It may derive its name, large fragments of actual dialogue and the film score from the 1942 Hollywood movie. But in the end, Casablanca by Scapino Ballet, which saw its premiere on October 21 at Schouwburg Rotterdam, is its own magnificent, and complicated beast.
The performance, choreographed by artistic director Ed Wubbe, starts in a gambling den. Almost all the action occurs around a roulette table, where a croupier is calling out the last bets. The group of onlookers are moving as if they were a pack of meerkats, continually in motion while staying in place, tilting their bodies and heads, always on the look-out for the best view. Still, my attention was caught by a lady, sitting at the side, wearing big sunglasses and a headscarf, seemingly divorced from all the action.
My first inference is that this must be Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), the romantic lead opposite Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca. But she appears not to be the only Ilsa in the piece. At least three different Ilsas (Dalma Doman, Daphne van Dooren and Ellen Landa) dance while excerpts of Ingrid Bergman’s voice can be heard on the soundtrack. There are also different performers of Rick’s character, one of whom (Filip Wagrodzki) also ‘plays’ the role of Victor, Ilsa’s husband. The only constant in the piece is Bonnie Doets. With her small, darkened spectacles and impervious demeanor she casts quite an ominous shadow. She is almost always there, watching, observing, sometimes joining in. As if she were not a character as much as the omnipresent, looming Nazi threat that is so pervasive in the movie.
Ed Wubbe hasn’t made a one on one adaptation of the Hollywood classic. Still I found the shuffling of the dancers/characters disorienting. Maybe the three dancers portray different states of Ilsa. The wistful (Van Dooren), the tragically romantic (Landa), and the distraught (Doman). The way Landa can dramatically mould herself against a wall is quite impressive.
Wubbe showcases a confident Hollywood flair when choreographing to movie dialogue. The moment when Rick (Wagrodzki) lays eyes on Ilsa (Van Dooren) for the first time is stretched out for maximum effect, with Rick slowly tumbling down a slope, and Ilsa stumbling around on the rotating podium (which moves like a gigantic roulette table). The dialogue between Ilsa and Sam, the piano player, where Ilsa asks Sam to play ‘As Time Goes By’, turns into a lighthearted duet. The dialogue where a young woman asks Rick for advice becomes a solo, a desperate plea, danced by Sana Sanaki in front of a forbidding Doets.
Wubbe is just as adept with the original movie score (by Max Steiner), especially in an eye-catching scene featuring fans made of huge black feathers, which brings to mind the lavish choreographies of Busby Berkeley, if his choreographies had a more dark and sinister bent. An original addition to the performance is Moroccan Berberian music, reminding the audience that Casablanca is situated in Morocco. The organic and mesmerizing group choreographies Wubbe has created to this music are definite highlights of the piece. At the same time, they feel more like intermezzos, divorced from the rest of the action. This may be the point, a symbol for people in stasis, waiting to get in, get out, get on, both as a reference to the Europeans and Americans in the film Casablanca fleeing the Nazis and the Second World War, as to current refugees who have escaped their own war-torn countries. The first group tried to escape Europe, the second desperately wants to get in. These scenes feel like pieces of a different story. A story I would like to hear more about, maybe some other time.