When Charlotte Ballet brings the works of William Shakespeare to the stage for its Innovative Works series, it won’t look like a traditional adaptation or story ballet. Instead, the production’s creative team — choreographers Stephanie Martinez and Peter Chu and UNC Charlotte professors Dr. Andrew Hartley and Dr. Lynne Conner — will take concepts from various Shakespeare plays and use those as a springboard to ask questions and explore new ideas.
“I wanted to encourage contemporary choreographers to work with narrative and text and pair them with experts in this field,” says Hope Muir, artistic director at Charlotte Ballet. “The Shakespeare element was decided upon because of the vast content of writing available and the opportunity to explore complex themes through dance. I was very interested in pairing the choreographers with collaborators who would help to access the text and find new and exciting ways to tell stories through dance.”
When Muir joined Charlotte Ballet in late 2017, Ken Lambla, founding dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at UNC Charlotte, was on the company’s board and suggested Muir connect with Hartley, the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies, and Conner, chair and professor of the department of theater, to discuss a potential collaboration.
For Innovative Works: Shakespeare Reinvented, which runs Jan. 25-Feb. 16, Muir paired Chu with Hartley and Martinez with Conner to examine The Bard’s work and create a bold, daring production.
In “Let Be,” Chu and Hartley will explore the development of the character Hamlet from his moments of “moving from a sense of internal, personal crisis and conflict to a kind of peace,” Hartley says.
“It’s in terms of trying to deal with issues of depression — melancholy is the Shakespearean word for it — and working through those kind of inner conflicts toward a state of harmony and using the text and using a chunk of Hamlet’s own journey of character to inform that trajectory,” Hartley continues.
As Chu and Hartley dove deeper into the notion of melancholy, they discovered similarities between the Shakespearean interpretation of the condition and practices in Chinese medicine. That connection helped lay the foundation for the type of movement in the piece.
“It looks a little bit like Tai chi,” Hartley says, “because it’s very driven by notions of different parts of the body and their relationships to animals and their function within the body and the temperament of the individual and so on. These things work together in the piece, and I think it’s a really innovative and striking, original approach.”
While that pair’s piece focuses more on internal conflict, Martinez and Conner will explore the social concept of gender in “Unsex Me Here.”
“Our piece mixes images and characters from Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with contemporary references in order to explore gender stereotypes, gender fluidity, gender misconduct and the cultural codes for masculinity and femininity — all in the context of questioning the ‘rules’ about how men and women are supposed to behave,” Martinez says.
“Shakespeare had pretty clear ideas about that, obviously, because he was a person of his time,” Conner adds, “and so what we’re doing is exploring that through these four couples in the four different plays. But we move back and forth through time, really, in terms of our references. So some of our references are very 21st century, and some are Elizabethan.”
For Conner, the avant-garde nature of Innovative Works has given her the freedom to take risks and chances in the collaborative process while “going outside of the normal patterns of building ballet.”
“It’s been a real experiment,” she says. “This takes me out of my usual working mode, and it’s taken Stephanie out of her usual working mode. So that’s been incredibly exciting, sometimes really hard, a little bit scary and frankly exhilarating.”