Shakespeare occupies a unique place in English literature. He is the founding father, the language innovator and the poetic genius whose depth and breadth of vision can at times seem unbelievable (hence the wild theories.) How can one man have had all that impact? 

But as a tutor of mine, during a Shakespeare module at university told us, it would be a mistake to see Shakespeare as some kind of lone wolf, producing timeless works of art from nothing but his own bottomless well of creativity. ‘Think of him more like Andrew Lloyd Webber,’ my tutor said. ‘Happily collaborative and possessed of an enormous talent to produce shows that filled houses full of applauding audiences, and lined the pockets of his investors –and later himself –  with plenty of gold.’

Brandon Laurence with artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in <i>Wink</i> © Andrew Ross
Brandon Laurence with artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Wink
© Andrew Ross
Shakespeare was a consummate borrower of other works, pillaging from the jumble sale of various earlier literatures to re brand it in his own package. So I can’t help but feel that it is perhaps fitting for both Shakespeare the business man and Shakespeare the creative artist that his work continues to inspire multiple interpretations all over the world today, spilling over into just about every other art form, including ones that did not exist when he was writing.

The Sonnets are usually untapped as a source of Shakespeare inspired dance, but the first piece of Birmingham Royal Ballet's programme, Wink by Jessica Lang shows that they are indeed fruitful ground. Music by Jakub Ciupinski alternates with readings of some sonnets which I found very beautiful. The sonnets chosen were not some of the most famous ones that might grace the pages of a ‘best of’ anthology of verse, and so this gave the work a quiet quality that focused on visualising the musicality of the poems, helped by the nine rotating panels of dark and light. There were several layers to Lang’s vision that I think would bear more viewings; most notably the translation of the sonnet form to dance. The five female and five male dancers seemed to me to represent the iambic pentameter that Shakespeare was such a master of, and the combinations of dancers on stage also reflected the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet; using quatrains of four dancers and couplets of two to give the same form to movement that Shakespeare gave to his words. I also fancied what I saw as references to the two mysterious characters who inhabit the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and Fair Youth. I found the tender duet for the poet figure of Brandon Lawrence and the Fair Youth of Lewis Turner especially affecting.

The programme continued with The Moor’s Pavane, José Limón’s masterpiece of 1949 set to music by Purcell. I was entranced by its economy and detail, each figure given their own tilt of the torso and focus for their gaze. It is this interplay of characters which so effectively condenses a five act play into twenty minutes of dance. Limón has his four dancers, each representing a figure from Othello, show how expressive the geometry of dancers arranged on stage can be. They come together and fall apart into various different pairs, again, the strict form of the Renaissance courtly dances inspiring the expression of character rather than hindering it. Despite the clarity of the storytelling, I do think that an audience gets the most out of this piece by having something of an acquaintance with the play and its themes beforehand, otherwise one might feel completely bewildered as to the importance of that handkerchief the dancers so elegantly brandish. This work is a perfect expression of that unique Limón style with so much expression in the torso, fluid melting to the earth and gentle running steps; and is such an antidote to all the high octane dashing about we usually see on stage. It was a reminder that subtle movement and gesture can be thrilling, something that we need to be reminded of in this hectic world.

Céline Gittens (Lady Macbeth), Ian Mackay (Macbeth), <i>The Shakespeare Suite</i> © Andrew Ross
Céline Gittens (Lady Macbeth), Ian Mackay (Macbeth), The Shakespeare Suite
© Andrew Ross
The programme ended on the joyous note of The Shakespeare Suite, set to an exuberant Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn jazz score portraying six of Shakespeare’s most famous couples and his most famous bachelor. There they all were, their stories stripped down to a few minutes of dance; Richard the third with his lame leg and Lady Anne, comic Bottom with his ditzy Titania, shrewish Kate and her clever husband Petruchio, those star crossed teenage lovers, and the most active Hamlet I have ever had the pleasure to see. I particularly enjoyed Celine Gittens’ trouser suited Lady Macbeth with Iain Mackay’s unhinged Macbeth, and the meta casting tease of Tyrone Singleton and Delia Matthews who reprised their roles from ‘The Moor’s Pavane’ as Othello and Desdemona, getting to show a different side to the couple. This is, I think, the very heart of the genius of Shakespeare’s work. It bears so many interpretations, that even presenting two very different ones within the same programme does not jar for an audience, instead, it is a thoroughly exciting celebration of everything Shakespeare means in our culture. It is testament both to David Bintley (BRB's artistic dircetor) and to the enduring power of Shakespeare’s creations, that we recognise each couple as soon as they enter the stage. These characters have entered our collective unconscious so powerfully that it only takes a certain placement of two bodies to suggest the relationship that Shakespeare conceived of over four hundred years ago. 

The evening ended with a delightful finale of all Shakespeare’s characters from this suite dancing together, taking a musical curtain call very like the joyful ending of a production at the Globe theatre, giving the whole programme the feeling of a rich celebration of this figure who has given us all so much.