- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

Dance — the wordless art — is joining in the Kennedy Center’s ambitious, six-month celebration of Shakespeare, the greatest wordsmith in the English language.

His plots and plangent expressions are embedded in our speech, but does that make them a natural for a choreographic approach?

Yes and no.

Yes because Shakespeare’s iconic works are bedrock; the audience already knows their stories and themes. The playwright also was describing powerful human emotions. Dance at its best captures that depth of feeling through the human body with greater immediacy than any other art form.

No because though snatches of Shakespeare’s words may echo in our ears when we see his stories danced — “was there ever such a tale of woe, as that of Juliet and her Romeo” — his sublime language, the heart and soul of his plays, will be missing.

Even so, for well over two centuries — almost since the beginning of ballet as an art form — choreographers have been drawn to Shakespeare’s plays. In the 1780s, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” were performed in Venice, “Macbeth” in London. Many versions of “The Tempest” also have been mounted.

The Kennedy Center’s ballet series is offering four danced versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Last week, American Ballet Theatre presented Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello”; this week the Kirov Ballet is dancing Leonid Lavrovsky’s 1940 “Romeo and Juliet”; the New York City Ballet will perform George Balanchine’s 1962 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Feb. 28 through March 4; and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet will bring an excerpt from Maurice Bejart’s “Romeo and Juliet” June 6 through 10.

The Washington Ballet also is joining in with 26 performances of seven commissioned short works, “7 x 7: Shakespeare,” running May 1 through 20 in its informal studio space.

That’s a lot of danced Shakespeare.

The all-time favorite, “Romeo and Juliet,” has inspired multiple versions in dance and music, most notably Sergey Prokofiev’s 1935 score, arguably the most choreographed and popular ballet commission of the 20th century.

It’s a massive, tuneful, often-played score, so dramatically focused that it dictates a whole series of directions to choreographers — both inspiring and constricting them. They include Juliet’s entrance, her first encounter with Romeo, Mercutio’s death, Tybalt’s death and the lovers’ last embrace.

Just this week comes an announcement underlining the score’s staying power: Mark Morris will choreograph yet another version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Prokofiev’s original score, which was extensively tinkered with by Soviet officials in the 1930s, has been unearthed in Moscow and will be heard — and seen — in the composer’s original version for the first time. Mr. Morris, famous for his musicality, will premiere the work at Bard College in New York state in 2008. An international consortium of co-commissioners will then have the exclusive license to present the ballet around the world.

More than 20 years before Prokofiev’s score appeared, Mr. Balanchine danced as an elf in a Russian production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In his later years, he still could recite in Russian Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows.” Even so, he said his inspiration for “Dream” was Felix Mendelssohn’s music rather than Shakespeare’s words.

Mr. Balanchine’s intuition that music is the paramount element in a work’s creative thrust holds true for the majority of Shakespeare plays translated to the dance stage: They have passed through a double process, inspiring first composers and then musicians.

In the end, what makes them live is what the dance maker brings to the process.

Jerome Robbins, working with Leonard Bernstein, brilliantly translated the cultural tensions embedded in “Romeo and Juliet” into a story of New York street gangs in “West Side Story.” For Maurice Bejart, creating his massive “Romeo and Juliet” to music of Hector Berlioz was part of his ‘60s message — “Make love, not war.”

When choreographers create to music with Shakespeare’s passions in mind, they can give us such moments as Jose Limon’s heroic “The Moor’s Pavane” set to music by Henry Purcell — the finest distillation of Othello’s tragedy I have seen. Other moments to treasure have been two “Romeo and Juliets” — Mr. Lavrovsky’s clear, cool and lovely version and Kenneth MacMillan’s piercing, flamboyant one — and in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” George Balanchine’s second-act, transcendent vision of wedded bliss.

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