Cleopatra was immortalized in popular culture long before Elizabeth Taylor sported winged eyeliner and Monica Geller cornrows. Yet I’m willing to bet that not too many of us know the Queen of the Nile was actually a Greek politician, or the impact she had on the trading world, or that she spoke more languages than most modern politicians (step up your game, Bernie).
Her diplomacy should have been the crux of Cleopatra’s lore, and yet her sultry sex appeal is all any of us seems to remember.
Ballet Fantastique’s world premiere of the original ballet Cleopatra — which ran at the Hult this past weekend, May 9-12 — seeks to set the story straight on Egypt’s last pharaoh. In collaboration with Sidecar Tommy and Eenor Wildeboar of the eclectic and electric Beats Antique, BFan once again kicks against convention to create a vibrant and glittering ballet — though not without a familiar amount of sex appeal.
Ashley Bontrager stars as Cleopatra VII. Gold-trimmed, athletic and strong, Bontrager is sportier than the seductive Cleopatra immortalized in our heads. A lot of scroll play serves as a reminder that she was indeed a real politician. Never mind that exposed midriff, there are important alliances to be made!
Cleopatra’s predecessor, Ptolemy XIII (Emilia Montero), doesn’t get to stick around very long, but Montero’s dancing is some of the best on stage. Enchanting and fluid, she commands the movements of her servants like a serpent.
The duets between Cleopatra’s two love interests and political allies — Julius Caesar (Gabriel Ritzmann) and Marc Antony (Gustavo Ramirez) — differ greatly. With Caesar, it’s mostly business. Bontrager and Ritzmann often dance side-by-side rather than working together. It’s not until Ramirez appears that Bontrager really sells the come-hither looks she’s giving out.
The post-intermission duets exude significant heat under the red stage lights. Intensely pressed up against him, Bontrager climbs Ramirez like a tree. Then Ramirez pulls off an impressive lift by throwing Bontrager over his head by the nape of her neck and thigh.
Surprisingly, most of the choreography (Donna Marisa Bontrager, Hannah Bontrager) remains grounded — intense Vogue vibes and arm-play that border on avant-garde Egyptian walking. Sometimes it works, playing with the rhythms of Sidecar Tommy, and sometimes it just feels static.
The episodes in the Temple of Isis and the Palace in Alexandria get the most lift as gypsy-draped and gold cellophane priestesses leap, run and spin to the building beats.
Both the costumes and the sets are wonderfully artistic and precise (Donna Marisa Bontrager, Kelle DeForrest). The gold-winged harpies are radioactively vibrant and not to be put in the microwave, while Cleopatra’s glittering red hat, crook and flail are reminiscent of an Ice Capades drum major. The impressive ornamental columns and hieroglyphic murals blend ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian motifs. Deep maroons and even deeper teals symbolize great power and great love.
The narrative gets a little lost amid the spectacle, like the inexplicable baby that appears on stage midway through the show, or the elegant and lovely, yet not entirely necessary, Servilia (Tracy Fuller). The showdown between Brutus and Caesar is overshadowed by Cleopatra’s sleepy frame stumbling through the smoke screen, and no one even cares about Octavian’s conquest next to the on-stage chemistry between the queen and Antony.
After all, sex, dope beats and shiny things will always be more appealing than politics and war.
Check out future Ballet Fantastique productions at balletfantastique.org.