It wouldn’t be a complete exaggeration to say that the Bolshoi’s U.S. premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew set the Koch Theater on fire Wednesday night.
Despite fear in the eyes of the New York City Ballet Orchestra musicians, Bolshoi conductor Igor Dronov waved his baton to Shostakovich as sirens blared when a fire alarm mistakenly went off towards the end of the first act. Audience members stood up in confusion, but the Bolshoi soldiered on and completed the act unfazed.
The real siren of the night was red-headed Ekaterina Krysanova in the role of Katharina. Equipped with a striking stride and sassy attitude, Krysanova is a force to be reckoned with. Her Katharina can take on unwanted suitors, three at a time, and send them crashing to the ground. She fends for herself as hard as she can before finally succumbing to her fate and engaging with Petruchio (Vladislav Lantratov). But she isn’t a nagging, pre-emptively argumentative woman. She is only ‘difficult’ in reality, when and/or because of provocation which would upset most women, particularly modern woman of today. More often than not, she is responding in defense rather than picking fights.
Shrew is, as one would expect, packed with silly antics which verge on the serious and uncomfortable when certain positions are taken, like dragging Katharina around the stage by her neck. Sometimes the audience laughed, sometimes they let out low, questioning “oh’s.” But the funny parts weren’t that funny, the slapstick not that skillful, and the serious sections felt no real threat. The sweet pas de deuxs between Bianca (Olga Smirnova) and Lucentio (Semyon Chudin) are tender and cute, but not out of the ordinary, though they were beautifully danced.
Maillot created Shrew for the Bolshoi and in many instances it shows. The men have it good in the sense that it is a showcase (albeit a sporadic one) for big, bold, ballsy, Grigorovich-style leaps. Lantratov, Chudin, Igor Tsvirko (Hortensio) and Vyacheslav Lopatin (Gremio) flung their lithe, limber legs around with miraculous ease and vigor. Some jumps – arms and hands outstretched, mops of hair flying – looked they came straight from Spartacus. The corps’ choreography is a little lacking, though the best section, a ballroom-like scene in the first act, was difficult to concentrate on thanks to the fire alarm. For all of the sensationalist steps, much of Maillot’s choreography focuses on drama more than dancing, leaving a sense of vacancy, all fancy flourishes and little framework or structure.
Maillot’s libretto takes liberties with the original play (unless my memory is wildly at fault), and without reading the program, several mimed storylines can be difficult to figure out. There is a subplot surrounding a necklace first given to Bianca, then stolen by Petruchio and given to Katharina, then stolen again by Petruchio’s servant Grumio (Georgy Gusev), and eventually returned to Bianca. Instead of in-house domestic “taming,” Katharina struggles through a long voyage in the woods, wherein Petruchio nearly leaves her for dead (she is mugged, Bianca’s necklace stolen), before putting her to bed at his pad and taking pity on her in her beleaguered, passive state. When Petruchio pretends to warm his hands by a “fire” in the bedroom as Katharina is waking up, she picks up on his joke and plays house, with him, and they briefly mime a domestic tea sipping. This bout of tenderness then leads to the real consummation of their partnership.
The fact that Katharina only comes to be truly “tamed” post-coitus (she revels in her married state the morning after) smacks more than just a little of male fantasy, and to go from ‘playing house,’ to marital bliss is a little rich, particularly given how Katharina has been treated. Despite the desire to re-envision Katharina and Petruchio as tit-for-tat equals, Maillot’s work falls short of fully completing the job, nor is the crucial pas de deux a work of mastery on par with MacMillan or Cranko (who did his own Shrew in the 1969). Across the work, Katharina’s body is manipulated and pushed around far more than she does anything to him. Bar one crotch grab wherein she strokes him firmly down the front of his pants, her movements of ownership are few and far between. She flings herself at him out of desire (resulting in a desperate looking if pretty diagonal lean on his back) or pushes him away. A dominatrix is not the answer, particularly if one is attempting to exhibit some type of corrective version of Shakespeare’s play, thus showing a more equal if charged partnership, but Maillot could have given Katharina more assertive movement in the lovemaking scene, a place where even now in contemporary ballet, the men still rule the roost.