell said "the production is excellent . . . Paul Thrussell, one of the company's most compelling character actors, was excellent as the tormented hunchback. His slightly simian stance and demeanor of furtive wariness and embarrassment was just right."

Campbell writes: "Suarez was perfectly cast as the gypsy Esmeralda, displaying hot-blooded spiritedness and elegant sensuality. She gave a superb performance in her first time onstage since the birth of her child in December."

She adds: "Simon Ball was consistently impressive as the swashbuckling Captain Phoebus. He exhibited just the right amount of creepy cunning to make the character convincing, and he had some of the most virtuosic dancing of the evening, with soaring leaps and crisply articulated turns. His duets with Suarez were sizzling."

"Hunchback" is set to an original musical score composed by Philip Feeney and is performed with a live chorus and soprano soloist. Quasimodo will be danced by Thrussell, Reagan Messer and Christopher Budzynski.

Pink said innovations like this are necessary for ballet to survive commercially.

"Ballet can't bury its head in the sand. It has to find a way of moving forward with integrity, with passion, and with all the things we've associated with classical dance," he said.

"'Hunchback' proves that within a classical framework, one can go to the next level emotionally, provide acres of opportunity for your dancers to use their technique and put that into a story framework that is consistent and compelling for the audience."

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