Fate and Emotion in Shakespeare’s Love Stories Portrayed in Dance

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

by Mary Morrow

Most people are familiar with the “Bard” Shakespeare’s love tragedies, especially the plays of Romeo and Juliet and Othello.  However, not all people know that, given the crossing of disciplines, both of these stories have been translated into dance, which is, in itself, a language.  In the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet, it is important to consider the question of fate, while in “The Moor’s Pavane”, the dance portrayal of Othello, conflicting, raging emotions prevail as a unifying theme. Developing an appreciation of dance portrayals of classic works strengthens one’s appreciation for interpretation of dance as an art in its own right, just as developing an understanding of dance’s visual language deepens one’s judgment, thereby enhancing one’s participation in the knowledge commons. With this in mind, this writer begins her journey into translation.

Dance is a visual art, a fleeting picture in the observer’s mind, which requires that the portrayal focus intensely and often, solely, on main themes.  The story of the “star-crossed lovers”, Romeo and Juliet, is a saga known across the globe to people of all ages, from teenagers (as Romeo and Juliet were) to the aged. The belief in fate—only one true love—speaks of the possibility of immaturity in the characters, whereas maturity might be a result of much broader life experiences. Both of the characters were immature in the beginning of the play, Romeo because he falls in and out of love so quickly, and Juliet, because she has led a sheltered life and has not had a love before.  Yet, both mature as they try to work out the potential future of their love.

In Romeo and Juliet,

Shakespeare explores the theme of fate by allowing the audience to be party to his characters’ desires….when Mercutio shouts ‘a plague on both your houses’, we are reminded of the protagonists’ fate… fate permeates the events and speeches in the play.  Is it fate that Friar Lawrence’s plan to inform Romeo of Juliet’s faked death is not realized due to circumstance (Jamieson).

And what are we to make of the part fate plays in the character of both Romeo and Juliet?

At the beginning of the play, Romeo is hopelessly in love with Rosaline, but immediately falls in love with Juliet at first sight.  Could this be fate?  Though Romeo… is not a violent man, when his friend is killed by Tybalt, Romeo retaliates and kills in a fit of rage and grief (Jamieson).

Fate again?   

As for Juliet, she

stumbles upon her fate when she meets Romeo and instantly falls in love with him, despite him {sic} being the son of her family’s enemy. ‘My only love springs from my only hate’, she exclaims.  Like many women in Shakespeare’s plays, Juliet has little freedom…connected to the outside world through her closest friend, the Nurse.  However, Juliet is prepared to abandon the Nurse entirely when she turns against Romeo.  Juliet matures throughout the plot of the play and is eventually prepared to abandon her family in order to be with Romeo (Jamieson).

Did Shakespeare mean this to be her destiny? Or are the events of the play merely a result of circumstances?  Because the theme of ill-fated love is so dominant in Romeo and Juliet, any retelling of the story needs a powerful interpretation, and dance, with its visceral, fluid impression, allows the audience to experience the erotic tension of the young lovers, a tension all of us experience while maturing. That the play ends tragically, perhaps tells us something about how we should be led by these desires, and this insight is made all the more poignant when translated from the written word into dance.

This writer has seen the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet often in 30 years as a balletomane, both at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and, most recently, at the Kravis Center in W.                                                                                                                                                    

Palm Beach, Florida.  In November, at the Kravis Center, an English professor at Indian River State College, Sarah Malonnee, and I saw the Miami City Ballet perform the full 3-act version, with choreography by John Cranko and music by Sergei Prokofiev.  Both of us were struck by the excellence of the dancing, but also by the acting of the dancers portraying Romeo and Juliet:  Juliet as she shyly lowers her face, backing a few steps away when she rejects Paris; and also by the close emotional interaction of Romeo and Juliet.

Sarah pointed out the emotional rapport between Romeo and Juliet; she commented that, though she has often seen Romeo and Juliet performed in play form, not always do the two protagonists seem to interact so closely emotionally.    Both of these observations show the importance of fate and love.  When Juliet backs away from Paris, she is telling the audience that her love for Romeo is so important that she HAS to  go against her parents’ wishes that she marry Paris, thus fulfilling the fate that is put forth in the play.  And the obvious rapport between the two characters further intensifies the love for each other that they have discovered.  Because of the story, the success of the presentation depends as much on skillful acting as proficient dancing.  Juliet danced with seemingly reckless abandon for her love; Romeo was a devoted and ardent partner.  Prokofiev’s passionate score, written for the vocabulary of ballet, provides the framework for Juliet’s joy, Tybalt’s anger and menace, and the grief of the parents.

