‘God match me with a good dancer’: Can ballet match the bard?

Benedict Welch 30 April 2016

There is often debate about how to read Shakespeare; do we read his form like poetry, and admire it for its subtle, but so often profound, reflections on the condition of human nature? Or do we read his form as a play, as a performance spectacle, a visual work in which the dialogue merely propels narrative? 

With this debate in mind, it is hardly surprising that some adaptations of Shakespeare lose the words entirely, replacing the poetry of the verse with the poetry of the body, with movement, gesture and with dance.  It seems impossible to comprehend: a Shakespeare production without words; without the very tools we use to communicate, can a story be told through bodies, through only the physical contact of skin and skin with a piece of music?

The answer is, of course: yes.  Kenneth MacMillan’s acclaimed production of Romeo and Juliet is a transcendent example.   In the same way that Shakespeare could capture the profundity of the human condition in words, Deborah MacMillan, the choreographer’s widow, sees her former husband as ‘the most extraordinary interpreter of human behaviour and emotion’.  Former Principal of the Royal Ballet, Donald MacLeary has also remarked that MacMillan ‘can get things out of people because he makes you not be a ballet-dancer, but more of an actor-dancer’.  The genius of MacMillan, then, does justice to Shakespeare’s verse: the famous balcony scene – performed by British dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball in the BBC’s televised celebrations last weekend – displaying the naivety, the excitement and the fragile, though powerful, connection between the pair of ‘star-crossed lovers’.

But it would be unfair to think that the only reason for Romeo and Juliet’s success is its choreographer.  Indeed, the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of the The Taming of the Shrew, choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, and Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale have both received acclaim: their design, music, choreography and storytelling all fusing together to create a theatrical experience, which uses the Shakespearean tradition, the Shakespearean narratives, to entertain, to move, and to inspire their audiences.

Though indebted to the Shakespearean stories, these ballets and productions are inventive, breaking new ground in the dance world and allowing dancers to explore characters, whose psychology is complex, and allowing them to use their physical vocabulary and punctuation – a turn of a head a full stop, a pirouette the explanation after a colon – to reveal the depths of human existence.   

Want more? Check out Opera, Ballet and the Bard, televised last weekend.  Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale is on at the Royal Opera House until 10 June; students are available for special offers and discounts by signing up to the Royal Opera House Student Scheme.