I have to confess: I don’t really get narrative dances. Why use a poetic art to tell a prosaic tale? Watching the great story ballets (Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, etc.), I twiddle my thumbs through the stagy, sometimes incomprehensible mime, waiting for the transcendent moment when the story falls away and leaves pure emotion. So I approached the Ballet of the Dolls’ The Secret Annex: A Room with a View, a dance based on the story of Anne Frank, with trepidation.
Perhaps I’ve been bored by the stories of classical ballet because those who mount the productions often see the stories as dispensable, a mere pretext for beautiful dance. Director and choreographer Lisa Conlin certainly doesn’t see the Anne Frank story that way. She tells the story through a series of danced vignettes, and shapes the dancers’ steps to their characters’ emotions—weepy arabesques for Anne Frank’s melancholy mother, bold strutting and stamping for the fiery Van Daans, and sprightly footwork for Anne herself. Her concern with the story is also supported by her Dolls collaborators, all of whom have plenty of experience with story dances (the Dolls’ specialty). Conlin and Devin Carey mix a smooth and evocative score for the piece, and props and costumes show the period. It’s the dancers, though, who bring the tale to life. All are skilled at embodying character (not just emotion), throwing personality into every step; I especially liked Colleen Tague’s vain Mrs. Van Daan and Jim Lieberthal’s fretful Dr. Dussel.
But Conlin’s craft doesn’t carry her through scenes of high emotion. Twice she brings the dancers together, abandoning character, in a mostly-unison dance. Here Conlin tries to suggest fear and militarism with jazz steps (most of The Secret Annex is ballet)—jutting, shaking shoulders, wide-spaced legs, and frontal looks. The Nazi salute may have been robotic, but to imagine Nazism as a machine is to forget what’s worst: that the machine was made of fairly ordinary people. Here Conlin needs to reach beyond narrative and into emotion.
Conlin also has trouble with Anne herself. We know Anne Frank through her voice: she was a thinker, an individual, a writer, a curious young girl. Conlin tries to get Frank’s introspection across to the audience through one spotlighted dance in which Anne splits into two selves. The trouble is, this is our only glimpse at the inner Anne, and it’s so late in the show that it’s confusing. It’s also hard to watch. Conlin gives the Anne dancers (herself and Marisha Johnson) drippy lyrical choreography that neither dancer can manage.
The Secret Annex is not a brilliant work of art, but then it doesn’t aim so high as that. Conlin chiefly wants to bring the audience into the story, and she does, particularly through the character of Victoria, a girl from the present who pores over Anne Frank’s diary. In one striking scene, Victoria shines a flashlight on each character as she wanders across the darkened stage. That is, Conlin implies, all we can do at this distance—and what we must do. We can’t help Anne Frank, but we can look at her life. And we can look together, through Conlin’s narrative dance.
The Secret Annex plays through April 15 at the Ritz Theater.