Lots of Legs and Cocktails: Barbarella

Lightsey Darst reviews “Barbarella” by Ballet of the Dolls: is "campy, costume-centric, and ever ready for another pelvic thrust" enough to carry a show? Apparently . . .


The 1968 soft-core flick Barbarella has been just waiting for someone to turn it into a ballet—or at least Myron Johnson, Artistic Director of the Dolls and creator of this performance, thinks so. And he isn’t wrong, with this addition: Barbarella has been just waiting for the Dolls to turn it into a ballet.

Campy, costume-centric, and ever ready for another pelvic thrust, the Dolls are the right company to take on this picaresque journey of an intergalactic sex kitten. The ballet (I use this term in the sense of an evening-length danced story) follows the film closely, or at least as closely as it can; about half the performance consists of Barbarella and her co-stars acting out the movie’s dialogue. This isn’t as tiresome as it sounds, because the movie has some pretty entertaining dialogue: “Oh, my poor spaceship!” Barbarella simpers after crash-landing somewhere.

Dance breaks—some to songs from the film, others to apposite additional music (Prince’s Get Off: “twenty-three positions in a one-night stand”)—fill the rest of the show. Sets are minimal, but behind the dancers a projection plays (the work of Mina Blyly-Sterauss), sometimes using still images from the film, but more often stock footage. (One image indelibly burned into my mind is a nude shot of a very hairy Burt Reynolds.) It’s all played for laughs, but as ever, the Dolls are serious about their aesthetic—fake-kinky anything goes feathers-and-glitters extravagance—which saves Barbarella from being a dead satire.

You might think the key difficulty in staging Barbarella would be finding someone to play the Jane Fonda role. Not for the Dolls, who have Heather Cadigan in all her leggy glory. Cadigan nails Barbarella for two reasons. First, she has a perfect body—better, to modern eyes, than Jane Fonda’s rounded figure. Tall, elegant, pretty in an icy way, Cadigan’s endlessly watchable through all her costume changes. Second, that icy quality is exactly right for the space princess, who carries with her on all her erotic adventures a certain innocence. (Her greatest love is an angel: even now someone must be writing a dissertation on Barbarella as Madonna/whore.) Cadigan has this innocence in spades. She struts about and swings her hips, looking all the while as if she’s completely unaware of her body’s provocative moves. Contrast this to Zhauna Franks’s Great Tyrant, who is all self-conscious power-wench in her wiggles—as she should be. (All the characters are aptly played.)

So is Barbarella a success? Well, that depends on whether you have steady access to cocktails. A cocktail or two would assist with the first half, but a pitcher of mojitos is sorely needed for the second half, which feels draggy, confusing, and ultimately anti-climactic.

The plot peters out, but not quickly enough; the ending dance isn’t the all-out space-sex spectacle needed at this stage. Some Busby-Berkeley type insanity, set to a Duran-Duran medley (the band took their name from the arch-villain of the film, and their music is a running gag in this production), with obligatory kamikaze shots for all, would be my choice of an ending.

Still, Barbarella is entertaining, and Northeast, the neighborhood of the Ritz Theater, can easily supply enough cocktails (and in walking distance, too!) to keep you floating through the whole thing. (Some patrons near me clearly had this figured out.) This symbiosis with the neighborhood makes Barbarella the perfect send-off for the Ritz Theater’s first full year of programming. In fact, while you’re on your intermission cocktail (or your staying-home-enjoying-the-stars cocktail), you should remember to toast this beautifully renovated theater and its future as a key player in an ever-livelier neighborhood. To the Ritz!