One of the fascinating parts of this dance version is the pas de deux, which, in English, literally means “step of two.”   It is meant to show the conjoining of two dancers, and it is always a technically excellent demonstration of bravura dancing; the man and woman perform solos individually; then they come together to join their talents.  Both performers showcase steps that demonstrate either strong body control—like an arabesque for the woman—or audience pleasing pyrotechnic leaps into the air in a circular  journey around the stage for the man (the latter are spectacular, but not difficult to do for a trained dancer who knows how to “spot” to navigate his turns.).  On this particular day, both Romeo and Juliet performed with skill and finesse.

But if fate is the dominant theme in Romeo and Juliet, raging emotion is the focus in “The Moor’s Pavane”, or the story of Othello, with choreography by Jose Limon and music by Purcell.

 Part of what makes twentieth-century ballet look twentieth century is economy…Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” from 1949, epitomizes the principle.  Though Limon based it on Shakespeare’s Othello, he threw out everything that didn’t have to do with what he saw as the central theme: jealousy.  So we get none of Shakespeare’s expansiveness: Cyprus, Cassio, race relations.  There are only four characters:  Othello, Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia… (The fatal handkerchief is produced at the very start.)… The skeleton of the piece is the pavane, an elegant circle dance from the Renaissance.  This is what the four dancers do once the curtain rises.  Then gradually, the circle is broken—the dancers form alliances, one pair against the other—and this signals the coming breakdown of faith and love. All the characters remain on the stage throughout.  They are caged in this nightmare.  When…Othello murders Desdemona…the only thing you see is Othello’s wild, vengeful arms (Acocella).

However, in contrast to most ballet or modern dance creations… “The dancers typically face each other, often making eye contact, rather than dancing outwards toward the audience” (Modern Dance in America).                                                                                                                                         

It was this writer’s privilege to see Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn dance “The Moor’s Pavane” at the Kennedy Center (twice.)  Though Nureyev was of medium build, when he strangled Desdemona onstage (with his back to the audience), his commanding stage presence was so strong that the viewer thought he was actually strangling her. Limon chose the stately Baroque music of Purcell, which provides the musical forms which fit his (Limon’s) conception of the themes he wants to bring out—including Iago’s manipulation with that handkerchief. Another interesting facet of their performance was that both Nureyev and Fonteyn were classically trained ballet dancers translating their technique into the very different modern dance technical vocabulary, and there is no evidence that either one ever tried the transition again in any other vehicle.  But what are the differences between ballet and modern dance? One of them follows:

Watch how they use their bodies.  Ballet dancers try to defy gravity.  Modern dancers allow gravity to take control of them.  What I mean by that is that ballet dancers will resist gravity by trying to jump as high as they can and maintain an air of lightness.  They are pulled up, their posture is impeccable, and they favor straight, clean lines with their bodies.  Modern dancers twist and contort their bodies; they flex their feet and hunch, whereas a ballerina would never do such a thing (Starling).

In spacing, the staging of “The Moor’s Pavane” is within the small circle mentioned above. The dancing is not technically difficult, but still artistically demanding.  All four characters must show a focused intensity with stances almost rigid as they circle each other in this courtly, ritualistic style of dance leading to onstage murder—then portray the tensions between Othello and Desdemona, Iago and Othello, and Emilia and Iago-as the alliances shift.

So thus we see the dance versions of two of Shakespeare’s love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Othello, portrayed with passion and grace, demonstrating fate and powerful, conflicting emotions common to all humanity as unifying themes.  Watching these plays performed in dance also adds to our critical ability to judge an artistic creation.  Significantly, these two dance versions of the plays illustrate how a work of art, initially conceived in one medium, can be translated into another art form, transcending spoken language.  What better way to tell two stories that have stood the test of time to become classics?

Works Cited

Acocello, Joan ; “A Perfect Storm’: Two Choreographers Interpret Othello”,  The New York Magazine; September 30, 2013

DANCE IN PROFILE:  Jose Limon, “The Moor’s Pavane” Modern Dance in America; March 27, 2012; http://www.beyondthenotes.org/blog/jose-limon-the-moors-pavane-1949/

Jamieson,Lee “Fate in Romeo and Juliet”; http://shakespeare.about.com/od/romeoandjuliet/a/romeo_fate.htm

Starling, Sam; “The Universal Language of Dance”; January 15, 2013; http://www.travelculturemag.com/the-universal-language-of-dance/   

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