Shakespeare: huge dance fan. Check out these Bard-themed dances on DVD

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic July 19

‘God match me with a good dancer!” wrote Shakespeare in “Much Ado About Nothing.” He gave the line to Margaret, an earthy servant girl with a wild streak. But it’s easy to believe the Bard was speaking his own mind.

Shakespeare was a giant dance fan. Of his 37 plays, more than a dozen explicitly call for dance performances: Think of the maskers at the Capulet ball in “Romeo and Juliet,” and the fairy circle that guards Titania as she sleeps in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (not to mention the dancey rhythms of that play’s poetry). “As You Like It” and “The Tempest” contain festive masques with dancing. Dance references appear throughout his works.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

The dance world responded in kind. Some of the best-loved ballets and contemporary dance works pay tribute to Shakespeare. Top choreographers have tackled “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Othello,” “Cleopatra” (with or without Antony), “The Tempest” and more. Shakespearean characters ignited important dance careers and have been interpreted by the biggest stars. The magnificent Anna Pavlova starred in Michel Fokine’s ballet “Cléopâtre,” a sparkling hit for the Ballets Russes’ first season in Paris.

So naturally, to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday this year, there’s a dance festival in his honor at a theater near you. Right?

No? Don’t worry. If all the world’s a stage, then your living room will do just fine for your own (drumroll, trumpet fanfare) Shakespearean Midsummer Masque.

What follows are selected dance works inspired by the great writer that are available for home viewing on DVD. As the man himself might put it today: If music be the food of love . . . push play.


Alessandra Ferri and Ethan Stiefel in the 2002 American Ballet Theater's production of "The Dream." (Marty Sohl/Marty Sohl)

“And this ditty, after me,

Sing, and dance it trippingly.”

— “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

‘The Dream,’ choreographed by Frederick Ashton

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has the zestiest dance sensibility, with its fairy roundels from English folklore and the jaunty, singing rhythm of its poetry. Even the swift flow of entrances and exits suggests a dance. It’s a natural for ballet.

Sure enough, ballets came: In 1933, Ninette de Valois, founder of what would become England’s Royal Ballet, created “The Birthday of Oberon,” using Henry Purcell’s “Fairy Queen” music, which was based on the Shakespeare play. Nearly 30 years later, George Balanchine created his popular full-length version, with scores of children as fairies. It’s available on DVD in a 2008 performance by Pacific Northwest Ballet.

But I find Balanchine’s account a rather dull bauble. Better is Ashton’s one-act version, “The Dream.” Known as “the choreographer of delight,” Ashton created his work for the Royal Ballet to mark Shakespeare’s 400th birthday in 1964. It is a perfect ballet — although that can be said about so many Ashton works (“Les Patineurs,” “La Fille Mal Gardée,” “Enigma Variations,” and so on; perfection was his default mode). “The Dream” is visually beautiful, seamlessly entwined with the famed Mendelssohn score, and concise. In less than an hour, Ashton creates a whole world — two worlds, really — of great stylistic invention. The mortal lovers are wholly unlike fairy royalty Titania and Oberon, whose encirclings are quirky and off-kilter yet thoroughly aristocratic.

Ashton made his “Dream” for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, young standouts who, as the snappish but deeply sensual Titania and Oberon, forged a long-lasting partnership and their status as stars.

“I ooze every bit of expression out of their bodies to convey what I want,” Ashton said about his original pair. You can see his exacting eye for expression in a new generation of dancers in the 2004 DVD of an American Ballet Theatre performance of “The Dream.” The casting is a dream in itself, with Alessandra Ferri as Titania, so fierce and tender; Ethan Stiefel as Oberon — exaggerated eye-popping, but so stretchy and expansive with his body — and Herman Cornejo, bounding weightlessly as Puck.

“Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.”

— “Romeo and Juliet”

‘West Side Story,’ choreographed by Jerome Robbins (with Peter Gennaro and others)

The film that defined a city, a generation, its cast and a whole new genre of dance storytelling. The film that ignited my own passion for dance. The film that starred Natalie Wood as Maria but was stolen by Rita Moreno’s electrifying Anita.

As Moreno said in a recent Washington appearance, no one in the film expected it to be a hit. “We really thought no one would come see it. It had no sequins, no fancy costumes. The boys always looked dirty. The costumes were deliberately mucky and dull. . . . But that film had such soul. Such alma.”

“West Side Story” feels like a force of nature, but in 1961, moviegoers had never seen anything like it: Those tight, sexy jazz rhythms. Its heartbreak. Its cool. And especially, its through-choreographed momentum. All these years later, it is still a cracking summer spectacle. What more is there to say? You’re humming “America” already. You know you want to see it again.

‘Romeo and Juliet,’ choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, starring Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn

Of the many, many dance productions of the romantic tragedy, this 1966 film is of singular importance. It is a true dance-drama, and the famous Fonteyn-Nureyev chemistry juices every scene they share.

