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Eugene Ballet gives a Shakespeare classic a feminist twist

The company's "Taming of the Shrew" takes a steampunk edge, resurrects the work of a 19th century woman composer, and flirts with the idea that the play was written by a woman.

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Petruchio (Mark Tucker) learns that Kate (Danielle Tolmie) is a self-assured woman with a strong voice of her own. Photo courtesy Eugene Ballet

Some people find The Taming of the Shrew to be one of Shakespeare’s most compelling comedies. Others find it sexist, or at least offensive in the way it depicts women and how they should behave. So taking on this 16th century play and giving it a contemporary feminist twist through music and dance was the challenge Eugene Ballet’s Artistic Director Toni Pimble undertook in the creation of her edgy, whimsical and gritty two act full-length ballet that premieres May 14-15 in Eugene.

The story’s plot and subplot are centered on two arranged marriages and gender roles common to Shakespeare’s time, when women were expected to be demure, homebound, subservient, and controlled by their husbands. 

This ballet’s principal storyline focuses on Katherine (Danielle Tolmie), who is spirited, self-assured, assertive, and the author of her own life’s journey; and Petruchio (Mark Tucker), who is seeking love and money and follows the traditional male social norms of his time regarding interpersonal relationships and arranged marriages. This attitude is reflected in his telling Katherine that he was born to tame her and to bring her from her wild ways to a Kate who is as “conformable as other household Kates.” (Act III Scene 1)

The Taming of the Shrew is a challenging story to tell given the minefield of issues it presents when viewed from today’s perspective. “As a ballet we can only allude to the progress of the two characters in the most superficial of ways.” Pimble told ArtsWatch. Choreographically, he said, she uses three pas de deux scenes in which Katherine and Petruchio progress from combatants upon meeting for the first time, to a couple yearning for a meaningful relationship. Finally, as two people who have matured and compromised, in part because of the necessity of accepting their arranged marriage, they find respect and love.

Amelia Bassano and William Shakespeare: choreography informed by the possibility that a 16th century female poet may have written Shakespeare’s plays? Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Pimble’s approach to telling the story was influenced by Elizabeth Winkler’s article in the June, 2019 Atlantic Magazine that suggests that, given the powerful and insightful lines for female characters in his work, Shakespeare’s plays actually may have been written by a woman. If so, a likely author might have been English writer Amelia Bassano (1569-1645), one of the first women to assert herself as a professional poet.

Pimble found this hypothesis interesting and incorporated it right from the beginning of the ballet. Onstage is a character, who the audience may at first assume is Shakespeare, sitting at a writing table as quotes from various Shakespearean female characters are projected on a screen above. Only when the author stands and turns does the audience realize it is a woman who has been writing the phrases; a subtle reference to Amelia Bassano. She then gestures and calls to the stage each of the characters in “her” tale as the ballet begins. 

The Shakespeare/Bassano character, a non-dancing role played by Suzanne Haag, acts as an anchor in Pimble’s telling of the story, and appears at the beginning and before each act. She returns to the writing desk at the end of the ballet as projected quotes appear on the screen above the dancers, who have gathered with men on one side and women on the other in a combative battle of the sexes during a dinner feast at the marriage of Kate’s sister. Haag suggests these quotes are emerging ideas from the author’s mind reflecting upon the age-old and often unresolved conflicts between men and women.

Rarely heard music by 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc, above, provides the score for “The Taming of the Shrew.” Photo: Explore Classical Music

Finding the right music is a major task when creating a ballet. It was in 2017, while Pimble and Orchestra Next director Brian McWhorter were initially discussing The Taming of the Shrew, that they became interested in featuring a musical score by a female composer.

McWhorter told ArtsWatch that this turned out to be something of a rabbit hole until a “great female composers” playlist was found on the Internet. On that list was a composer from the mid-nineteenth century who neither he nor Pimble knew about, but whose music both instantly found “incredible.” This person is the relatively little-known today French composer Louise Farrenc (1804-1875).

Many of Farrenc’s chamber pieces, and specifically three symphonies are, Pimble believes, as strong and vibrant as those of Beethoven, and definitely fit the 19th century industrial age in which the ballet has been set.

ArtsWatch asked McWhorter how he found and prepared an obscure composer’s work for The Taming of the Shrew.

Once Pimble had selected all the pieces she wanted to use, he replied, it was his turn to find the scores and parts. “Unfortunately, even though Farrenc’s music had been around for over 150 years, it was surprisingly difficult to find. There was one publisher in Germany that had some of the music, but it wasn’t what we needed.” 

Serendipitously, McWhorter happened upon an online forum about Farrenc’s music and found someone who had just collected copies of her manuscripts for all three symphonies. “Turns out there was a small group of conductors and editors working on new versions of Farrenc’s Symphonies 2 & 3 and they needed someone to make an edition of Symphony no. 1. Naturally, I volunteered.”

As McWhorter worked through Farrenc’s manuscript, it became increasingly clear to him that her Symphony no. 1 was truly a great work. “The themes are infectious, the orchestration is perfection, the modulations and development are audacious – how had I not heard of her before?“ 

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It took a couple years, but McWhorter finally managed to piece together the score (and all the parts) for what Pimble had envisioned for this production.

Like Pimble and McWhorter, audiences may not have heard of Farrenc, who was well-known in Europe during her lifetime. She was an exceptional pianist and was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory in 1842, a position she held for thirty years. Upon her death her name became lost in the shadows of a male-dominated profession. “Classical music has a long history of alienating women,” McWhorter observes, “but there is work being done – and this production of Taming of the Shrew represents some of that work.” The ballet will include sections of Farrenc’s Symphonies 1, 2 and 3 and her Nonets in E Flat major, which audiences will hear performed with the full symphonic sound of Orchestra Next, conducted by McWhorter.

Set designer Paul Dustrud examines a working model of the set on the Silva stage. Photos courtesy Eugene Ballet/Lane Arts Council

Pimbel’s choosing to set the play in a moody and other worldly 19th century environment opened exciting opportunities for innovative set design. This was historically the era of the industrial revolution, when the growing uses of steam-powered machinery changed society and the world. It was a time in which writers like Jules Verne projected a futuristic tomorrow based on emerging and imaginary technologies. 

It was this steam-driven mechanical world that Eugene Architect Paul Dustrud and interactive mobile designer Joe Mross turned to in their design work.

Dustrud’s Victorian era set is massive, and stout enough to fully support the dancers who perform on it. Various sections are movable ,and with 23 scenes it is important that set changes can be made quickly in front of the audience. A scaled mockup was used when Pimble planned dancers’ movements on stage. 

Steampunk-inspired organ and Omnithoper mobile props designed by Joe Mross are integrated into the choreography. Photos: Joe Mross, Archive Designs

Mross’s steampunk aesthetic-themed interactive set pieces are visually stunning and larger than life. For example, when Petruchio first arrives in Padua, he does so riding in his outlandish “flying” tricycle called the Ornithopter, with its flapping wings when peddled (see video clip). Mross also designed a huge organ carriage (see video clip) used for Kate’s sister Bianca’s music lessons. These and one other piece are integrated into the choreography and move about the stage as needed.

The ballet’s 60-plus costumes were designed by Pimble, who went to New York to do the needed fabric shopping for at least 150 yards of cloth. The costumes reflect the heavy apparel aesthetic of the period, but are light enough for dancers to move easily. When possible, taffeta, stretch mesh, and other materials were used to create the costumes.

Steampunk costume design by Toni Pimble, with additional design by Axel Dazee. Photo courtesy Eugene Ballet

Of the 60 original works that Pimble has created for the Eugene Ballet, The Taming of the Shrew is the 12th full-length production. Others based on Shakespeare include Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Pimble feels “privileged” to have also created numerous works for other companies, including New York City Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. Most recently, assisted by Suzanne Hagg, Eugene Ballet’s resident choreographer, she restaged her Mowgli, The Jungle Book Ballet for Orlando Ballet.

What’s coming up? Pimble will be working on a full-length ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid with music by Debussy. “The original story, like so many fairy tales, does not have a happy ending,” she said, “and I don’t intend to Disney-fy the work.”

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Eugene Ballet’s The Taming of the Shrew will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene. Tickets: $15 – $60. 

Gary Ferrington

Gary Ferrington

Gary Ferrington is a University of Oregon Sr. Instructor Emeritus whose career spanned over 30 years as the College of Education’s Instructional Systems Technology program director. He has been, since retiring in 1998, actively involved in the Eugene arts community serving for nine years on the Board of Directors for the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts Center where he also coordinated its online and print public relations efforts. Since the closing of the center during the Great Recession he has committed himself to advocating for the performance of contemporary music and dance. He is a volunteer with the Eugene Ballet Company and is an advocate for the UO School of Music and Dance programs in music composition, Intermedia Technology, and jazz studies. His articles for Oregon ArtsWatch, focusing primarily on music, dance and occasionally theatre in Eugene, can be found online at artswatcharticles.blogspot.com.
Gary Ferrington

Gary Ferrington

Gary Ferrington is a University of Oregon Sr. Instructor Emeritus whose career spanned over 30 years as the College of Education’s Instructional Systems Technology program director. He has been, since retiring in 1998, actively involved in the Eugene arts community serving for nine years on the Board of Directors for the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts Center where he also coordinated its online and print public relations efforts. Since the closing of the center during the Great Recession he has committed himself to advocating for the performance of contemporary music and dance. He is a volunteer with the Eugene Ballet Company and is an advocate for the UO School of Music and Dance programs in music composition, Intermedia Technology, and jazz studies. His articles for Oregon ArtsWatch, focusing primarily on music, dance and occasionally theatre in Eugene, can be found online at artswatcharticles.blogspot.com.

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