That there can be medieval silver linings in dark clouds is one way to look at the upcoming world debut of Orlando Ballet's Camelot. The mythological adventure of King Arthur and Excalibur has never been set to choreography before, not until Samantha Dunster, the company's ballet mistress, was encouraged to develop an idea suggested by her sister. Hard as it was for both to believe, Sir Thomas Malory's rich tale of loyalty and royalty, Morte d'Arthur, was made legendary in novels, movies and on the stage, but it had never been danced as a ballet.
"And there's a reason for that," Dunster says. "Because it's a very complicated story to tell without using words."
Thus the challenge that began two years ago. For the first year, Dunster concentrated on streamlining the unwieldy epic of love and war into an emotionally building series of essential plot points Merlin's wizardry; Arthur's ascendancy at the hilt of Excalibur; Morgana's sorcery and the rearing of Mordred; Lancelot's pledge of loyalty; Arthur and Guinevere's joyful marriage. Audiences will experience the tale's full spectrum of lust, betrayal and agonizing consequences.
Once the story was locked, Dunster went after the music. Working within budget constraints that allocated no resources for an original score, she started losing her mind, she says, in the wealth of possibilities.
"Eventually, I thought, 'OK, who was the best composer for storytelling? Tchaikovsky.'" Familiar gems by that composer are plentiful in her Camelot, but Dunster wound up adding works by other composers for a score that might not wow critics in major ballet cities, but nonetheless makes Camelot come alive.
It's never more so than during the heart-pounding "Knights of the Round Table" piece, set to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" the composition made holy by its use in the bloody knight-against-knight montage in 1981's Excalibur (also heard in TV ads for Disney-MGM Studios' Tower of Terror). This dance, the show's centerpiece of muscle, was choreographed by Orlando Ballet's artistic director, Fernando Bujones. Dunster and Bujones have collaborated for years; both are schooled in classical Cuban ballet, which is based upon the discipline-rich Russian ballet but considerably warmed by Latin culture. Dunster, a Canada native, studied in Cuba for years and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese the latter a language she slips in and out of as she works with her dancers, many of whom are of Latin descent.
Dunster says that both she and Bujones were always excited about the potential of Camelot, but by the time the Round Table piece complete with table, swords and knights came together, both knew they had created something spectacular. Indeed, Camelot is tailor-made to showcase the Orlando Ballet and its cache of virile male dancers, who definitely do not take a backseat to the accomplished beauties in tutus.
Not that there haven't been upheavals: Two key members left the troupe unexpectedly just weeks before the ballet's opening. Luckily, Bujones operates under a no-diva philosophy. In any Orlando Ballet production, the lead roles are learned by several dancers in the ensemble. So on any given night, the chemistry of the characters say, Guinevere and Lancelot is determined by the temperament and artistry of a new set of performers.
A recent rehearsal we witnessed reinforced Dunster's skill for storytelling and dramatic choreography. But the extent of the technical complexities was difficult to judge, as the dancers were holding back on the risky showstoppers, having returned only the day before from a date in Miami. (In addition to rehearsing Camelot, the dancers have also been performing other productions, so steps from different ballets and different roles are always dancing in their heads.)
Still, there is obviously much to champion in this dynamic troupe, and the world premiere of Camelot is a righteous source of pride for Dunster, for the dancers and for the city itself. This may not be the first time that the cloud of short funding has pushed a scrambling arts group to advance its individual and collective skills toward innovation. But with its accessibility and masculinity, Orlando Ballet's Camelot shows all the signs of turning into a king's treasure.