by Suzi Steffen
Hannah Bontrager, the executive director of Ballet Fantastique, had her own theater company when she was just a small child. She and her sister Ashley, who is a company member at BFan alongside Hannah, put on plays every summer. They called themselves “The Littllest Theater Group” and had a gaggle of neighborhood kids as regular cast members, props masters, scriptwriters and, one assumes, PR people.
“That same group of neighborhood kids watched the BBC 8-hour Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice over and over,” Hannah Bontrager says. “When we finished the final hour, we put in the first videotape again.”
That love for Pride and Prejudice, which Bontrager is quick to point out she read as well as watching, led to Ballet Fantastique’s 2013 original creation of a French jazz P&P, a piece that they’re reviving to kick off Ballet Fantastique’s 2016-2017 season.
“We have always loved the story,” Bontrager says. “When our creative team was meeting and bouncing ideas around about it, we started putting twists in the concept and the story we already knew.”
The Roaring Twenties in Montmartre “just felt right,” she says. Putting the story into a slightly different setting “can challenge your perspective,” she adds. So if the Bennet sisters run a cabaret on the Left Bank in a “bad” part of town, and snotty English aristocrats, including Darcy, stumble in, that lets an audience that might already know the tale well see Lizzie with new eyes.
But what about all of those people who skipped reading Pride and Prejudice or watching it either “because it’s a girl thing” (untrue, but a common opinion) or because it seemed so stuffy and, well, British? The creative team decided to add an actor/narrator, who explains the action and adds his own commentary on it. There is no one better to serve that snarky explanatory role than the man Bontrager calls “slimy Vicar Collins,” a character who always has to put his two cents in – played at B-Fan’s production by actor/musician Adam Goldthwaite.
“He’s doing the whole thing as a wedding commentary as Lizzie and Darcy get married,” Bontrager says. “He likes to talk so much!”
She says it was “an absolute blast writing that script” because it’s a classic BFan adaptation: “Fun, funny, romantic, has dramatic moments, and the dancers get to inhabit the characters and stay one character from start to finish.”
Most Ballet Fantastique performances, which run in the small – some would say “intimate” – Soreng Theatre within the larger Hult Center in downtown Eugene, sell out, whether ahead of time or on the day of the show. Ballet Fantastique calls itself “a chamber ballet,” and it’s a resident company of the Hult Center within the Soreng. “We’ve hit on this gold mine in terms of what people seem to love and come to see,” Bontrager says.
That doesn’t mean it’s a literal gold mine, of course. Each production, especially the world premieres and original scripts with their development costs, runs somewhere around $100,000 to put on, and Bontrager notes that even if every ticket in the house sells, Ballet Fantastique is not going to make more than a third of that back from ticket sales. “So we rely on a variety of fun and creative fundraisers,” she says.
Like the Bennet family in Montmartre, the Bontragers – Hannah and Ashley’s mother Donna is the company’s artistic director – create music, dance and fun on a small stage. But there’s no need for Eugeneans to be like snotty Darcy about it: Just get a ticket soon, before this weekend’s three performances sell out.
Pride and Prejudice: A Parisian Jazz Ballet
7:30 pm Friday, Oct. 14 and Saturday, Oct. 15
2:30 pm Sunday, Oct. 16
Tickets $31-$59 at hultcenter.org or 541-682-5000