The Atlanta Ballet's production of "Camino Real."
The Atlanta Ballet’s production of “Camino Real.”

By Manning Harris

Atlanta Ballet has accomplished a real coup in their intensely imaginative, beautifully performed world premiere ballet of Tennessee Williams’ 1953 play “Camino Real.” It ran at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre March 20-22. The company has created a major work that I predict will not only last, but become a legend in the dance world.

Helen Pickett, Atlanta Ballet’s resident choreographer, has wrought sheer magic here. She has been aided by a haunting musical score by Peter Salem, and a mesmerizing scenic design by David Finn and Emma Kingsbury. Ari Pelto conducts the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra.

By the time “Camino Real” appeared on Broadway, Tennessee Williams had already caused a sensation by two early masterworks: “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which had been made into a legendary movie starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando.

When he then veered toward surrealism and symbology in a work whose theme was not immediately apparent to the critics and public, he was somewhat chastised because even then playwrights and artists were “branded,” although that term was not yet in vogue.

But the loneliness of the human heart was never far from his psyche: “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins,” he wrote in “Orpheus Descending,” and later Williams remarked that to him all of life was a crie de coeur, or cry of the heart.

Of “Camino Real” he said before its opening, “More than any other work that I have done, this play seemed to me like the construction of another world, a separate existence.”

I happen to think that Williams would have loved the hypnotic, intoxicating ambience of Atlanta Ballet’s “Camino.” Trying to describe it is like attempting to catch quicksilver.

We find ourselves in a small town, seemingly Latin American, where real and fictitious characters emerge and try to find freedom and love before death overtakes them.

There is Gutman (John Welker), a menacing hotel proprietor; Casanova (Christian Clark) and his love, Marguerite (Nadia Mara); Esmeralda (Tara Lee), whose mother shamelessly parades her daughter’s beauty before the town; and then there is Kilroy (Heath Gill), whose sudden appearance galvanizes the entire town.

“Kilroy was here.” You may remember this sentence from World War II lore. Under his tough guy attitude, he has a heart “as big as the head of a baby,” both his weakness and a shining inspiration. He brings hope and passion to a place of decadent desolation. Kilroy is at once a symbol and a charismatic human being, whose very presence is magnetic.

In Heath Gill, Atlanta Ballet has found their perfect Kilroy; he radiates goodness, affability, and courage. Kilroy was a boxing champ, but he becomes a champion of the human spirit. He’s also a terrific dancer. This company only has superb dancers; but you knew that.

Oh, yes, “Camino Real” not only breaks the fourth wall concept, it breaks the “voice wall” as well: The dancers speak! Only a little, but very well indeed.

Others in the cast include Peng-Yu Chen, Rachel Van Buskirk, Jacob Bush, Jonah Hooper, Alexandre Barros, Jared Tan, Jackie Nash, Yoomi Kim, Miguel Angel Montoya, Devon Joslin, Kiara Fedler, Coco Mathieson, Brandon Nguyen, Brandon Funk, Pedro Gamino, Shaun Gheyssen, Lydia Redpath, Sara Havener, Thom Panto, Kelsey Ebersold, Olivia Yoch, Ransom Wilkes-Davis, Stephanie Hall, and Devon Lux-Archer.

Lighting design is by David Finn; costumes by Sandra Woodall. Atlanta Ballet is an Atlanta treasure. John McFall is the Artistic Director.

I hope Atlanta Ballet brings “Camino Real” back for a longer run and that it is produced by other companies world wide. It has the power to last.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.