When Jared Nelson traveled to San Diego in 2015 to teach California Ballet Company the choreography for a staging of “The Great Gatsby,” he came hoping to stay.
The popular production that blends ballet with Broadway returns to the San Diego Civic Theater this weekend, and now that Nelson is the company’s newly named artistic director, it brings his journey full circle.
“ ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a very special ballet because it brought me to San Diego,” Nelson said.
“It has everything: love, scandal, murder and excess. It’s a ballet that I’ll always be very connected with; it has done a lot for me.”
Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the show was created by former Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, and it features an enlightened blend of dance styles and all of the decadent trappings of the Roaring Twenties.
There are suave men dancing in tuxedos, flappers on toe shoes who shimmy in fringe dresses, a suitcase stuffed with illegal cash, and a steamy pas de deux in the second act.
A live jazz band rises up from the orchestra pit, making audience members feel as if they are the guests of a party thrown by an obscenely wealthy host.
Then there’s that bittersweet Irving Berlin refrain, “What’ll I Do?” with lyrics that are brought to life with dance, ensuring that the melody lingers in one’s thoughts long after the show is over.
Webre creates repertory that reflects contemporary society, and he’s damn good at it, considering the way he succeeded in increasing the Washington Ballet’s budget and, over the course of 17 years, gained national recognition for the company.
The “Great Gatsby” ballet, which premiered in 2010 at the Kennedy Center, is part of a series of dance works based on American literature, including Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Webre chose Nelson to dance in nearly every lead role, an experience that makes Nelson uniquely qualified to coach and to introduce pioneering choreography to California Ballet dancers.
Nelson describes Webre’s choreography as a movement language that encompasses many dance styles, but with a classical foundation that demands a lyrical athleticism.
In “The Great Gatsby,” dancers must use body, mind and soul to make a character come to life.
“Classical technique in ballet is very important, but what makes dance technique an art is what you do with a role and whether or not the audience believes you,” Nelson said.
“In the pas de deux, the dancers always look connected. The male slides his hand down the arm of the ballerina and keeps his hand on hers through the movement. You rarely let go of the girl. There is always touching, so it looks seamless.”
The story is narrated by Gatsby’s friend, Nick Carraway (Jeremy Zapanta), who is interested in Jordan Baker (Tess Lane).
The roles of Myrtle and George B. Wilson are played by principal ballerina Ana da Costa and impressive newcomer Isaiah Bindel.
Nelson chose Zachary Guthier to play Jay Gatsby, the role Webre created for Nelson when the Washington Ballet premiered the show in 2010.
“It’s not only his dancing ability,” Nelson said. “Zachary has all the technical and partnering skills, but he also has a romantic look and he knows how to stand there and command attention. Some movement can speak for itself, and some can’t. One of the hardest things to do onstage is to do nothing, to stand still. But if you can stand still and captivate an audience, you’re doing your job. It’s about having a presence onstage.”
Behind the scenes
The California Ballet Company dancers have transformed themselves for “The Great Gatsby,” and here they share how they have mastered their characters and the dance versatility the show requires.
Zachary Guthier as Jay Gatsby
San Diego audiences were introduced to soloist Zachary Guthier when he performed as a guest artist in “Peter Pan,” and more recently he played the adult Billy in “Billy Elliott.” The character of Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan, who married wealthy Tom Buchanan while Gatsby served in the military. Gatsby returns, earns his own fortune through suspicious activities and meets up with Daisy, hoping she will give her love to him. In the end, Gatsby is murdered. The costumes for the part include white and black tuxedos, a soldier’s uniform and a bathing suit beneath a robe.
“I do a solo at the end which takes me down to the floor,” Guthier said. “I have been shot, but I’m still reaching across the water toward Daisy as I’m dying, and it’s very slow. I’m saying the words to the music, ‘What’ll I Do?’ in my head. I don’t prefer to count; I listen to the lyrics and make sure I hit a certain position on a specific phrase. What’ll I do/when you/are far away/and I am blue/what’ll I do? I have a longing for Daisy throughout the entire solo, and that is what I’m thinking about. I know I’ll never be able to be with her.”
Reka Gyulai as Daisy Buchanan
Born in Hungary, principal ballerina Reka Gyulai is transformed into Daisy with flowy dresses in sunshine yellow, a string of white pearls and a blond wig. She is coupled with Guthier in the role of her love interest Gatsby. They perform three pas de deux, two that are romantic and one that is “wild and sexy.”
“This is our first time dancing together, and he’s tall and strong,” Gyulai said. “I’ve heard people say we have great chemistry, which is useful to make the love relationship believable. In Mr. Webre’s type of movement, there are very difficult elements, lifts, turns, partnering and shifting the weight. But we have to make it look smooth. It’s very challenging but an ideal role for a ballerina.”
Trystan Merrick as Tom Buchanan
Principal dancer Trystan Merrick, who danced opposite Gyulai in last year’s “Swan Lake,” wears a black wig and mustache in the role of Tom Buchanan, a rich bully who is married to Daisy but cheating on her with Myrtle, the wife of George Wilson, a garage mechanic.
“The movement quality is like getting shot out of a cannon,” Merrick said. “I dance almost nonstop through Act I, and it’s sinewy and long, very pelvis-forward. The story is filled with love affairs and turmoil, and in every point of the ballet, I have tension with someone onstage, whether that’s sexual tension or being upset that my wife is with Gatsby. There’s a constant push and pull.”
Meet the new artistic director
After retiring from The Washington Ballet in 2015, Jared Nelson joined California Ballet Company as guest artist, choreographer and principal dancer. This year, Nelson transitioned to the artistic director position and joins newly appointed executive director Michael Andrew Currey in charting the course for California Ballet Company.
Now in its 50th season, California Ballet is the resident ballet company of the San Diego Civic Theatre and the oldest professional dance organization in San Diego, launched in 1968 by Maxine Mahon. She will remain on staff as founding director through the season while assisting Nelson and Currey with the transition.
Nelson intends to encourage company dancers, support diversity and introduce new choreography and dance styles. He also seeks an “eclectic group” of artists that reflects a range of talent.
“I don’t want everyone to be extremely thin with perfect dance bodies,” Nelson said. “I don’t think someone should be hired because they have a perfect ballet body, they should be hired because they have something special and they move well or express their emotion on stage.”
Nelson travels to China in July to teach the Hong Kong Ballet Septime Webre’s choreography for “The Great Gatsby.” Upcoming local productions include a presentation of “Noche Latina” at the Balboa Theatre in November.
In 2019, Nelson plans to choreograph a brand new version of “Cinderella.”
“I want to take that story to a new place,” Nelson said. “There might be a few surprises, it won’t be as cliché as that story can be sometimes.”
California Ballet Company presents Septime Webre’s “The Great Gatsby”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown
Tickets: $25-$115 (not recommended for young children)
Phone: (619) 570-1100