You’ll be Starstruck by Scottish Ballet’s evocation of ‘Gene Kelly’s love letter to ballet’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scottish Ballet’s Starstruck: Dancers of Scottish Ballet, Scottish Ballet Orchestra / Jean-Claude Picard (conductor). Available on Marquee TV until 5.12.2021. (JPr)

Christopher Harrison and Sophie Martin in Starstruck (c) Gavin Smart

Film Credits:
Director – Oscar Sansom
Director of Photography – David Liddell
Produced in association with Forest of Black

Original Production Credits:
Original Choreography and Direction for Pas de Dieux – Gene Kelly
Additional Choreography and Scenario – Christopher Hampson
Design and Additional Scenario – Lez Brotherston
Artistic Collaborator – Patricia Ward Kelly
Lighting Designer – Lawrie McLennan
Music – George Gershwin and Frédéric Chopin

Choreographer/Zeus – Christopher Harrison
The Star Ballerina/Aphrodite – Sophie Martin
Pianist/Eros – Bruno Micchiardi
Sweetheart Man/Lifeguard – Javier Andreu
Sweetheart Woman/Girl with Ponytail – Roseanna Leney
Stagehand – Nicholas Shoesmith

Starstruck is described as ‘Gene Kelly’s love letter to ballet’ and was not what I was expecting as I never knew anything, until now, about Pas de Dieux the original work he created for Paris Opera Ballet in 1960. I had imagined something of a retrospective of Kelly’s work for Broadway and Hollywood and there was only a hint of that in Scottish Ballet’s CEO/Artistic Director Christopher Hampson’s choreographic additions to his loving recreation of Kelly’s one-act ballet. I must admit that while I encountered Kelly when he spoke at the National Film Theatre in May 1980 (where have those years gone?) I was never a big fan of his films and really have only enjoyed two, his 1948 The Three Musketeers (where his athleticism is important) and the 1952 Singin’ in the Rain (where, as I’m sure you know, he acts, sings and dances).

Taking his inspiration from Greek mythology, Pas de Dieux tells the story of Aphrodite and her son Eros, who descend to earth from Mount Olympus. They end up on a beach in the South of France where the passionate goddess and playful god seduce, respectively, a lifeguard and his fiancée. The happy couples enjoy love and all its pleasures until – as Aphrodite dances with her admirer – an angry king of the gods, Zeus, arrives to win his flighty wife back. Eventually Aphrodite and Zeus are reconciled and the immortals return to Olympus as the humans get back together with their earthly loves. The music Kelly chose for Starstruck was George Gershwin’s Concerto in F (a classical and jazz fusion), and Hampson added some extracts of Chopin preludes, nocturnes and waltzes at the beginning and end of Pas de Dieux for which he created additional choreography. The soundtrack was recorded by the Scottish Ballet Orchestra and conducted by Jean-Claude Picard.

Hampson collaborated with Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who wrote in the programme for Starstruck (available online) how, ‘For his ballet, Gene chose to create a fanciful story of Zeus and Aphrodite and her sidekick Eros. It was, in his words, “a playful French frolic” that ends “in a frenzied series of dances culminating with the Gods ascending into heaven while the earthlings look on.” “Like most fables”, he added, “this one ends happily — with all the lovers re-united.” To reconstruct Gene’s ballet as he originally choreographed it, Artistic Director Christopher Hampson and I poured over Gene’s handwritten notes scrawled across the pages of his Gershwin score. The bits were cryptic, indecipherable, and then, suddenly, strands of the puzzle became clear, and we could see the steps and enchaînements [sequences] as Gene intended them. Nestled amidst the notes and bars of music, we read words like “Lindy, Suzy Q, Bandy Twist, Tour Jeté.” It was a revelation. As we both looked at the pages, we suddenly felt that we were inside Gene’s mind, following his creative process — a kind of controlled stream-of-consciousness that moved across the page.’

