Launching its 2022-23 season at the Long Center, Ballet Austin offers a remount of “The Taming of the Shrew,” choreographed by Stephen Mills and originally commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2004.
The production offered both a chance to see one of Mills’ popular Shakespearean ballets, (others include “Hamlet,” “Romeo & Juliet”, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), and to grapple with social questions prompted by one of Shakespeare’s most controversial texts.
The world of the ballet is brightly comic and slapstick, pulling from the 17th century Italian theatre form commedia dell’arte and underscored by the music of Italian composers Antonio Vivaldi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti and Vincenzo Tommasini. The corp de ballet, called Commedia Men and Commedia Women, are costumed in long nosed zanni masks and form a loose chorus of servant characters. Presentational, geometric scenery and loosely 17th century costumes in bright colors reinforce that the ballet is set in a theatrical fantasy world.
Fittingly, the characters have big personalities. Sweet and eminently graceful Bianca (Courtney Holland) flirts with her three suitors Lucentio (Leighton Taylor), Gremio (Ian J. Bethany) and Hortensio (Paul Martin), who try to impress her with leaps and win her with kisses. She twirls between them without singling out any one man in particular as her favorite.
Chelsea Marie Renner dances a Kate who is truly a terror, immediately contrasting Bianca by smashing a bottle over a servant’s head in her first entrance. Her flat steps as she storms across the stage separate her from the light movements danced by her sister.
When Petruchio (James Fuller) is introduced, it is as an athletic playboy with more swagger than class. He tries to romance a pair of women in a tavern, but they are immune to his charms and run off with his gold instead.
When, inspired by Bianaca’s suitors, he decides to woo Kate, it leads to an abundance of physical comedy. She launches a bottle, an exercise ball, and a chair at him from the wings, but Petruchio is up for the challenge of winning her affections, and they eventually agree to marry.
Act one is lively and fun, as the characters, essentially all clowns, tumble and fool with each other, getting into harmless fights. But in act two, the relationships shift.
Petruchio is late to the wedding, and a hurt Kate goes through with the ceremony, but not before almost backing out several times. When she goes home with Petruchio, he toys with her, waving away food brought by the servants before she can eat, and presenting her with a new dress but then taking the gift away.
While it seems like a game to Petruchio, it’s hard not to empathize with new bride Kate. Although the choreography has moments of physical comedy, the comedic mood is lost as the power dynamic between Kate and Petruchio appears increasingly imbalanced. They end the dance together, but it’s unclear whether Kate is submitting or a truce has been established.
In their act three pas de deux, Kate wears the dress she was previously denied, suggesting a reunification has taken place between the couple, but she appears less vivacious than in her early choreography. Her movements are fluid and controlled, more mature, perhaps, but it’s as if part of her personality has been lost. While she is a partner in the dance, it is an elegant, but unsatisfying look into the state of their relationship. Not even the bright ensemble performance at Bianca’s wedding and burst of confetti that end the ballet can overcome this sense of unease about Kate’s status.
Mills notes in the program that the title is “loaded in many ways,” and claims the ballet is “celebrating Kate,” who he sees as unafraid to wield her power, rather than demeaning her a shrewish. Ultimately, in his ballet, dance is masterfully used to tell a story, but it is a story that 430 years after Shakespeare’s play, although rooting for Kate, still does not find an easy happily-ever-after for her.