Review: Stuttgart Ballet -The Taming of the Shrew - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 21 & 22 May 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 26 November 2013

Stuttgart Ballet 'The Taming of the Shrew'  - David Moore as Lucentio, Elisa Badenes as Bianca, Roman Novitzky as Hortensio, Ozkan Ayik as Gremio. Photo: John Ross

Performace reviewed: 23 November (matinee)

Choreographers have often turned to Shakespeare for inspiration but it’s a tough deal to reproduce the greatest writing in the English language with ballet theatre. Of the 35 or so plays generally attributed to the Bard of Avon, only A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet have been tackled for ballet with lasting success: that is, with one additional exception, which was seen here in John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew, created in 1969 as his third and final full-length creation for the Stuttgart Ballet. In fact, Cranko hit the Shakespearian bull’s eye twice, since he had already made a vivid and memorable interpretation of Romeo and Juliet , some seven years earlier.

Capturing comedy in ballet is difficult without events descending into vulgar slapstick but Cranko’s genius lies partly in creating a clever mix of subtle parody, lyrical dance and a brisk, unflagging momentum that allows the farcical humour to thrive. The comic domestic tantrums of the first act could have easily reached “custard pie” levels of unsuitability but for the strength of structure and Cranko’s ability to build effective characterisation through movement motifs and mime.

This is a ballet that successfully brings together comedy, romance and bravura dancing, with the action hugely dependent upon the central roles of Katharina (the Shrew) and Petruccio, the dissolute nobleman who is persuaded to tame her, both falling in love along the way. The latter role was danced here by Alexander Jones, a young man born in Essex and trained at the Royal Ballet School, returning to the UK, having joined Stuttgart Ballet straight from his graduation in 2005. His Petruccio was a tour de force, acted with a cheeky machismo, strong comic timing and danced with panache and power. With elite, versatile male principals being in such short supply at the Royal Ballet, one can only wonder why a home-trained dancer of this exceptional calibre slipped through the net.

As Katherina, the Spanish ballerina Alicia Amatriain continued where she had left off in the Made in Germany programme, performed earlier in the week, with her comedic parody as the bespectacled ballerina in Christian Spuck’s Le Grand Pas de Deux, a piquant hors d’oeuvre for this full-length romp as the queen of domestic obduracy. Her journey with Petruccio, from violent resistance to romantic surrender, is beautifully crafted by Cranko in three main pas de deux, beginning with a balletic wrestling match and ending in a melting love duet. To get the masterclass on this frenetic courtship, one must watch the recorded performances of the roles’ creators, Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun, but amongst current dancers, I thought that Jason Reilly and Maria Eichwald set a standard that is hard to emulate, although I now see that Jones and Amatriain are in the same premier league. Their distinctive chemistry enabled fun-filled, entertaining performances with the added value of rapturous dancing, especially in the final, arresting pas de deux.

The sub-plot is also rich with humour. Katherina’s beautiful, but skittish, younger sister Bianca (delightfully played by another Spanish ballerina, Elisa Badenes) is wooed by three suitors, two of whom are male equivalents of Cinderella’s stepsisters. The vain Hortensio is a role that was created by Cranko on one dancer who went on to become a great choreographer (John Neumeier) and it was later danced by another (Jirí Kylián) – a performance forever preserved on film – and so I wonder what the future holds in store for this performance’s exponent, Roman Novitzky. He and Özkan Ayik, as the aging, cold-ridden roué, Gremio, provided the main comic relief and were fine foils for the poetic dancing of another English Royal Ballet School émigré, David Moore, as Bianca’s successful paramour, Lucentio. Angelina Zuccarini and Rachele Buriassi gave brassy, burlesque cameos as two “ladies of the street” who end up tricking Hortensio and Gremio into marriage.

Cranko peppers the action with some delicious structural references to Romeo and Juliet , for example, in an early skit on the balcony scene for Bianca and her three suitors, and later in the rigid structural formation of guests in the ballroom wedding celebrations for both Katharina and Bianca, which end each Act. The choice of Domenico Scarlatti’s music, arranged by the late Karl-Heinz Stolze, for such a bawdy comedy has been controversial but I believe that it works well, on every level, and it was sensitively articulated by a makeshift orchestra of UK-based musicians under the baton of Wolfgang Heinz, Stuttgart Ballet’s Assistant Music Director.

It is a moot point as to whether we can leave aside the obvious cultural and misogynistic flavour of a narrative that requires a woman to be tamed in order to be loved, but I think we have to accept it as a story of its time. In any event, innocence and goodwill are the dominant factors in a ballet where no-one dies and everyone reaches a happy end in one way or another.

This brief season for Stuttgart Ballet at Sadler’s Wells confirmed the company’s pre-eminent stature on the world stage, re-affirmed Cranko’s genius as a choreographer – especially for a younger generation in the UK that may be unfamiliar with his output – and brought back, after an absence of some 20 years, one of the great comic ballets of all time. It was a joy to become reacquainted with it (I last saw it in Leipzig, in 2005) and my Christmas wish is to hope that Tamara Rojo might consider bringing it back into English National Ballet’s repertory.

Photos: John Ross

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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