Those dance styles and more can be seen in Starstruck and Hampson has reimagined – in collaboration with designer Lez Brotherston, as well as Kelly’s widow – Pas de Dieux as the centrepiece of an imaginary ballet company creating and rehearsing the work at the start of the 1960s. In this film version (available for a limited time) Starstruck is directed for the screen by Oscar Sansom, in partnership with Forest of Black. Pas de Dieux was acclaimed at the time as sexy and modern, as well as ‘a breath of fresh air’ and is described as jazzy and joyful. That is exactly what Starstruck is and – despite lasting barely an hour – it does lift the spirits which is only too welcome in these otherwise depressing times.

We begin behind the scenes at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre as Scottish Ballet’s dancers get their backstage call prior to their Starstruck performance. We are soon transported to a basically empty studio stage being used for the early rehearsals of a musical film. Christopher Harrison’s Choreographer comes in looking like a young Gene Kelly and plays a few notes on an upright piano and also prominent is a mirror and ballet barre. It is in that mirror we first glimpse The Star Ballerina (looking like Cyd Charisse) and the Choreographer duets with her image to some Chopin (recognisable as Les Sylphides?), and we appreciate his obsession with her. Hampson does well to establish the personalities of those in the Pas de Dieux proper and when the Choreographer bumps into the Stagehand there is clearly the precursor here of the love rivalry that will develop into a full-on (choreographed) fight later in the ballet. The Pianist arrives and seems a restless, cheeky chappy figure who reminded me of Donald O’Connor (in Singin’ in the Rain). Soon the rest of the company begin to file in for their class and we are introduced to a romantic pair (Sweetheart Man and Sweetheart Woman) and all the evident ambition, braggadocio and petty jealousies amongst the dancers. The Star Ballerina finally arrives as very much the diva and clearly someone many in the company revere and the rehearsal proper begins.

Scottish Ballet’s Starstruck with Sophie Martin (centre) (c) Gavin Smart

Soon costumes and props bring in references to the Greek gods (such as, the wings on the back of the Pianist/Eros) and The Star Ballerina (now as Aphrodite) and Eros are transported by balloon – against video of clouds passing across a blue sky – to the beach in the South of France which we recognise because of its lifeguard station. What we now see is pure Kelly with slinky movement for the love duets and up-tempo ensemble numbers straight out of Hollywood musicals. Here Oscar Samson’s direction takes us into all the high jinks with his closeups. Aphrodite reappears in a rainbow-coloured bathing suit and holds a parasol and is having fun with the Lifeguard, while his erstwhile fiancée has come under Eros’s spell. Some spectacular thunderbolts from Choreographer/Zeus signals his jealous rage and (literally) he begins to pull the strings to restore things to how they should be.

We seem taken further and further into Kelly’s Pas de Dieux though we now see the Choreographer face off against the Stagehand and eventually the Choreographer (in sparkly black top) and a playing hard to get Star Ballerina (in gold lamé dress and black gloves) are reconciled – just like Zeus and Aphrodite – in a beautiful and very passionate duet. The Lifeguard and his fiancée are also destined for a happy ever after life as the whole company rejoices.

We realise we are now watching the first performance of Pas de Dieux onstage at the Palais Garnier before curtains are shown closing and everyone drifts away. This leaves the Choreographer alone on stage with a poignant image behind him of Gene Kelly on the staircase of the Garnier as Starstruck ends.

Starstruck was an absolutely joyous celebration of dance and reverential to the talent, artistry and memory of Gene Kelly without ever taking itself too seriously. It was brilliantly danced by all-concerned and what I enjoyed most was that all the movement we saw seemed entirely natural and there was a focus on the spirit and energy of Scottish Ballet’s performance over (too-obvious) concentration on technique. It seems invidious to pick out individuals, but Starstruck was headlined by Christopher Harrison (Choreographer/Zeus), Sophie Martin (The Star Ballerina/Aphrodite), Bruno Micchiardi (Pianist/Eros), Javier Andreu (Sweetheart Man/Lifeguard) and Roseanna Lenney (Sweetheart Woman/Lifeguard’s Fiancée) who were all wonderful in their dual roles.

Jim Pritchard

1 thought on “You’ll be <i>Starstruck</i> by Scottish Ballet’s evocation of ‘Gene Kelly’s love letter to ballet’”

  1. Was not a fan nor did I understand ballet but I am a fan now and thank you for a gift I never expected ain’t life grand I am an old man now but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with Sophie Martin.


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