John Cranko’s 1969 evening-length classic, The Taming of the Shrew, was brought to vivid life once again by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, October 16-20, 2002 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Revisiting masterworks of this stature presents audiences with opportunities for discovery in several areas. It gives them the chance to see the choreography performed by different bodies, perhaps offering nuances of characterization and meaning not suggested in other interpretations. It advances an occasion to view repertory in the context of time. This second item takes on special significance when the libretto is based in classic literature, as Taming is. Literary texts are subject to reinterpretation, and changes in the field of criticism open ways to seeing them from new points of view. In the case of Taming the effects of these changes are quite clear. When Cranko was working, Richard Burton in the only readily available filmed version of the play portrayed Petruchio as a drunken lout who wins the game by offering Kate a homeopathic remedy: a taste of her own medicine. Only two years after the Stuttgart premiere of the ballet, Raul Julio in the famed Shakespeare in the Park series that still goes on in New York every summer, showed audiences a deeply confident Petruchio who offers Katherine a lesson in self control as well as the secret to true self esteem, instruction that allows her to become master rather than victim of her life. Critics currently argue in favor of this interpretation.
Nevertheless, Taming of the Shrew is successful as a story ballet in part because it is shaped, like many ballets in the genre, upon the eighteenth and nineteenth century comic opera model. Its opening with an overture is a bit of showmanship that prepares the audience to expect an opera-theatrical structure. Its melodic and episodic score contains airs for each of the main characters, a few bars of which repeat to introduce them in later scenes. The expense of the production, with its elaborate costumes and changing sets, its use of comedic foils to the main characters in the persons of Bianca and her three suitors, its background of clowns – especially in the final scenes – and their slapstick humor (their dousing with the contents of a chamber pot, Petruchio’s “stripping” by whores), the use of subplot to create dance opportunities along with the extended finale: all contribute to the impression. Likewise the weaving of ensemble pieces between solos and pas de deux imitates the comic opera pattern of balancing arias with choral works. The characters reflect and repeat dance phrases like repetitions in the lyric of a duet, so that even the dancing demonstrates the ballet’s relation to opera.
On opening night, Maia Wilkins, the Joffrey’s principal ballerina, played Kate with spitfire ferocity, demonstrating her strength as technician as well as mastery of gesture. Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss noted her “ready-for-battle pitch of the shoulders, the little suggestions of pain behind the rage, [and] nightmarish exhaustion during the wacky honeymoon ordeal.”
In the second cast, surprising newcomer Julie Kepley, recently hired from the Atlanta Ballet, appeared to upstage even this tremendous performance. Paired with Joffrey veteran Willy Shives–whose low-comedy portrayal of Petruchio transformed by an unexpected meeting with his equal and match –Katherine – inspired laughter, tears and a standing ovation.
Kepley approached the part with real daring, flying with flexed feet at the head of her suitor, and sustaining her role as sister, schlmozzel, lover, and, finally, adoring wife with the same energy and joy. In their final pas de deux, Kepley and Shives, re-costumed in the pale green of new birth, an echo of Shakespeare’s identification of Katherine as “another daughter,” the audience is privileged to witness the development of a relationship that is at once both romantic and original. Through sustained opposition of pulling and accord, we see that as partners Kate and Petruchio will retain their lovable independence as well as their eagerness to play. It is a necessary moment, satisfying the audience’s need for closure.
Other notable performances include those of the delightful technician Heather Aagard, and her three frolicking suitors, Calvin Kitten, Michael Levine and Matthew Roy Prescott, who seem to have stepped in from the stage of the commedia dell’arte. Bianca’s sweet pas de deux with Kitten’s Lucentiuo is a fine foil in its revealed falseness to the authenticity of Kate and Petruchio’s encounter. The servants schooled by Petruchio to portray themselves as gothic clowns, each with his own macabre handicap, add greatly to the fun. Even the orchestra participates in the storytelling when it suggests – musically – that the suitors in the guise of tutors have no ability to dance or sing. The weaknesses in the performance, clumsy male corps dancers who follow the choreography a beat or two behind, is effectively hidden by the busy-ness and lack of a single focal point during crowd scenes when dancing and interaction between characters is going on all over the stage.
Cranko’s ability to convey Shakespearean reversals through movement – nice girls are revealed as shrews, whores as managerial wives and spoiled brats as loving spouses – has found apt interpretation in this contribution from artistic director Gerald Arpino and in Georgette Tsinguirides (who worked with Cranko on the original production). They have demonstrated a faculty for revealing hidden talents of the dancers in choreography that remains, for all the gags, inspired, emotionally effective, and convincing.