2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and the year has seen artistic tributes pour in from around the world: film festivals, art exhibitions, publishing initiatives, theatre takeovers. Birmingham Royal Ballet is responsible for one of the most extensive dance offerings: a dedicated Shakespeare Season featuring 80 performances of seven Bard-inspired ballets, including a new evening-length reworking of “The Tempest” from artistic director David Bintley.
This week I caught a London performance of the company’s Shakespeare Triple Bill, which opens with a new piece from American choreographer Jessica Lang. While most Shakespeare ballets are based on the plays, “Wink” takes its cue from five sonnets, including Sonnet 43, the opening line of which gifts us the work’s title: “When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see.” The half-hour ballet doesn’t exactly narrate the themes of the chosen sonnets—which range from affection and longing to mortality and fear—but these do echo throughout, embodied in furious extensions and lightweight leaps. Recordings of certain verses are woven into Jakub Ciupinski’s moody strings score, with Brandon Lawrence taking on a sort of bard role, coming to the fore to dance out each reading. Between his solos are various small group phrases that culminate in a lively coda featuring all nine dancers.
Lang’s choreography is moored by a classical base but sprinkled liberally with unusual lines and levels—a combination the cast navigated competently, though not seamlessly. The early sequences in particular looked under-rehearsed, with a few dancers struggling to hit their marks on time, and the final phrase had a slight air of disorder. Still, BRB is a reliably sturdy company, and the cast delivered many robust performance moments here, including big, sloping tombés, spirited soutenus and vibrant man-on-man partnering. The second quartet was especially powerful—vigorous and brisk, with lively, commendably tight-knit petit allegro.
“The Moor’s Pavane” is a sharp visual pivot away from the simple white and nude palette of “Wink.” Here four dancers boast rich regal garb: deep crimson velvet, floor-length organza, embroidery and oversized sleeves. They’re playing the central characters of Othello, though the ballet—created by José Limón in 1949—is less concerned with these figures themselves than the archetypes they represent, like Othello’s Everyman and Iago’s villain. The pavane—a 16th-century Italian court dance—is used as a vehicle for articulating the characters’ personalities: the quartet start out on equal footing, rotating in a stately circle, and through their deviations from this formation reveal their individual capacities for intimacy, distrust, aggression, sensitivity.
The cast looked right at home with the work’s modern vocabulary—full of trademark Limón principles like fall and recovery—and many theatrical flourishes. Tyrone Singleton and Delia Mathews took on stoic Othello and demure Desdemona, charting their tragic spiral towards estrangement with a great deal of emotional eloquence. When the former grasped the latter’s face in a moment of passion, a palpable tension bubbled up, rooted in the dramatic irony that this is the same passion that will ultimately cause Desdemona’s death. Iain Mackay’s Iago and Samara Downs’ Emilia, meanwhile, were unabashedly, deliciously dark, he snaking around and whispering in ears, she sashaying and throwing herself into dramatic arches. Downs’ distinctly sexy performance, all seductive hands and splayed legs, somewhat jars with Emilia’s traditional characterisation as virtuous and uninvolved in her husband’s plotting, but certainly was a delight to witness.
Solidifying a common thread between the bill’s three works, David Bintley’s playful “Shakespeare Suite” likewise busies itself with evocative characters and moods rather than straightforward plot narration. Here a parade of famous Shakespeare couples—Romeo and Juliet, the Macbeths, even Hamlet, dueting with his own conflicted mind—trot across the stage, supported by an eight-strong chorus, everybody finger-snapping and hip-swivelling to the jazzy ripples of Duke Ellington. With just a few minutes of dedicated stage time each, the couples are distilled to basic identifying characteristics: Kate and Petruchio’s constant arguing, the Macbeths’ dirty deeds, Titania and Bottom’s tipsy, daffy flirting. This approach makes it easy to identify individuals amid the crowd, with the exception of Richard III and Lady Anne, who put on an entertaining show as the “rudely stamp’d” king and his unwitting wife but overall feel out of place, given their relative unpopularity in the Shakespeare couples canon.
Bintley has penchant for stylish, characterful large-group numbers—“Still Life at the Penguin Café” springs to mind—and this 1999 piece is up there with his best. The eccentric costuming is fantastic—Macbeth’s shock of pink hair and punky striped kilt stand out in particular—and the choreography contains a wealth of shining moments: Hamlet’s camp scissor-kicks, Kate’s stubbornly flexed feet, Lady Macbeth’s slinky struts, Bottom’s shuffling two-step. A peppy chorus-line finale tops things off, the cast jauntily circling their shoulders and bopping their heads, bar Titania, who’s off snoozing in the corner. It was enormous fun to watch—a spirited close to the evening and an imaginative tribute to Shakespeare’s legacy, which continues to inspire in so many unexpected ways.
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