Secrets of The Shakespeare Suite

by Amy Falls

The Artists of Ballet West return to the stage in April with The Shakespeare Suite. Alongside David Bintley’s contemporary reimagining of The Bard of Avon’s most famous characters, the three-ballet program will include renowned Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land and American modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace.

Here are 10 things to know about The Shakespeare Suite! 

  • The Shakespeare Suite choreographer David Bintley has been artistic director of the UK’s Birmingham Royal Ballet since 1995, having previously assumed the role of resident choreographer in 1985. In 2001, Bintley was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to dance.
  • Bintley’s history with the Birmingham Royal Ballet is long running. He began his career as a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1976, which was established as a sister company to what is now the Royal Ballet and would later become the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
  • The Shakespeare Suite, choreographed in 1999, will feature live musicians playing a jazz score by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Parts of the score come from Ellington and Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder album, which is itself inspired by the works of Shakespeare. Both Ellington and Strayhorn were Shakespeare aficionados; Strayhorn was even nicknamed “Shakespeare” by his bandmates.
  • Bintley’s ballets live in company repertoires internationally, though they may be most familiar to British audiences. He has created full-length adaptations of Cinderella, Aladdin, and The Tempest, among others, as well as ballets about more abstract subject matter: endangered species (Still Life at the Penguin Café, 1988) and Einstein’s theory of relativity (E=mc2, 2009). The Shakespeare Suite, perhaps near the middle of this broad spectrum, places well-explored characters from Shakespeare’s plays, each associated with a recognizable narrative, in contemporary costumed solos and pas de deux on a minimal stage.
  • The Stuttgart Ballet debuted Jiří Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land in 1975, taking it on tour to the Met several years later for an enthusiastically received U.S. premiere.
  • Kylián created Return to a Strange Land as a tribute to the late John Cranko, who was Kylián’s colleague as well as artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet until his sudden passing in 1973. Within this context, there is much to be said for subtext lingering just beneath the ballet’s haunting surface.
  • The assortment of pieces for solo piano that accompany Return to a Strange Land are by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Kylián has chosen Janáček’s music for several of his ballets, often taking the titles of Janáček’s compositions as inspiration for his own. If you saw Ballet West perform Kylián’s Overgrown Path in 2015 or his Sinfonietta in 2011, you have heard Janáček’s ethereal melodies.
  • First unveiled in 1958, Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace may be the program’s oldest work but is far from its least surprising. Cunningham, until his death in 2009, was a pioneer of the avant-garde movement. He began his career performing with the Martha Graham Dance Company, later founding a company in the 1950s to begin exploring his own choreography. His work is now distinguished by its focus on the mechanics of movement without the use of an obvious narrative (notably in stark contrast to the narrative-driven works of Graham).
  • Cunningham’s legacy is also rooted in his collaborations with artists of other disciplines. Summerspace is a prime example of this model, with a score by composer Morton Feldman and costumes and scenery by artist Robert Rauschenberg (and created with the assistance of Jasper Johns for their original execution). The multiplicative pattern of pointillist dots that appear on both the costumes and scenery of Summerspace allude to the broad sweep and, at times, cacophony of nature.
  • Cunningham’s “collaborative” model was not what we may think of as collaboration in the contemporary sense; choreography, music, and costumes were often created separately and then brought together only at the very end, sometimes not until they were seen onstage – thus emphasizing the magic of performance!

…and there is so much more to know and, of course, to see! Join Ballet West April 13-21, 2018 for The Shakespeare Suite at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre.