Updated: Tuesday, February 27, 2018, 7:49 AM
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a ballet company, regardless of fortune, must be in want of distinction.
For some, that means putting on breathtaking versions of fairy tale favorites. For others, it’s black-and-white leotard ballets.
But a small company sometimes needs to think of itself in a different manner.
With that in mind, Douglas Martin created a Pride and Prejudice ballet for New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet, where he is artistic director. (Former Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Julie Diana Hench is its executive director.) The company will dance it Friday and Saturday at the Annenberg Center.
Martin’s Pride and Prejudice, a thoroughly charming amusement, premiered in April at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. The Philadelphia shows will be its second outing.
It all started when the artistic director was looking for an interesting story that was not already a famous ballet, he said.
Tossing around ideas at lunch with a friend, Martin thought of the innovative Anna Karenina, which Russian choreographer Boris Eifman created in 2005 for his Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg.
It was intriguing but that’s a difficult subject matter, said Martin, who wanted something lighter. A Jane Austen fan, Martin noticed that 2017 would be the 200th anniversary of her death, and it gave him something to aim for.
What’s more, he identified eight principal characters in Pride and Prejudice, which would give most of his 12 dancers juicy parts. Second-company dancers and trainees could bring the cast to 18. Ballet masters, students, and parents could fill the roles that required less dancing.
Thus began a five-year odyssey, during which Martin did everything from selecting music to writing the libretto to setting the steps.
“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love,” Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, and for Martin, P and P was a labor of love. He spent two years listening to music and making selections, starting with composers who were popular in Austen’s era.
“Ignaz Pleyel was an absolute rock star when she was writing these books,” he said, so of course he wanted some of that.
He rounded out the score with sections by Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and John Field, pieces that were evocative of romance.
But selecting pieces was only half the battle.
There was, for instance, “my novice understanding of printed music,” Martin said. “I thought it all should be available, but 50 percent had never been published. We had to search all over the world. One of our music engineers here had to digitally produce it.
“For a small ballet company, it was a monstrous undertaking,” he said. “That was probably the biggest single task other than figuring out the libretto.”
Jane-ites will note that favorite moments have all been included: the ill-fated proposal, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s awkward next meeting, Elizabeth’s reading of his letter, and the fire and fury of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Some parts have been carefully considered for the audience. Take Lydia’s pas de deux with Wickham, for example. “There’s sexualness and sexuality to it,” Martin said. He tried to work it so that “people who love the era wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it. People are human. It just doesn’t have to be lasciviously viewed.
But turning book into ballet was complicated.
“We have 28 scenes and 17 different scene settings,” Martin said. “How can you not visit Rosings?”
To save time and money, he chose video projections instead of sets. They were all made for about $5,000, compared to $10,000 or more for just one painted backdrop, Martin said. The entire budget for Pride and Prejudice was $55,000.
“It’s really dirt cheap,” he said, considering all the roles, scene changes, props, and costume changes.
Each of the principal characters has at least three outfits. Elizabeth Bennet has about nine dresses, and “some of the costume changes are as quick as 20 seconds.”
The Regency-era dresses had to be shortened for dancing, and the skirts made sheer. Otherwise, “it really destroys a lot of the artwork that people do with their legs,” Martin said.
Some of the scenes are downright bustling — there are more than 30 people at the Netherfield ball, for example.
To make it all work, Martin, a former Joffrey dancer, color-coded the principal characters. Elizabeth, for example, is always in blue.
Fitting in all the best scenes makes for a long ballet. In Princeton, with live music played at a slower tempo than Martin and the dancers had expected, Pride and Prejudice ran about three hours. The Annenberg outing will have recorded music, trading the rich sound of the orchestra for more predictable timing. Martin also cut down the score to keep the action moving. With a 15-minute intermission, it now runs two hours, 25 minutes.
Favorite characters could simply not be denied.
“Everybody has these fans,” Martin said. “The only sister that doesn’t have a fan base is Mary.”
BALLET Pride and Prejudice Danced by American Repertory Ballet 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. Tickets: $45-$65. Information: 215-898-3900 or AnnenbergCenter.org