Lincoln Center Festival
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York

The Bolshoi Ballet
July 28, 2017
The Taming of the Shrew

— by Jerry Hochman

The Bolshoi Ballet last appeared in New York, at the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival.  At the time, I remember many people complaining that the repertory — Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Spartacus — was too stodgy; that something more contemporary should have been included.  This year, to close the Lincoln Center Festival, the Bolshoi brought with it Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew. Be careful what you wish for.

Maillot is part choreographic chef de cuisine and part saboteur. He takes familiar stories and familiar musical compositions and cracks them apart, adds a mélange of unfamiliar-looking choreographic ingredients, and creates a ballet soufflé that may or may not be palatable, and may or may not fall flat, depending on the relative emphasis and significance of an infused idée fixe that may be a change in the story or a change in emphasis. Invariably, of those I’ve seen, none of his ballets is an unmitigated disaster, but none is an unqualified success either. The intelligence underlying his infused ideas has never been an issue: the manner in which he carries out these ideas, and whether they sabotage the story or the ballet as a whole, is.

When last we visited Maillot’s choreography, his dominant ideological focus on a confusing and illogical backstory resulted in a hopelessly scrambled version of Swan Lake (which he titled Lac); but his Cinderella, though peppered with superfluous spiciness, proved deliciously different in large part because of a changed characterization and focus on the character of her father. Those City Center appearances in 2014 and 2016 by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the company of which he’s Artistic Director, came on the heels of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of his Romeo et Juliet in 2013, a version of Shakespeare’s tragedy that, despite an unduly bitter emphasis on the failings of organized religion in the form of the enhanced significance, and helplessness, of Friar Laurence, I found intoxicating and refreshingly real.

Now comes Maillot, and the Bolshoi, with the U.S. debut of his version of Shrew, created for the Bolshoi in 2015. This time, my opinion is solidly and unequivocally…mixed, again, primarily, though not exclusively, due to the infused idea – essentially, that sex is power and vice versa – igniting Maillot’s already incendiary modifications to Shakespeare’s story like a match to alcohol. Soufflé flambé.

And I promise that that’s the last of the culinary metaphors until it’s time for tea.

A visceral negative response to this Shrew is understandable, but not necessarily fair. It’s certainly something of a confusing mess in Act I, and the outrageousness of his excesses in Act II can easily be seen as overwhelming the parts of the ballet, primarily in Act II, that are genuinely well conceived. But as with his other three ballets, with time to, er, digest his intellectual and choreographic quirkiness, to some extent I’ve talked myself into appreciating Shrew more than I did as the piece unfolded.

And I must emphasize that Maillot’s essential choreographic style isn’t one of my concerns. It’s a different, and less refined-looking, ballet vocabulary to be sure, and he frequently repeats key images that he’s used before. But the choreography works (aside from the unfocused muddle that is most of Act I), and I see nothing wrong with recycling idiosyncratic phrases when the phrases work equally well in another context – when, for example, he has characters trace the outline of each other’s faces and bodies, as he does here and as he’s done in his previous ballets. These gestures are appropriate to represent lovers’ tentative and hormone-driven “first (physical) contact,” and its frankness is perfectly appropriate for the situation (and relatively restrained).  Indeed, I as more annoyed by the set design by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, which looked recycled from the other Maillot’s ballets I’ve mentioned.

Nor is it an issue that Maillot has taken liberties with Shakespeare’s story. Most choreographed Shakespeare plays take liberties to one extent or another, although more by the omission of certain events or characters than by inventing new ones as Maillot does here.

All that having been said, in this case Maillot’s excesses make the ballet as a whole almost irredeemable. In sum, sex – the pervasiveness of it, the lust for it, and the power of it – is rampant and is what propels this story. Of course, it’s what underlies Shakespeae’s original as well, but there it’s an unemphasized undercurrent.  Far worse, sex is the weapon Maillot uses for taming a shrewish woman. It’s certainly possible that using sex as a weapon of persuasion, instead of withholding food and sleep, is something Shakespeare would have wanted to do but didn’t for a variety of reasons, including the fear of offending contemporary sensibilities. And certainly times have changed since. But as I’ll explain in detail below, in these scenes, and even for these times, Maillot goes too far. It’s not funny, and it converts what he may have intended to be a curious, irreverent, and sexually edgy comedy into an anti-morality tale, and it undercuts those aspects of the ballet that are different, intelligent, and creative.

