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The bard dances.

Back in the days when--legend has it--every picture told a story, a remarkable number of ballets also carried a burden of narrative. I always remember the late critic Walter Terry comically demanding at so many premieres: "But what's the argument?" Nowadays there is little argument about the argument as plotless ballets reign supreme; even in the world of modern dance, we are lucky to have a theme, let alone a narrative.

Sometimes I regret this. Like the absence of scenery, the absence of a story often leaves a certain gap. Of course, I would hate it if every ballet told of, say, Lizzie Borden or Petrouchka, but once in a while, surely, a story ballet would not come amiss. Yet, of course, story ballets--sometimes with those wordy, obscurantist outlines in playbills that were indeed (Terry was right) occasionally listed as the ballet's "argument"--often went boringly too far; sometimes what was happening onstage bore little relation to the printed scenario.

Anyone who has had anything at all to do with ballet--even janitors at dance studios are probably not exempt--can tell you tales of having had thrust upon them terrifying librettos for postulated ballets. Often these proud authors were blissfully unaware that you needed more than a story for a ballet to be producible (some of them quite obviously believed that the dancers improvised the steps as they went along). They also didn't know that the construction of a workable ballet scenario, although enormously complex, also demanded that complexity to be simple. And, of course, they lacked awareness of what has long been dubbed Balanchine's Law--"There are no mothers-in-law in ballet." Stepmothers, yes--remember Lizzie Borden's and the one in Cinderella--but any relationship more remote, such as a third cousin twice removed, will never lend itself to clarity in choreographic expression.

Which leads me to Shakespeare. And perhaps the Greeks. Or the Bible. There are some stories in literature, mythology, and religion that are so well known that the choreographer can presume some acquaintance with them on the audience's part. Show a couple in fig leaves against a woodland setting, bring on a pair of boys, have one kill the other, and it is not just the rocket scientists in the audience who will be able to figure out that one is Cain and the other is Abel. Audience members who don't know which is which should pick up the Gideon Bible instead of channel surfing the next time they are in a hotel room.

This is the attraction of Shakespeare for choreographers: Most of the audience will have a fair idea of the story to start with, giving the choreographer a certain expressive leeway, if not freedom. After all, with Shakespeare today supplanting even Jane Austen as Hollywood's premier screenwriter, stories such as that of Romeo and Juliet have become common knowledge. And everyone knows that moody Dane, Hamlet.

Well, do they? I must admit that choreographers may sometimes be led astray in imagining that tales from Shakespeare have more currency than they in fact have. I can recall a revival of Robert Helpmann's Hamlet, a Freudian phantasmagoria of the play set to Tchaikovsky and utilizing many of the theories of Professor John Dover Wilson, a then-fashionable Shakespeare scholar. The story is glimpsed as a shifting fabric, with, for example, Ophelia identified with Gertrude, and the Gravedigger and Yorick conceived as one character. Not your commonplace Hamlet, and demanding a certain basic knowledge of the text, which, of course, Helpmann (a danceractor who actually used to act Hamlet on the stage) took, perhaps unwisely, for granted. For at this revival, a critic--then in his salad days, later a deservedly respected major dance critic--confessed to me that he had never seen or even read Hamlet. Which only goes to show that no one ever went wrong underrating the public's knowledge.

Still, my point remains. If a choreographer's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of drama, then Shakespeare can provide a reliable starting point. By and large, his stories, apart from being moderately well known (after all, he stole most of them!), are also pretty good.

The only problem comes when transmogrifying the wit, magic, and poetry of Shakespeare into the terms of dance.

This is certainly no easy matter; yet that fact has never stopped choreographers. No one, as far as I know, has ventured a Titus Andronicus or even a Henry V, but I have personally seen ballets based on Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream (these two are the all-time favorites for Bardic ballet), Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, and even a ballet--Kenneth MacMillan's Aspects of Love--based on the Sonnets.

Other Shakespeare-inspired dance pieces I haven't seen include Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth. And even as I write, we are preparing to greet two new ambitious, full-evening, Shakespearean dance entries: Christopher Wheeldon's A Midsummer Night's Dream, for Colorado Ballet, and Lar Lubovitch's Othello, for American Ballet Theatre. So, as Cole Porter put it, brush up your Shakespeare.

Is there any advice that might be proffered to aspiring Shakespeareans in this light fantastic field? It is difficult. One of the best of all Shakespearean ballets is surely Jose Limon's pungently brief The Moor's Pavane, which strips Othello to its basics, and which can surely be appreciated by people with no prior knowledge of Shakespeare's (or Cinthio's!) original.

Now, two of the worst were Andree Howard's Twelfth Night and Vladimir Bourmeister's The Merry Wives of Windsor, both of which kept slavishly to the story. Yet Cranko--together with Ashton and Tudor, one of dance's master storytellers--made The Taming of the Shrew both dramatically explicit and choreographically attractive. So there is no golden rule. I always think that Ashton and Balanchine make A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly the lovers' subplot, clearer and funnier than Shakespeare did. As for the poetry . . . well, how can you compare a pas de deux to a sonnet? You may as well compare either to a summer's day!
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Title Annotation:dances based on William Shakespeare's works
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Words:1006
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