7x7: Shakespeare
The Washington Ballet
England Studio Theater, Washington, DC
May 3, 2007 (through May 20 with cast changes)

by Lisa Traiger
copyright © 2007 by Lisa Traiger

Washington, D.C. has been awash in Shakespeare — his artful comedies, his mesmerizing tragedies, his commanding histories — have captured legions of resident theater goers with multiple productions of “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and some less regularly staged versions of plays like “Coriolanus.” The city has been a stage for the region-wide, six-month-long Shakespeare in Washington multi-arts festival, a boon for bard lovers and those who haven’t heard a rhymed couplet since high school English let out. In the Washington’s Ballet’s end-of-season programming, “7x7: Shakespeare,” the company asserts its own physical approach to the rarely-musty dramatics that have kept Shakespeare relevant across the centuries and continents.

The company’s now-annual England Studio performances are something of a hidden treasure for their intimacy and their purposely adventuresome approach to contemporary choreography on a modest scale. Time is short, production values minimal in the white box studio, but the dancers give it their all. With Kennedy Center performances behind them, the up-close-and-personal nature of performing in the rehearsal studios is a wonderful way to become better acquainted with this now tightly knit troupe of 19, plus seven from the Studio Company.

The England space serves as a choreographic blank canvas for seven choreographers to each create a chamber-sized work of about seven minutes. The resulting 85-minute program offers up a series of impressionistic approaches to plot, theme and characters from, no surprise here, “Romeo and Juliet.” But two also created works based on “Hamlet,” one on “Titus Andronicus,” and one a fine reflection on the intermixing couples of “Midsummer Night's Dream.”

Already in our dance canon, “Romeo and Juliet” unsurprisingly inspired three choreographers for reasons that ballet thrives on the intimacy of small relationships played out wholly through the pas de deux form. Stephen Petronio packed away his punk aesthetic for a sweet rumination on love, requited or not, young or not. “deCapulet” is a double duet that features the “Dear Abby”-like letters sent by scores of faithful and ill-fated lovers to Shakespeare’s fictional teen heroine in Verona, where they are actually answered. Petronio found his inspiration from former dancer Lise Friedman’s published collection of these real-life letters, “Letters to Juliet.” The letters were read by dancers Kara Cooper, perched upstage atop a ladder, and Luis Torres seated opposite on the floor. Both dancing couples followed familiar strains from the Prokofiev score and become not rarified dramatic characters, but real kids with quirks and personalities, the women cute in baby doll dresses, the men buff in white sleeveless Ts and briefs. Swoons and kisses, supportive lifts and ample hugs, intertwine with releases and jagged broken lines. Petronio’s choreographic motivation veers toward a contemporary realism that suits dancers Brianne Bland, Jonathan Jordan, Jared Nelson and Jade Payette.

Expanding on the theme of “Romeo and Juliet,” Brian Reeder’s “The Sorrow of Lady C” with its stark intensity channels the psycho-sexual drama reminiscent of Antony Tudor. Apprentice Diana Albrecht, clad head to point shoe in black, seated at a high makeup table, channels a persuasively dramatic Lady Capulet. Enwrapped by impending doom she reaches and writhes while before her Juliet (an innocent Laura Urgelles) reenacts the now-well-known ritual of her falling in love and drinking the potion that will (she believes) allow her to escape with her doomed lover Romeo (an ardent Tyler Savoie). The work is compact, telescoping Shakespeare’s drama into a few but telling scenes between the lovers and Lady Capulet.

If Reeder channeled Tudor, Trey McIntyre, Washington Ballet’s choreographer in residence, recalled Martha Graham in his “Queen of the Goths,” which featured the retro pop stylings of Nancy Sinatra in “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and the alt-rock of Supergrass. This snippet of mourning and revenge drawn from “Titus Andronicus” focuses on the uber-tensile dramatics of Sona Kharatian as a haughty Tamora and her two vengeful but splashy sons, Jonathan Jordan and Jason Hartley. Kharatian’s icy queen, clad in Liz Prince’s modified hoop skirt, her hair in a Martha-like up do, relishes the garish architecture of McIntyre’s choreography, angular arms and steely legs. Jordan and Hartley project an animalistic insolence in their rough-and-tumble play. “Goths,” small, tightly wound, could possibly go places if the choreographer looked at developing this study further.

Of the pair of “Hamlet” works, Karole Armitage’s psychological study “Gathering His Thoughts” featured her dynamic brand of physicality, here structured for four men. Jared Nelson and three seething alter-egos (Chip Coleman, Runqiao Du and Aaron Jackson) illuminated the infamous “To be or not to be” monologue, here in a recording from Sir John Gielgud’s production featuring Richard Burton. A sharp, muscular attack from Nelson and his multiple selves unleashes in clenched fists, contracted abs, flung leaps and diamond-cut poses. Armitage’s self-described punk ballerina aesthetic here within the constraints of the “7x7” project is narrowed resulting in study punctuated in sharp relief.

Cathy Marston’s “Whispers,” to pungent strings by Gorecki, draws from Hamlet’s visit to his mother, Gertrude, while also haunted by his father’s ghost. It’s a taut dramatic moment and Marston selects Jonathan Jordan for the overwrought role. The psychosexual dynamic is heightened by Elizabeth Gaither’s sleek lines and leggy approach, while Jason Hartley hovers and intrudes as a substantial rather than ghostly figure.

A final “Romeo and Juliet” duet, Matjash Mrozewski’s “Lovers Speak” purported to be a duet based on the interviews with his friends about Shakespeare. More imaginatively, he selected a score by Purcell to accompany instead. But, still, his buddies’ words were not enough to lend clarity and purpose to the unfocused duet gamely tackled by Brianne Bland and Zachary Hackstock.

The drama-filled evening, with its embattled couples and trios, closed on a lighter note. Playing on the intermingled pairings of lovers from “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Matthew Neenan’s “quick bright things” relishes the light-hearted interplay of three couples freed to frolic by music of Thomas Newman (from the movie “Little Children”). It’s a pretty piece, bubbling with energy, the dancers frisky young colts alighting one moment into a delicate balance or lift, the next a fresh pairing bursting forth with a newfound spark, changing course hither and yon. Finally, the three couples (Gaither and Torres, Giselle Alvarez and Marcelo Martinez and Diana Albrecht and Tyler Savoie) subside into a close and quiet circle and, as Puck has told us over four centuries time: “If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumb’red here/While these visions did appear./…Give me your hands, if we be friends,/And Robin shall restore amends.”

Volume 5, No. 18
May 7, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Lisa Traiger

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