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Shakespeare’s Sonnets
March 31, 2007
Mandeville Auditorium, UCSD

Ballet is no stranger to Shakespeare. In fact, the Bard has been inspiring choreographers for more than a century with his combination of drama and romance (a la Romeo and Juliet), clever mixes of comedy and fantasy (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and tragic thriller (Othello). For an example of Shakespeare’s mark on ballet, check out New York Times’ dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s recent ode to the various incarnations of Romeo and Juliet: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/arts/dance/01maca.html.

But aside from his full-length plays, there is rich material to be mined in the form of his many sonnets, those explications on love and beauty that are still oft quoted today, and San Diego Ballet attempted to bring them to life on Saturday, March 31 at UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium.

The performance consisted of many combinations of solos, duets, trios, quartets and ensemble pieces, each inspired by phrases of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Choreographer Javier Velasco wisely made the text itself an important ingredient in the production, by including it in the written program as well as integrating the spoken text into the works, strongly delivered by Steve Gundersen and Gail Mackler.

Velasco opened the evening in decidedly non-traditional fashion by having the entire company wander on stage in full view of the audience to warm up, review sections, chat with each, and casually prepare for the show. The effect was to immediately create an informal relationship with the audience, allowing us to observe the preparations before the performance, catching every imbalance, aborted pirouette, and awkward lift. It was an unexpected way to initiate a classically inspired show and, if revisited throughout, would have provided an intimacy with the audience that could have served the show well.

Unfortunately, this casual conversational introduction was nowhere else to be found and the rest of the program progressed in the expected fashion, maintaining a more formal presentational relationship between audience and dancer. Also unfortunate was the fact that some lifts and partnering looked better in warm up than in performance.

After the dancers cleared the stage one by one to start the show, young Cole van den Helder, as an adorable Cupid, laid behind a candle, illuminated from above by a warm light. This powerful opening image initiated the show with a strong visual that evoked innocence, youth, and romance in a way that most of the dances couldn’t approach. Cupid asleep with his candle provided the most theatrical moments of the evening and it would have been nice to see other strong visual images inserted throughout the show, instead of just book-ending it.

The dances that followed, using alternating combinations or dancers, failed to distinguish themselves strongly from one another. Thematically and in terms of style and feel, there was a similarity to each that resulted in a relatively consistent and repetitive feel. Each reading of the sonnet was presented in the same way, each interpretation of the words for the ballet relied on similar movement themes and most were accompanied by big frozen smiles aimed directly at the audience. This effort to project forced fun and happiness served only to undermine the subtleties, nuances, and irony found in the sonnets themselves.

One particularly disappointing section involved the famous verse whereby Shakespeare painstakingly describes the plainness of his lover but professes his love for her nonetheless. This comical love poem, which brought chuckles from those audience members who were still paying attention to the text, was strangely performed by Heather Falten and Askar Alimbetov as a straight forward dance of seduction and appeared to ignore the humor of the text entirely. It was perhaps the most obvious example of a disconnect between text and dance.

Two refreshing and unexpected sections incorporated a modern dance style and classical Indian dancing into the mix. Andrea Feier, interpreted her accompanying text with gestures that suggested sign language and emotion that came from her core while Uma Suresh’s facial mobility and expressive hands more successfully engaged the text and played with it than the many jetes and extensions found in the more traditional ballet sections. It’s refreshing to see a ballet company open to incorporating other forms of dance in its show and San Diego Ballet, which has featured both Feier and Suresh in past shows, should be commended for exposing its audience to a diversity of styles.

The dancing was good, but not great. Rachel Sebastian stood out with a more sober and focused solo section where she let the movement speak for itself, rather than trying to “sell” the emotion with her face. Gabriela Ley and Pal Udvarheyi gave the audience a smooth, fluid, and impressive duet that felt honest and inspired, rather than nervous and tentative as many of the other duets and trios did. Another highlight was the closing ensemble finale, which was exciting and visually rich, an impressive use of the several dozen dancers on stage.

The style of the music, costumes, and movement was kept squarely in the Shakespearian era with light jigs and classic early English music, and frilly costumes with laced vests for the men and floral tops for the women. No attempt was made to bring Shakespeare’s text into the present by giving it a contemporary context either with more modern music or costumes. As a result, the show remained comfortably situated in the past, drawing on expected imagery and drawing from the light, cheery surface of the sonnets.

San Diego Ballet’s incorporation of text and its ambitious attempt to utilize Shakespeare in ways other than the frequent presentation of full-length ballets is a step in the right direction. A welcome addition would be a more creative and less uniform engagement of the material and a stronger relationship between text and dance.