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Dancing in Verona

ART TIMES June 200

Having already considered Shakespeare in opera and Shakespeare in Broadway musicals, I want to consider this month what might be the most successful translation of one of his plays into a ballet.

By the very nature of things, Shakespeare as ballet is pure nonsense. How could the most gifted poet in the English-speaking world survive the sea change into wordless dance? If the answer is “No way,” then we might as well stop here. But if the question becomes, “How could the spirit of the original survive as dance?” then we have a twofold answer.

If the scenario does not wander too far from Shakespeare’s—and we do not read Shakespeare primarily for his plots—that is a step, if not a jeté, in the right direction. Yet I have seen a Hamlet ballet in which the plot is vaguely implied rather than explicitly followed. So the question should be, “To what extent does the ballet scenario capture the essence of the original?”

Then, of course, we have the second element: the music. If one sets (say) “Titus Andronicus” with all its nightmarish aspects to an electronic 1960-ish horror film score, it just might work on stage. I would, however, feel disinclined to play a recording of the score alone, thank you very much. But such a score would be as out of synch with the story of “As You Like It” as setting that play in modern costumes would be out of synch with the speech and world view of the plot and characters.

In my mind, the most successful transfer of a Shakespeare play to the ballet stage is Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” With the exception of a passage that one finds in his Symphony No. 1, “The Classical,” only some of the Prokofiev score sounds like the music of Renaissance Italy, the rest more “Soviet” than Medici or even Elizabethan.

For example, the wealthy Capulets are shown to be arrogant capitalists and their music is ponderous and self-important. The fight music is filled with the sound of percussion and brass under the swirling of the strings, leading to the heavy death music as Mercutio falls dead and the Duke enters to stop the fray.

The love pas de deux that makes up the Balcony Scene is in the neo-romantic style and must be compared with Berlioz’ setting of the same scene in his choral symphony  “Romeo et Julette.” The part of the ballet score called “the young Juliet” is the perfect evocation of a girl feeling her first impressions of “what it means to be a woman” in her society; but the music grows up with the character, and Juliet’s music is quite different after the love duet.

Unlike the opera of Gounod or the symphony of Berlioz, the ballet cannot give Mercutio his Queen Mab speech. However, the clown in him is movingly depicted by the halting “wounded” music to show his actions after he is stabbed by Tybalt under Romeo’s arm. Yes, perhaps Prokofiev could have let him DANCE the Queen Mab speech. However, alas, music can never be that specific and such verbal sequences simply cannot translate into dance.

Charles Gounod was going to share a problem with Berlioz in the former’s opera “Romeo et Juliette” concerning the death scene. In the Shakespeare original, Juliet wakes after Romeo dies from the poison, speaks some lines, and then stabs herself. Fine for Shakespeare, not so fine for a ballet in which the couple are expected to have a pas de deux, if only a moribund one, before the curtain. However pressured to do just that, Prokofiev held out for the Shakespearean ending and won. Gounod, however, does give them a brief duet.

The book “101 Stories of the Great Ballets” by George Balanchine and Francis Mason (Anchor Books, 1989) gives the scenarios and backgrounds to several other balletic treatments of this ancient tale. While there are about a half dozen videos of the Prokofiev treatment, I cannot find any of the others.

The version choreographed by Anthony Tudor in 1943 uses the music of Delius. This is appropriate for at least the one reason that Delius composed an opera called “A Village Romeo and Juliet,” from which the entr’acte “The Walk to Paradise Garden” is often played at “pops” concerts. Do any of my readers know of a video of the Tudor treatment?

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