In that respect, Maillot’s introduction is the most different, intelligent, and creative…and fun part of the ballet. But it also helps illustrate part of what goes wrong with it.

If you’re not prepared for it (and nothing in the program notes would prepare one for it) Maillot’s introduction is intriguing but also confusing. While the house lights are up and audience members are either filing in or chattering, one ballerina suddenly appears in front of the house curtain, self-absorbed, preening, and stunning in a black leotard and black serpentine embellishment. She gradually saunters from stage left to center, looking at the audience (many of whom haven’t noticed her yet), at the orchestra pit (with increasing impatience), and at herself as if through an invisible mirror, and then plops herself down and begins, quite ceremoniously (and somewhat seductively) putting on her toe shoes. To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, something familiar, something peculiar, something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone. And not only will it be a comedy tonight, but an erotically stimulating one. I began to feel giddy. The houselights gradually dim, the conductor eventually appears (what took you so long, she seems to say), she stands, and with a knowingly subversive-looking demeanor pretends to raise the rising curtain.

At this point, I thought that this character was a fascinating invention, as was the introduction in general, even though I had no idea who this character was supposed to be. I ruled out Bianca, since she was no innocent young sweetheart, and decided it must be the liberated (tamed) Katharina taking the audience back to the beginning – until at some point during the long and confusing exposition that is most of Act I the real Katherina storms onto the stage. [By process of elimination I determined that this high-fashion ballerina was…the Housekeeper. Who says you can’t get good help these days.]

And I appreciated this opening even more when I recalled (ok, I didn’t recall – I checked) that Shakespeare used the same conceit to introduce his play, except his introductory character was a drunk beggar named Christopher Sly. A theory is that Shakespeare may have intended this framing device to deflect criticism (that same contemporary sensibility I mentioned) that the play is misogynistic. I don’t know if that’s true, but Maillot’s introduction serves the same purpose for the ballet (with a similar lack of success), but does so in a much more entertaining way – and a much more titillating way: indeed, the character also serves to introduce the story’s sexual undercurrents which Maillot here will bring front and center. This I don’t have a problem with.

Once the “real” ballet begins, however, Maillot can’t seem to decide what to do with the character that he’s essentially created of whole cloth. Initially she’s a sort of pseudo-sophisticated ringmaster/jester (which might be a good description of a high-class housekeeper in 16th Century Italy) leading the servants in some sexually infused dances, but she then disappears into the woodwork (as did Shakespeare’s Sly) except when she’s needed to be a convenient partner for one of the suitors in a series of subsequent dances. Still, as played libidinously by Victoria Litvinova, she’s a dominant character in Act I, and steals much of the thunder, and audience attention, from Bianca and Katharina.

Once we get the characters sorted out (it’s not really that hard to do), the scene devolves into combined chaos and tedium until Petruchio suddenly shows up, a lout ex machina, looking every inch the animal (complete with “fur” jacket). As played by Denis Savin, he’s a galvanizing but thoroughly disreputable character (not at all the lovable rogue characterization by Richard Cragun in John Cranko’s version for the Stuttgart Ballet, the only other ballet version of The Taming of the Shrew that I’m aware of). If Maillot was trying to make Petruchio as boorish and unlovable as possible, he succeeded. But this also makes Katharina’s sudden demonstration of affection for him (via freezing the stage action while she briefly wanders like a lovelorn sheep) completely unbelievable – except maybe to illustrate the confounding attraction young women have for “bad boys,” but I doubt that this was Maillot’s intent.

