Ballet Austin reimagines ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

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Chelsea Purgahn

Dancers of Ballet Austin rehearse a scene from The Taming of the Shrew Monday afternoon. Ballet Austin’s version of the Shakespeare story derives influence from Broadway’s “Kiss me Kate” and vaudville style humour typical of the Three Stooges.

Faith Ann Ruszkowski

“The Taming of the Shrew” is not a show a ballet company would typically produce — for one, there are no princes turning into enormous nutcrackers or maidens turning into swans. Although “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” are classics, they are well worn, overdone and slightly yawn-inducing in their predictability. Ballet Austin’s “Taming of the Shrew” is innovative and a bona fide laugh factory in comparison to the overly dramatic tales usually performed by ballet companies. Comedy permeates throughout this ballet from the whimsical movements and blatant expressions of the dancers to the humor initially woven into Shakespeare’s tale.

Showing Oct. 5 to 7 at the Long Center, Ballet Austin’s “The Taming of the Shrew” stays true to Shakespeare’s original plotline. Three suitors want to marry the lovely Bianca, but her father will only allow her to marry if her hellion of an older sister, Kate, the shrew, does so first.

“I was not actually interested in making ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’” choreographer Stephen Mills said to the audience at the Studio Spotlight on Sept. 27. “It is a really misogynistic story which is not easy to tell through ballet.”

As ballet is typically performed by female dancers for a largely female audience, Mills was concerned that a story in which a strong-willed woman is married off to a callous man in order to subdue her to societal standards might not be received well.

However, Mills was originally commissioned to choreograph the ballet for the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and, as Mills explained, when the Kennedy Center calls, you don’t say no. So Mills took an alternative approach to telling Shakespeare’s play while still staying true to the plot.

“To me [‘The Taming of the Shrew’] is a story about two people who are very similar to each other,” Mills said, referring to the stubborn Kate and her equally obstinate husband Petruchio. He concentrated on that aspect of the story rather than telling the tale of a man needing to “tame” a woman. Mills also made a ballet version of the Broadway show “Kiss me Kate,” based on “The Taming of the Shrew.” 

The influence of “Kiss me Kate” and inspiration from Commedia dell’arte, the original style in which “The Taming of the Shrew” was told, resulted in a ballet that is sassy, comical and not at all a typical stuffy ballet production. Mills acknowledged that he grew up watching Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges and said shows like these, with a great amount of physical comedy, probably influenced how he choreographs.

“Comedy is a great fit for dance or dance is a great fit for comedy because comedy is so physical,” Michelle Martin, associate artistic director for Ballet Austin, said.  

At the Studio Spotlight showing, the dancers performed a scene after Kate and Petruchio are wed and the reception feast begins. Petruchio’s servants offer Kate copious amounts of rich, indulgent foods, all of which Kate refuses. Then, when Kate decides she will eat, Petruchio sends the food away. The rage that Aara Krumpe, one of the ballerinas playing Kate, is able to display through quick, harsh, yet fluid motion and the uncontainable fury that races across her face is remarkable. The swiveling hips of the male dancers who taunt her with food convey the comical nature of “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The score also plays perfectly into a comedic telling of the tale. The obscure music from the Italian Baroque era is synchronized to a tee with the emotions being portrayed through the choreography. Mike LeBurkien, who attended the Studio Spotlight showing of “The Taming of the Shrew,” said that watching this performance is similar to watching a silent film from the early days of film — the expression, the movement and the music convey the story rather than words.

With inspiration that ranges from “The Three Stooges” to “Kiss me Kate”, Ballet Austin’s performance of “The Taming of the Shrew” proves that ballet is not always pompous and prissy but can be teasing, funny and a far cry from the overworked dramatics of the average ballet.

Printed on Tuesday, October 2, 2012 as: Local dancers redefine art of ballet through laughter