BWW Reviews: Sparks Fly in Houston Ballet's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
William Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is a comedic, character-driven piece about the courtship of volatile Katherina and obnoxious Petruchio. Character pieces require great characters, naturally, and great performers. In his ballet adaptation, John Cranko delivers. In the Houston Ballet production, so do company members. As the couple of the hour, Jessica Collado (Katherina) and Linnar Looris (Petruchio) are chief among the performances. Collado brings snaps and oomph to Katherina while Looris captivates as Petruchio.
Cranko cuts Shakespeare's tale to the quick. This creates a thinner narrative, but, on the bright side, he speeds through exposition without sacrificing legibility. That Cranko's 1969 ballet, based on the 1593 Shakespeare play of the same name, is still in the international repertoire is a testament to the strength of Cranko's choreography.
The Katherina and Petruchio pas de deux are the centerpieces of the ballet, and their second pas de deux is a standout among stand-outs. Katherina begins the dance more as marionette than equal to Petruchio. But once he and Katherina get to their Rose and Jack "King of the World" lift, we realize that, for Katherina, Petruchio is freeing, dangerous, exciting and, oddly enough, supportive. Their final pas de deux is just magnificent. I won't spoil it for you, but it is well worth the wait. Collado and Looris show off their formidable acting skills, and it is a perfect ending to an imperfect love story.
Katherina (Collado) appears with a splash. From the balcony, she douses her sister's suitors with glee. Then, before her sister is even able to conceive of her own "O Romeo" speech, Katherina has soused her suitors again and descended the stairs to inflict further abuse. While she kicks and steps where she may, she rouses the neighborhood, stepping on toes figuratively and literally.
The ballet introduces Petruchio (Looris) in a salty dive bar with sultry music. Petruchio enters the bar with ladies of ill-repute, performed by Jacquelyn Long and Madeline Skelly. Looris has the obnoxiousness of Petruchio down pat, is funny as the buffoon, and great as the cock of the walk - he swaggers, wide-legged into his first meeting with Katherina. Cranko provides Looris with plenty of solos to show off, and Looris takes full advantage. He is a vigorous, invigorating dancer. He extends so thoroughly during leaps and bounds that his leg span is wider than a manspreader on the No. 2 train. Costume designer Susan Benson provides him with a swashbuckling white shirt that shows just a little bit of chest - where you can see a little bit of coarse brown hair - and sturdy brown boots. He's all man, dammit!
Long and Skelly are beguiling as The Bar Girls with their boom-chicka-boom solos. It is completely believable when they steal Petruchio's wallet and chain with just a little flirting and exhibition.
But it's not all sunshine and daisies. Cranko has some explaining to do. Petruchio grows to have true affection for Katherina, but how and why? Surely, this could be explained in one of Petruchio's three solos. Also, why does Petruchio have so many solos? What about Katherina? Without even one solo for her, the ballet is uneven. It's a striking omission in a ballet that, otherwise, depends on balance and counterpoint.
And when it comes to fisticuffs, as the young people say, Looris and Collado are too measured. Collado's opening scene with the suitors, while funny, lacks a certain Solange and Jay-Z in the elevator quality. However, this is mitigated in several ways: Cranko embeds character within the choreography. It is said that THE TAMING OF THE SHREW requires strong performances. Not to diminish the skill and talent of the dancers, but I believe that the choreography also coaches fine performances. Collado must slap Looris. She must smash a guitar over Chun Wai Chan's head. (Chan portrays Bianca's suitor, Hortensio.) And once Collado and Looris warm up in the second act, the fire between Petruchio and Katherina smokes up the stage.
In contrast, Bianca (Yuriko Kajiya) and Lucentio (Ian Casady) cool it down. Lucentio mirrors Bianca. Bianca mirrors Lucentio. Then they sweetly kiss. Each pas de deux is more romantic than the last. Their second pas de deux is the stand-out. Yuriko Kajiya daintily dances Bianca's pretty, controlled, subtle, and submissive movements. In one magnificent moment, Casady thrusts Kajiya into the air. As Kajiya hangs there, back curved in submission, arms outstretched with abandon, we see that Bianca is enraptured by Lucentio (as opposed to Katherina who is in rapture with Petruchio). This pas de deux is both beautiful and interesting. A feat in any artform.
The corp de ballet throughout, and the pas de six in Act II, add dimension and prevent the piece from becoming myopic. These are strong characters. It would be easy to get sucked in then overwhelmed. And the ballet is layered. The mirroring between Katherina and Petruchio's courtship, Lucentio and Bianca, the corp de ballet, and the pas de six is fantastic.
Music and set and costume design add dimension as well. The music, arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze after 18th century baroque harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard works, is as illuminating as the dance. At the top of the ballet, the musical tone begins as light and whimsical. Then it is romantic. Finally, it is both whimsical and exhilarating. It is a resonant reflection of the characters, story, and ballet as a whole. Scenic and costume designs by Benson add richness and texture to the ballet. The costumes are as colorful as the characters and the landscapes are arresting. There is so much meaning in the simple hash marks that compose the coloring of the set. They seem to be a metaphor of the entire ballet - color in broad strokes, but slightly blended.
Let's not forget the comedy. Suitor Gremio (Rhodes Elliott) is interested in one thing, only. Hortensio (Chan) is as vain, preening, and pretty as the woman he woos. His seduction involves so much showmanship and self-centeredness that it loses the lady's hand. Chan has a few missteps, but he recovers well and is overall a good physical manifestation of his character. The entire ballet plays like a scene from a Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy short. Even though the jokes and the story are simple, the characters are outrageously funny. And somehow, by the end, and many, many years after, you are left with the indelible image of Laurel tripping Hardy, the tramp eating his shoe and Katherina kicking Bianca's suitor in the butt.
Houston Ballet's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW runs until June 21 at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Street. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on June 19 and 20 and at 2:00 p.m. on June 14, 20, and 21. The ballet lasts approximately two hours and thirty minutes. There will be one intermission lasting twenty minutes. Age recommendation is at least 5 years of age. For more information and to purchase tickets, please call 713-227-2787 or visit www.houstonballet.org.