Performing Arts: A Roaring Gatsby

Washington Ballet’s version of the Roaring Twenties age old tale comes alive in resounding sound, color … and dance.
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, , and as Nick Carraway, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, and Jordan Baker in The Washington Ballet's The Great Gatsby. Photo credit Brianne Bland.

For many people—myself included—their first introduction to The Great Gatsby was in a high school English class. Such a shame, as it’s difficult if not impossible for sixteen-year-olds t0 glean the intricacies of decadence, obsession and unrequited love woven throughout ’s classic novel set in the 1920s on Long Island.

If you haven’t picked up a copy of the book since sophomore year, it’s definitely worth revisiting. Or, you can just head to the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center tonight through Sunday, as The Washington Ballet ambitiously (and successfully) reprises the iconic story.

Translating such a beloved piece of literature (which The Modern Library deemed the second best novel of all time after James Joyce’s Ulysses) to the dance stage is no easy feat: too much dialogue interrupts and breaks the movement’s flow, while not enough leaves audience members scratching their heads. Narrator Nick Carraway (portrayed dually by when acting and Jonathan Jordan when dancing), explains just enough to move along the story. His words are especially helpful when he describes the history of Daisy and Jay Gatsby, which dates back five years when Gatsby was a lieutenant and she a southern belle. They quickly fell in love, but the relationship was doomed to fail:  rich girls didn’t marry poor soldiers. This action (and Daisy’s subsequent quick as a whip reactionary marriage to Tom Buchanan) ultimately leads to Gatsby’s penultimate goal: to get rich and win back his lost love.

s inspired choreography is at times playful, longing, decadent and naughty. One memorable scene in the first act has Daisy, Tom, Nick and Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker flirting on a sofa in the Buchanan’s, limbs mischievously intertwined, clothing flying through the air as they throw back Martini after Martini perched on servants’ trays. After Tom takes a call from his Manhattan mistress Myrtle Wilson, the festive mood turns needle-scratched-across-a-record-grim; the four sit awkwardly on the sofa, aware of the white elephant in the room that is Tom’s adultery, and we cringe right along with them. The somber tone is broken only when the two pair quickly hold out their empty cocktail glasses for another much-needed stiff pour.

The female dancers turned out star performances. As the unattainable Daisy Buchanan, Emily Ellis is a fragile beauty, light as air on her feet, and ethereal in swirling, floating dressing that seem to catch the light at every turn. On the contrary, you can tell by Myrtle’s suggestive choreography and not-so-clandestinely-implied-dalliances—not to mention the black lace panties she flaunts in her every scene—that she’s been around the block. Dancer s scenes in the squalid, dirty Valley of Ashes drive home the point that Myrtle is a living, breathing symbol of the moral decay of the era.

Emily Ellis and as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo credit Brianne Bland.

The lythe movements of Jared Nelson as Jay Gatsby keep the character an enigma. Just as many of the guests at his lavish events aren’t friends with Gatsby or even know what he  looks like, the audience is just given a smidge of his complexity: through his gazes at the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s dock, in his tender moves and movements with his beloved Daisy, and in the way he regards Tom—and the child he has bore with Daisy—with disdain. If you have read the book you know his fate is sealed, yet you can’t help root for him.

As for the costumes designed by , let’s just say that my companion and I made a mental note during the show of all the stunning dresses that would certainly not look out of place at any fete today, and which we would have loved to see hanging in our closets. Simply gorgeous. And if you are used to male ballets dancers in tights and leotards, you may find it disconcerting, or be pleasantly surprised, to find out that in this production, the boys dapperly dance in suits and street clothes.

Gatsby’s booze-soaked marathon parties were legendary. Through ’s Blue Syncopators’ amazing arrangements of iconic wah-wah jazz standards including those from , and Tommy Dorsey, plus original music by Billy Novick, we get to be in on the summer fun on Gatsby’s West Egg lawn. Late in the second act, ’s belting rendition of “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (which contains the racy line “need a hot dog between my roll.” No subtlety there.) shook the rafters and led to a well-deserved explosion of applause. The only way the audience could have better felt like one of Gatsby’s guests would have been if we had been handed a glass of Champagne.

For ticket information for The Great Gatsby, priced from $20 to $125, go to kennedy-center.org or call the Kennedy Center Box Office at 202.467.4600.

If you are headed to the show, leave home early for Citronelle’s special three-course pre-theatre menu. From November 3-5, staff will open the dining room thirty minutes earlier than usual for dinner so you can make it in time for the show. The Great Gatbsy-inspired menu priced $70 per person includes an amuse bouche of Deviled Eggs, Cream of Celery Soup with Toast Points, Breast of Chicken Chasseur with Potato Gratin, and dessert of Chocolate Pie with Walnuts. Champagne cocktails, wines by the glass, and wine pairings are optionally available to match the menu, priced $15 – $55. Reservations will be accepted at Citronelle from 5:30-6:00pm for the pre-theatre dining menu only. For information and reservations please call 202 625-2150 or visit www.citronelledc.com.


is (mainly) a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on www.twitter.com/kmagyarics.

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