'S Wonderful: Dance as Perspective in 'An American in Paris'

6:47 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

The very nature of musical theatre makes it challenging to fully show the world from a character's perspective. Unlike prose, there are limits to limited perspectives: theatre tends to show events precisely as they happen (and then characters sing their feelings about those events). On the occasion we are given the chance to dwell inside of a character's mind, it is more often than not a dream ballet, a literal peek inside their imagination or dreams. This is where An American in Paris, currently touring the country after its Broadway run, pulls off a creative and technical feat: allowing the audience to experience objective story events from a subjective perspective.

The story of AAIP is similar to the 1951 Gene Kelly film on which it is based. Jerry, an American GI (McGee Maddox, alternating with Ryan Steele), decides to stay behind and become an artist in post-WWII Paris, where he befriends foppish showman Henri (Nick Spangler) and sardonic composer Adam (Etai Benson), gets entangled with Milo (Emily Ferranti), a wry American heiress, and falls in love with the mysterious, ethereal Lise (Sara Esty, alternating with her twin sister Leigh-Ann). However, bookwriter Craig Lucas made several smart changes to the narrative that elevate the story from a frothy romance to a thoughtful and timely rumination on the place of art in a reeling society. By moving up the setting to the months immediately following the liberation of Paris and the end of the war, Lucas forces us to see a broken city in which even decent people are mistrustful, in which habits of caution and self-preservation are not easily broken.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

But then, Lucas and director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon do something utterly magical: they break free and seamlessly shift into moments in which the events actually "happening" onstage are filtered to the audience to see them as characters do.

The first instance occurs midway through the opening ballet sequence. As Jerry roams the streets of Paris, he watches flags rise and couples reunite, and sketches them all "as is." But then he stumbles across a woman being turned away from a bread line, and a young woman - Lise - offering her some of her own bread. In that instant, the scene stops as the light and choreography literally frame Lise, letting us see what Jerry sees: nothing but her, nothing but this one act of kindness.

It is not until Act 2 that we come across another instance of seeing actual events through the eyes of a character. Henri finds himself unexpectedly nervous performing in a jazz club, and stumbles his way (literally) through the first verse of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," awkward and fearful. Then the number opens up and the club fades away, replaced with a stage and chorus worthy of the Ziegfeld Follies, with Henri in a top hat and tails at the center of it all. Henri has a choice to give into his fear, or imagine something that will get him through. He chooses the latter, and we are allowed to see every detail of how his imagination transforms the scene and transforms his ability in the "real" world of the jazz club - the number finishes in "reality" but Henri performs there just as spectacularly. Although his audience there did not see his visualizations, we did, and we can tell just how much that perspective shift altered the course of actual events.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

The final instance is perhaps the most iconic and significant: we see the "An American in Paris" ballet from Lise's perspective. It is worth noting that this is already a big change from the film, in which the ballet was a true dream ballet and told from Jerry's perspective; here, there is an actual ballet performance in the story in which Lise is the principal dancer. In the scene immediately preceding, Lise confides her fear to Milo, who suggests she remember when she felt deep emotion and reconnect with those feelings as she dances. Minutes later, we see exactly what Lise associates with that passionate emotion: her partner for the romantic pas de deux is Jerry. Of course, Jerry is not actually there; in the world of the story, she is dancing with her unnamed partner. But we see the effect imagining Jerry has on her: she dances perfectly and passionately. Instead of presenting the ballet as a pure show-within-a-show, Wheeldon stages it to again layer a character's subjective experience onto an objective reality.

Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope (original Broadway cast)

This is a nice technical feat, to be sure, but the question remains: why does this matter? I believe that, in the world we live in, the specifics of these perspectives suggest a template for us all. In each of these scenes, the characters are faced with a reality that is hard. Unpleasant. Challenging. And they get through it with the power of their creativity and joy, bringing their reality into being. Art is healing, art is love, art is connection, and this is what we as creative people can aspire to.

To clarify, this is not to discredit protest art or creative work that comes from a place of anger and frustration and revolution; indeed, those are incredibly relevant and provocative. But what AAIP reminds us is that the opposite is true too: we must not discard art that tries to be joyful, because joy can heal and unite. Even the cynical Adam comes to this realization after spending much of the story defending his melancholy style of music: "Life is already so dark. If you have got the talent to make it brighter, to give people hope, and joy, why would you withhold that?" 

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Some of us may not create work that protests overtly, but creating joy is an act of protest against those who would strip it away. If we take our cues from the characters of AAIP, and present the world through a perspective of possibility, then we build our own stairway to paradise.