More of a problem, however, is that Maillot overplays the sexually charged atmosphere that the sensual housekeeper introduces. Aside from being pervasive, it becomes nasty. It begins at the end of Act I, when Petruchio, acting like Tybalt without a sword, assaults Katharina by grabbing her under her neck and, with one hand, hoisting her above the stage floor. By her neck. He then drags her off like some prize pig.

And it gets worse. In Act II, Katharina is terrorized by an attempted rape that Petruchio stages so he can come to her rescue (the program notes call it a staged robbery, but with the frightened Katharina having her skirt ripped off and being thrown to the stage floor by a bunch of apparent thugs with more on their minds than just stealing her necklace, calling it a robbery only compounds the insult); and she subsequently “converts” to being an obedient spouse after succumbing to Petruchio’s passion, and her own (it’s what women want, isn’t it?). These scenes were not concocted to be prurient; they’re intended to advance the action and they do. But at what cost.

In other respects much of Act II is quite good – although that’s relative to Act I. The choreography becomes more focused, the duets between Katharina and Petruchio, and between Bianca and Lucentio are very well done. And the performances by the Bolshoi dancers somehow even made the tawdriness look good. I intentionally selected the second cast to see dancers I’d (mostly) not previously seen, and they didn’t disappoint. As Katharina, Kristina Kretova deserves a medal for making Maillot’s sexual battle scenes, and her “taming,” look relatively believable. Indeed, the only aspect of her performance that wasn’t reasonably credible was that she would have any difficulty finding a suitor, notwithstanding her fiery personality. I don’t know if it’s possible to make Katharina appear too attractive, but if it is, she did. And as intentionally dominating, irritating, and stage-chewing as Savin’s Petruchio was, she more than held her own. Principal Dancers Anastasia Stashkevich and Artem Ovcharencko, Bianca and Lucentio, are largely limited to being their characters – relatively bland young lovers. But in contrast to the generally wild, and wildly passionate, execution by Kretova and Savin (who, like Kretova, is a Leading Soloist), their dancing was delicate, pristine, and flawlessly executed.

Finally, I must concede that Maillot’s cleverness somehow manages to overcome, or at least blunt, the license he’s taken with sex and violence. While Petruchio is “taming” Katherina, one of the mini-scenes has her serve him tea. [Yes, we’re back to food.] Petruchio doesn’t like the way she does it, but that’s almost beside the point. The mini-scene is dominated by its surprising musical accompaniment.

Maillot’s version of the story is choreographed to unspecified music by Dmitri Shostakovich. I thought the mishmash was awful – but I must admit that most of the time it serves its purpose as a conduit for Maillot’s choreography and staging. But for this mini-scene, the music played by the Bolshoi Orchestra was Tea for Two – the song created for the 1925 Broadway musical No, No Nanette. Although it was appropriate musical commentary for the scene, it wasn’t Shostakovich. Then again in the final scene, Bianca’s wedding (with the “guest” housekeepers and servants celebrating with somewhat of a soft core orgy – ah that sexual pervasiveness), Katharina demonstrates her domesticity by pouring tea for Petruchio, which he now accepts with supreme self-satisfaction. He’d won his bet. The other couples follow, and the ballet ends with this cute little tea party…to another, longer and more emphatically-played refrain of Tea for Two. Sweetly sardonic domestic bliss.

But it still wasn’t Shostakovich, I thought. Until I did a little more digging.  It turns out that this Tea for Two was indeed “by” Shostakovich. In 1927 Shostakovich was asked on a dare to orchestrate a version of Tea for Two, and that’s what made its way into Maillot’s Shostakovich score. Shostakovich won his bet too. Like Petruchio…sort of.

So, considering the ballet as a work of art, and notwithstanding my visceral response to Maillot’s excesses, I must acknowledge that there’s more to this Shrew than an overcooked sexual stew: a lot of it is shrewdly intelligent and undeniably clever. And I suppose if he’d just stuck to Shakespeare, it wouldn’t be Maillot. And it wouldn’t be the Bolshoi that many in 2014 wanted to see.

Tea anyone? Maybe to douse the Shrew/soufflé flambé?