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A Perfect Storm: Louisville Ballet, Ky. Shakespeare Team Up For 'The Tempest'

Step choreographer Chris Malone and choreographer Roger Creel with Step ensemble
Sam English
Step choreographer Chris Malone and choreographer Roger Creel with Step ensemble

This year’s Louisville Ballet entry into the summer-long Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s season in Central Park is an adaptation of "The Tempest." Choreographer Roger Creel and composer Scott Moore reunite for their third collaboration. Both are excited with the boundaries they’re pushing with this production.

"The Tempest" brings with it certain tropes and expectations. It is Shakespeare’s last play, it is one of the so-called Romance plays, either it’s brilliant or Shakespeare’s liberties with dramatic structure suggest he’s lost his edge. Creel is very aware of some of this freight. He leaves Louisville Ballet at the end of this production; will this be his last choreography with the company? He has cast Producing and Artistic Director Robert Curran as Prospero, who finally comes to terms with giving up his “rough magic.” Curran has only in recent years made the transition from dancer to administrator, giving up his own brand of magic; and this is only the second time that Louisville audiences will have seen him dance since taking the helm of Louisville Ballet.

After a recent rehearsal, Creel shared some of the practical challenges that he and his collaborators are embracing.

In an outdoor setting in full daylight, creating a tempest is one of those challenges. Creel also speaks of the different ways in which words and movement create meaning. To solve and embrace this conundrum, he turned to successful Step choreographers Chris Malone and Antae Dickerson. Creel acknowledged that being invited to judge a sorority step competition at the University of Louisville last fall was his first introduction to this dance form. And, that he knew this could be a theatrical answer for his vision of "The Tempest."

Malone and Dickerson are working with a group of young dancers, including some of the Western Middle School step team as well as students from the Louisville Ballet School. The pulsating, cumulative percussive effect of this intricate combination of stomps, slaps, beats and changing formations is indeed earth shattering in creating the illusion of a storm. It will be interesting to see and hear how this translates onto the large wooden stage in the park.

"The Tempest" rehearsals have overlapped with rehearsals for Louisville Ballet’s new adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" which is a contributing factor to the large number of Louisville Ballet trainees who are being showcased in this production. Many of the company members are already deep into the world of the September season opener.  Dancers whom regular ballet goers will recognize in "The Tempest" include Emily Reinking O’Dell, Sanjay Saverimuttu, Shelby Shenkman and Rob Morrow, as well as Curran.

Puck is danced by trainee Trevor Williams who combines classical ballet technique with some impressive gymnastic moves. Trainees Clara Harper and Aurielle Whitis join Adult Program Manager Brian Grant as the comedic trio Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban.

The different worlds of the storm, the trickster magic on the island, the stranded court and the love stories are embodied in the combination of the eclectic movement and the score that Moore has been creating for the last six months. Moore says that his three annual ballets have allowed him to learn a lot about composing music with specific characters or plot points in mind; thinking about narrative in a way that shorter, often unconnected, pieces don’t demand. His influences are varied and eclectic, some themes going back as far as 18 years as he’s mined his personal audio library of his melody ideas dating back to his time in school.

The result is a 90-minute score that he describes as “uncompromising and a challenge to the listener.” Moore relishes the tension between the complexity of the original script, which he reflects in his score, while still striving to make the music accessible to an audience which will bring its own catalog of music influences to its experience in the park.

As Moore says, a performance piece of this length matches the length of a substantial symphony, another of those challenges that Moore and Creel set themselves each year. On the other hand, 90 minutes is brief for a Shakespearean production. So this ballet is definitely an adaptation of Shakespeare’s original. Scenes have been cropped and moved; the tempest itself has been reconceived; characters originally male have been made female; some character’s names remain the same even when danced by women. Visually we can expect the courtiers to wear business casual with some quirky touches and the denizens of the island bring forth anarchic punk. Miranda (Shenkman) will be the only dancer wearing traditional pointe shoes.

Creel’s ballets to date have become increasingly complex, with this one definitely being the largest, he says. He has a penchant for “solving large problems and telling stories.” Shakespeare has certainly given him that canvas over the past several years. As he moves onto graduate studies in geophysics, his canvas will expand to rising sea-levels – where they’ve been for the past 10,000 years and what will happen to them in the next 200. A complex story with a direct impact on humanity. There’s a synchronicity in selecting "The Tempest" as his last ballet as a full-time Louisville Ballet company member, as he (and Prospero) contemplate their respective endings.

But every ending encapsulates a beginning. The conversation about what happens next year, says Creel, “begins with me and Matt Wallace sitting on a park bench during rehearsals.” What 2019 will bring to this fruitful collaboration between the Louisville Ballet and Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is yet to be seen. Here’s hoping that we can continue this “indulgence” in future years.