Fonteyn refined every detail of her dancing, and you see this in how she conveys emotion through her entire body. When she meets Paris, the man her parents have picked for her, we see her Juliet self-consciously pulling up her posture, lifting her breastbone nervously, hoping to look “big.” (How does Fonteyn, in her 40s, become so girlish? That’s one of life’s mysteries.) When she dances at the ball, with Nureyev’s Romeo secretly watching, her response to the Prokofiev score is utterly transfixing. You feel it sympathetically along with her. No wonder Romeo is smitten; this creature of wondrous grace fills his heart as surely as the music fills his ears.

The Royal Ballet is at the height of its powers here; while the film quality is not without flaws, the way the dancing draws you into a whirlpool of feeling is top-notch.

Plus, there’s a touch of London mod in the fun, color-drenched ’60s decor. Psychedelic swirls in the gowns? Harlots in winged eyeliner, with big, bouncy wigs? Ballet goes a little bit rock-and-roll.

This fresh re-imagining by Sweden’s Ek, premiered by the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2013 and filmed that same year, pairs a futuristic Euro look with lush sensuality. Its modernity and brutality may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you like the clean lines and style of Nordic design, you just might love it. (YouTube/Kungliga Operan)

‘Juliet & Romeo,’ choreographed by Mats Ek.

This fresh reimagining by Sweden’s Ek, premiered by the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2013 and filmed that same year, pairs a futuristic Euro look with lush sensuality. The Capulets cruise by on Segways. Mercutio is a towering bully, with wide-flung energy; he ripples his whole body like a great billowing cape. Tybalt is a pantherlike ladies’ man. Its modernity and brutality may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you like the clean lines and style of Nordic design, you just might love it. I do.

Ek has a sharp theatrical sense. The stage is dark and plain, with movable black walls its only decor, and against this the relatively small cast and their street-chic costumes truly pop. (Mercutio gleams in black leather, with a shaved head; Juliet wears sweet, bright miniskirts, and amid all the hard edges Romeo slinks around like a boy-poet in pajamas.) Ek’s movement style is loose and idiosyncratic, with a strong visual emphasis. This is not your mother’s ballet. If you’ve seen Matthew Bourne’s dance-theater “Sleeping Beauty” or French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s expressionistic “Snow White,” you have a sense of this freewheeling contemporary form.

But Ek stands apart in creating character through movement. As the title suggests, Juliet (the fascinating Mariko Kida) is the focus, a young woman of such titanic will, she literally knocks her parents off balance when she refuses their arranged marriage. Dancer Anthony Lomuljo captures Romeo’s warmth and vulnerability in his first steps; instantly we know his youth, his restless vigor. Terrific, too, is the video direction by Thomas Grimm. It’s a true cinematic experience, fluidly edited. The music is not the overly familiar Prokofiev but a fine assemblage of Tchaikovsky scores. Surprises and pleasures abound.

Created in 1949, this is one of the most imaginative movement interpretations of Shakespeare. The dance is for two couples: hotheaded Othello, a.k.a. the Moor, and sweet Desdemona, plus jealous Iago and scheming Emilia. With simple gestures, Limón — the Mexican-American artist who was a pillar of early modern dance — squeezed the tragedy of “Othello” into a taut, painfully human drama. (YouTube/LimonDanceCompany)

“...every man put himself into triumph: some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to what sport and revels his addiction leads him.”

— “Othello”

‘The Moor’s Pavane,’ choreographed by José Limón

Created in 1949, this is one of the most imaginative movement interpretations of Shakespeare. It’s a 20-minute dance for two couples: hotheaded Othello, a.k.a. the Moor, and sweet Desdemona, plus jealous Iago and scheming Emilia. It is ingeniously distilled, but it’s not Cliffs Notes; it’s poetry. It shows how the perfect union, represented by the courtly pavane and other Renaissance dances, can be ruptured by rumor. All it takes is a whisper, an inclined head, a pair of lips to the ear, a sharp look. By these simple gestures, Limón — the Mexican-American artist who was a pillar of early modern dance — squeezed the tragedy of “Othello” into a taut, painfully human drama.

Rather than tell the full story of the Moor and how he turns on blameless Desdemona, Limón evokes the emotional mechanisms at work. He does this, as he tells us on the DVD “José Limón: Three Modern Dance Classics,” “merely by seeing how the human body functions and works.” To think that Limón created this masterpiece in silence, before he’d found the Purcell score that ultimately accompanied it!

Limón dances the role of the Moor on this DVD, which comprises films originally made for television. All three works were filmed in the 1950s; along with “The Moor’s Pavane,” the others are “The Traitor,” a response to the McCarthy hearings, and “The Emperor Jones,” based on the Eugene O’Neill play of a fugitive turned despot.

‘Othello,’ choreographed by Lar Lubovitch

The San Francisco Ballet production of Lubovitch’s full-length work features a shining cast, led by the magnetic Desmond Richardson as Othello and a delicate Yuan Yuan Tan as Desdemona, with a couple of the most lyrical feet in the business. The ballet makes a strong visual impression, especially with its richly detailed costumes. Among the fine character touches: Iago (Parrish Maynard) interrupts his psychotic, power-hungry solo to collect himself and slick back his hair. Lubovitch studied with Jose Limón, and the best moments of this energetic and busy ballet are quiet and still, Limón-like.

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