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Shakespeare’s Legacy by Barbara Newman

Posted on August 22, 2017

Ashton retold A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 70 minutes. Balanchine slipped the narrative into one act and filled the second with pure dancing. John Neumeier dressed the lovers in sleek silvery unitards and the mechanicals as circus clowns. The greatest artworks open themselves to infinite interpretations, which is why choreographers keep reinventing Shakespeare’s plays. No one can resist the expressive lure of timeless characters and their passionate interplay.

Romeo and Juliet has inspired so many ballets and proved so popular with the public that one critic referred to it a “a warm-weather Nutcracker.” Generally acknowledged for the first substantial retelling, in 1811 Bournonville’s predecessor, Vincenzo Galeotti, spread the story over five acts, mostly in mime, and just about everybody—Tudor, Lifar, Ashton, Lavrovsky, Cranko, MacMillan, Béjart—has had a crack at it since then.

Recently revived by English National Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev’s version manages to be both enthralling dramatically and tedious choreographically. The star-crossed lovers suffer the most from his inexperience creating original dances. Bypassing their relationship’s development, he saddles them with a limited assortment of fiddly steps, endlessly repeated at the ball, below her balcony, and in every pas de deux. Romeo shares the same material with Mercutio and Benvolio and recycles it further on his own; relegated to the sidelines, the women repeat themselves too. The orchestra must consistantly slow the tempo to allow time for the dancers’ beats and changes of direction, which in turn deadens the onward rush of events.

Responding more ingeniously to the play’s tragedy than its romance, Nureyev framed it with Fate-like figures rolling dice and added a plague cart heavy with corpses and a ghostly quartet for Juliet, her parents and Paris that cages them in the lethal confusion to come. Juliet has become a knowing young adult, who welcomes Paris and Tybalt into her bedroom and scans the ballroom for willing partners. Habitually lewd and unruly, the rival gangs continue fighting even while the Duke is commanding them to stop, and Tybalt may be more to Juliet than a protective cousin. Weakened by its dance content, the production succeeds as a lusty sinister drama.

Above: The dancers of English National Ballet in Romeo and Juliet. Photographs: Laurent Liotardo.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent staging of The Tempest left its source even farther behind, relying on elaborate production effects for drama and nearly losing the plot in the process. More tempting than words alone, digital technology has become theatre’s favorite toy, a malleable accommodating platform for every sort of illusion.

As Prospero, Simon Russell Beale supplied the still point in the digital playground, fashioning a reasoned characterization that honored the text, and the opportunity to explore it, above all. Cast adrift from the narrative, no one else came close to establishing an engaging presence as swirling, tilting projections laid out a mythical landscape in paintbox colors and carpeted shipwrecked timbers with moss. Rather than enhancing Shakespeare’s peerless imagery, one trick after another described it, sometimes overwhelming it. The thunderous evocation of a storm at sea, for example, completely drowned the dialogue of the opening scene, and a transparent, evanescent vision, conjured on a black scrim, introduced Ariel as a shimmering phantom, detached from the fantasy’s reality.

The characters had few chances to work their magic on us, because Gregory Doran, the director, and his team of technological experts beat them to it. And now that digital tools can capture movement electronically and convert it, through a computer, into three-dimensional images, the flesh and blood Ariel seemed to appear onstage as an afterthought.

Credited with the movement, Lucy Cullingford assigned him a mincing walk—knees perpetually bent, heels up—and fluttering foreshortened arms. Why ask non-dancers to dance? Watching his awkward stab at delicacy, the flitting fairies surrounding him like earnest schoolchildren, and the rustic couples gamboling self-consciously in a clumsy polka, I could understand why so many people think of theatrical dance as silly and slightly embarrassing.

Though the entire evening left me unmoved, a 25-year-old friend loved every minute of it. Maybe science will bring a new, young audience to art. I’ve just heard that a robot programmed “with exceptional fluidity of movement” will soon conduct a live orchestra in Italy.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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