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William Shakespeare’s plays have be re-interpreted in so many different media over so many centuries that it would be nearly impossible to make a complete list. Personally I have seen or experienced operas, films, novels, poems, dramas, paintings, engravings and sculptures, all built upon or adapted from plays by Shakespeare. In translating Shakespeare into ballet, the problem is to express solely through movement and music the ideas and emotions conveyed by the incredibly rich and diverse language in the plays. How do you express “To be or not to be” in dance? It has been done, but not every choreographer is up to the multi-layered and complex nature of the task.

Othello, for instance, has been interpreted by Lar Lubevitch in a ballet in the 1990s, and also by José Limón in the late 1940s (The Moor’s Pavane). I have only seen photographs of the latter piece, but the former I saw when it premiered, to a commissioned score by Elliott Goldenthal. It seemed to me that the passionate and genuine love between Othello and Desdemona was beautifully expressed, and the plotting of Iago similarly so, but the interlocking themes of status, racism, envy, duplicity, and jealousy, intensely built into the language, were only superficially acknowledged, if at all. A huge and profound meditation on the human condition was distilled to domestic melodrama.

 The recent interpretation of The Tempest by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre also fails to plumb the depths of the play upon which it is based. With its sprites and magic and storms and drunken clowns, The Tempest would seem ripe for ballet, and to be sure the gifted Mr. Ratmansky has done some wonderful things with dancing waves and a tumbling, rollicking encounter between Calaban, Stefano and Trinculo. The relationship between Prospero and Miranda is sweetly expressed in a gentle pas-de-deux. But perhaps the most important aspects of the play, power, its abuse, the control and subjugation of others, betrayal and forgiveness, are glossed over or only vaguely pantomimed. When Prospero finally grants Ariel his freedom, Mr. Ratmansky choreographs a showy and athletic solo for Ariel. It is shallow and without emotional meaning, expressing only the virtuosity of the dancer. Prospero gazes on with benign fondness. The pain and price of this act are completely missed.

 In the early 1980s the San Francisco Ballet, under the marvelous guidance of Michael Smuin, also did a version of The Tempest to a commissioned score by Paul Chiara, based on Purcell’s music. I was lucky enough to see that production. Evelyn Cisneros, a great beauty, danced Miranda with elegance and enormous charm, but what I remember most clearly were the pas-de-deux between Prospero and Ariel, danced by Attila Ficzere and David McNaughton. It was 1981 and it was San Francisco, but it was still daring to see a pas-de-deux, with aching emotion and wisps of erotic overtones, being danced by two men. Everything that exists in the relationship between Prospero and Ariel – love and hatred, power and weakness, master and servant, father and son, giving and taking, holding and letting go, anger, compassion, joy and sorrow – it was all there in the choreography. I was able to grasp, without words, what those two characters were to each other, and what it cost them both to be together, and to part. It made an indelible impression.

 This leads us to the two mid-20th century Brits, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. It should come as no surprise that the most adept at translating Shakespeare’s texts to ballet are men who themselves come from the unbroken theatrical tradition in England. There one can find working actors today who learned from actors the generation prior, who themselves learned from actors the generation before that, going straight back 400 years to the Elizabethan stage. The saturation of this experience is reflected in both performers and audiences in the U.K., and can also be seen in the work of these two choreographers associated with the Royal Ballet. They understood that above all the choreography must serve the opening of character and the primacy of story. To see Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, to the genius score by Prokofiev, is to see an adaptation so close to Shakespeare’s original that there are times you would swear you are hearing the lines.

 Ashton’s The Dream is being danced at ABT now, and Alastair Macaulay in the New York Times has done such a masterful job reviewing the presence of Ashton at that company, that I would only add that I agree that they interpret his ballets with magnificent authority and panache. The Dream understands, as Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream does not, that the center of the story is the sensual, combative, sophisticated and magnetic love between Oberon and Titania. For all of Mr. Balanchine’s unmatched brilliance in abstract choreography, his version of this play seems to me to be no more than fairies dancing in the woods. In the Ashton version, the turmoil in the forest wrought by Oberon and Titania’s battle makes the entire evening happen, and when at last, in an unparalleled pas-de-deux, they relent and return to each other, it is giants we see, surrendering their ascendancy to adore each other. It is sublime.


©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.