York Theatre Royal played host last night to the Birmingham Royal Ballet, performing their three-part piece paying homage to the work of Shakespeare in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death. Combining contemporary with classical, the evening showcased the range and beauty of ballet; consisting of traditional pieces with some modern twists, as well as a brand new work focusing on Shakespeare’s sonnets, titled Wink, the world premiere of which opened in Durham only last week.
The evening opened with the performance of this original piece choreographed by Jessica Lang; a one-act ballet that captured the poetry of Shakespeare’s sonnets – which sadly the programme did not include the names of the sonnets themselves – and translated them from page to stage. The use of spoken word – reading the sonnets out-loud – in place of music at points was an unusual but effective choice, and brought the connections between the poetry and the dance into sharp relief. Although the role of the narrated words that split up the individual sections were evidently there to shed some light on the plot of this ballet, it was challenging to concentrate on the dancers and the content of the words simultaneously, with the dancing obviously taking centre stage. In most instances this could potentially be problematic, but the elegance of the choreography as well as the design of the set encapsulated the audience, making this a minor detail that could very easily be overlooked.
For most of the set, however, the absence of language was stronger. Where Shakespeare’s sonnets – unlike his plays – rely solely on the understanding picked up by the reader in the language expressed on the page, the ballet adaptation relied solely on the same adaptation picked up through movement and expression. Here, the liminality of both ballet and poetry worked beautifully together to explore the nature of the sonnets, that leave much in themselves to be questioned. In this instance, the ballet provided a new – and at points, unconventional – interpretation of the work of Shakespeare. The liminality of both ballet and poetry worked beautifully together to explore the nature of the sonnets.
After a short interval, the curtain rose on a triptych of pas de deux, from The Dream, Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. A treat for any Shakespeare traditionalist, the reproduction of these classic pieces captured the bard’s work spectacularly, creating a trilogy of three very different couples. Elaborating on the theme of Reconciliation, Karla Doorbar and Chi Cao’s depiction of Titania and Oberon in The Dream, a balletic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, maintained above all the image of a subtly powerful and dominant Titania – though the dance was very much that of equals, the following gaze of Oberon gave the undeniable impression of a consort in pursuit of his queen. In this, the ballet captured an aspect of their power dynamic and age-old interaction that is often lost amongst the comedic aspects of a traditional stage production.
It was fitting then that the production moved to the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, arguably the best of the short pieces, that contrasted a well-embedded relationship with that of a fresh and new meeting. Céline Gittens’ Juliet was spectacularly innocent in the face of Tyrone Singleton’s determination to impress and woo as Romeo; the inherent nobility of Singleton acted as a perfect foil for the giddy and girlish intoxication of Gittens. The pair translated the feeling of youth and first love well into their movements, primarily in their initial shying away from anything more than a close embrace. The effect of this was in some ways marred by a rather too intimate kiss towards the close of the piece, but this should not be to discredit the rest of the work done.
Taming of the Shrew completed the trilogy with some comic relief; this fiery fight pas de deux witnessed the head-strong Kate giving her suitor, Petruchio, more than he bargained for in this interesting mix of comedy, romance and bravura dancing. Elisha Willis’ Katherina was performed brilliantly, playing up her stubborn disobedience with some very un-ballet like stomping. The dynamic was enhanced by the tension between the two dancers as well as their obvious passion for one another, echoing perfectly the atmosphere of the Shakespearean play; the choreographer managed to adapt Shakespeare’s tale of mismatched marriage into a comedic ballet that the audience revelled in.
Lastly, The Moor’s Pavane distilled the passion and drama of Shakespeare’s Othello into a thrilling one-act tragedy, tightly focussing on four characters and their individual jealousy. Iain Mackay’s characterisation of Iago was fantastic, and the transference of this play into ballet form allowed him to play a very literally physical devil on Othello’s shoulder. His characterisation – both as Iago and The Taming of the Shrew’s Petruchio – was notably the best of the company. Furthermore, the inclusion of the omnipresent and denounced handkerchief as a theme running throughout the piece allowed it to not just be about the characterisation and the expressive dancing, but to pay homage to the bard and to make literary references back to the original Shakespearean work.
Overall, this is not something to be missed. In relation to Lang’s choreography: her dances may not represent the future of ballet, but they are a satisfying extension of its present and its past. This thrilling programme showcased the versatility of the Company’s world-class dancers and featured live accompaniment from the acclaimed Royal Ballet Sinfonia.