A beast of a ballet

The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore

Cast members, from left, portray the Countess, Unicorn, Mayor, Gorgon and Manticore.

Cast members, from left, portray the Countess, Unicorn, Mayor, Gorgon and Manticore.

Photo By David Robert

A long time ago, in a kingdom far away, an old poet lived alone in a castle. The townspeople often gossiped about the eccentric poet, whom they all thought mad. One Sunday, he proved them right by strolling through town with his new unicorn.

Although the townspeople scorned his strange behavior, the Countess began to desire a unicorn of her own. She begged her husband, the Count, to buy her one. Finally, he relented. When the women of the town saw the Countess’ unicorn, they each wanted one, too. The town was soon full of unicorns. Yet, the poet’s unicorn was missing when he arrived the next Sunday with his new gorgon.

Thus begins the story of The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore, the Gian Carlo Menotti classic, which Sierra Nevada Ballet performs this weekend.

The ballet, originally commissioned by the Library of Congress in 1956, can be enjoyed on several levels, explains Rosine Bena, SNB’s artistic director and the choreographer of this production.

“The story is wonderful for kids, and there’s a lot of humor in it that adults will enjoy,” says Bena. “But it also makes fun of society, who’s only interested in fashion and trends, sort of that herd-mentality. Menotti seems to be saying that only artists understand life’s truths.”

The three mythical beasts are said to represent the three stages of Menotti’s life: The unicorn (played by principal dancer Larissa Cassera) is the young artist—capricious, foolish and beautiful; the gorgon (played by Alexander Biber) represents middle-age, when the artist has achieved some success and is now loud, proud and ugly (think Medusa, with serpents for hair, scaly skin and gold wings); the manticore (played by E. Court Larson) “looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon,” says Bena. He is the aging artist—lonely, shy and embittered by criticism.

Bena’s daughter, SNB principal dancer Ananda Bena-Weber, plays the Countess; Biber is also the Count; and Eugene Petrov, who hails from Russia and is SNB’s newest principal dancer, plays the poet.

There are several remarkable things about this show. For one, Mary Day, the founder of the Washington Ballet who designed the costumes for the original 1957 television production, bestowed the costumes to Bena and the SNB, requesting that the company perform it.

The costumes, themselves works of art, were on display at the Nevada Museum of Art in March. They include the three large unicorn, gorgon and manticore heads, which are fragile and difficult to maneuver.

Menotti wrote the show with choral accompaniment, so the Pioneer Center performances will feature the Nevada Opera and its own Nevada Symphony, with Michael Borowitz conducting. Although the opera is in English, supertitles will make the story easier to follow.

The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore is the third of three pieces comprising this SNB production. The first, Mozart Moods, takes three unique approaches to Mozart’s music through a classical, contemporary and tap dance performance. Sam Weber, a former Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet dancer, is a regular SNB guest artist who will perform the tap portion of the show. The second piece, Take Me to the River, is a contemporary ballet piece done en pointe to the music of Annie Lennox.