When the Charleston City Ballet decided to perform the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast, the ballet's artistic director Michael Wise says he knew early on what his company wanted and didn't want. And what they wanted was a score with works by Bizet, Dussek, Barber, and Glazunov. What they didn't want was a more modern interpretation of the classic tale.
"When we sat down to do our research, we knew we didn't want to go down the Disney road," Wise says. "The type of ballet company that we are, we wanted to stay focused on the true idea of the story."
Written by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, the original story — of a handsome prince whose arrogance earns him a beastly curse, until the love of the beautiful Belle redeems him — first appeared in the 18th century.
"There are a couple of versions," Wise says, "but most of them revolve around Belle being the youngest of three sisters, a father who is raising them because his wife has passed away, and two of the sisters are ... not mean or evil, but they like to spend a lot of money. You have one who's very interested in clothing, one who's very interested in jewelry, and Belle, who's more interested in culture and people and conversation and stories."
Wise says that they drew from the earliest versions of the fairy tale because the literary elements lend themselves better to balletic performance. "We felt we could convey a little bit more of a story and show why things were happening the way they were," he says. "For example, in one version of the story that we found, it's not a witch who curses the prince, it's a fairy. She disguises herself as an old lady, but when he turns her away, she reveals herself and immediately takes him to task for the way he behaved. Then we took a little bit of poetic license and had the fairy stick around, because she's trying to teach him a lesson. She starts to slowly manipulate the situation to facilitate his redemption."
As far as the stage setting, Wise says the company adopted a more pronounced fairy tale vibe out of necessity. "At the Charleston Music Hall, you can't really fly sets in and out," he says. "Our entire backdrop is a giant storybook, and we change scenes by turning the page. So we have a character called the Book Elf who turns each individual page to give you a new backdrop."
Wise says that drawing from the original archetypes of the story plays to the Charleston City Ballet's strengths. "One of the really important parts of being a true classical ballet company is understanding that we're storytellers," he says. "It's not only that the dancers are beautiful and have wonderful technique and have studied their entire lives to do this, but they're using this incredible technique and discipline to tell a story."