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Louisville Ballet's ‘Cleopatra’ Moves Beyond Adaptation At Kentucky Shakespeare

Courtesy Louisville Ballet

At Wednesday night’s world premiere of the Louisville Ballet’s new Shakespeare-adjacent work, dancer and choreographer Roger Creel addressed the sizable audience:

“Shakespeare didn’t write Cleopatra: Queen of Kings,” he said.

Creel, who is credited with “Creative Production,” on "Cleopatra," has been the mastermind behind the last three years worth of original works that the ballet has brought to Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer season in the park. He’s joined as always by composer Scott Moore, and step choreographers Chris Malone and Antae Dickerson. This year the creative team gets an impressive new member, as the Louisville Ballet’s celebrated dancer Erica De La O takes over lead choreographic duties from Creel.

Creel’s right: Shakespeare didn’t write the basis for this new ballet. The Bard wrote about Caesar, he wrote about Mark Antony and Cleopatra, but he never gave Gnaeus Pompey a soliloquy, or focused considerable stage time on Cleopatra’s conniving and violent family, or the many other moments from history that "Cleopatra: Queen of Kings" brings to the stage.

This departure from explicitly following Shakespeare’s canon for a story-based, evening-length work is an exciting development for the ballet. Some of “Cleopatra’s” most arresting moments come from the highlighting of history that has been heretofore unexplored on Central Park’s stage.

When Sanjay Saverimuttu’s Pompey — a rival general who battled Ceasar and lost — arrives on Egyptian shores and dances to celebrate freedom despite his defeat, the audience can enjoy the movement, and also cringe as our suspicion rises that joyous Pompey is not likely to escape Caesar’s reach for long. Faithful fans of the First Triumvirate will already be familiar with how that aspect of the story plays out.

Several more not-dramatized-by-Shakespeare moments revolve around Cleopatra’s siblings. Historically they were brothers, but in this rendering they become sisters, which creates a very different context, but allows from some really great moments between Cleopatra and her family as they fight each other for power.

Kayleigh Western’s Ptolemy XIII is a particular stand out for her  singular commitment to giving seriously hateful glares at anyone who opposes her. Cleopatra may be the Queen of Kings, but Ptolemy XIII is The Queen of Shade.

Throughout “Cleopatra,” the strongest moments are always the smaller moments. Ryo Suzuki does powerful solo work as Roman general Caesar, as well as performing some lovely duets with Brienne Wiltsie’s Cleopatra.

Jeremy Hanson’s Mark Antony shines as well, lending his solos a fluidity that highlight the best aspects of De La O’s choreography.

De La O’s work across the breadth of the piece brings a cohesive movement vocabulary that is rich in its more balletic aspects, while still occasionally dipping into the more modern end of ballet’s spectrum of styles. She also has a knack for using recurring symbolic gestures as motifs in a way that often conveys quite a bit of plot and emotion without having to slow down to do so. It’s a nice nod to classic ballet pantomime as well, without having to actually subject the audience to pantomime.

While Cleopatra gets a whole lot right, it does have a few missteps along the way. As much as it shines in smaller moments, the bigger pieces — the battles in particular — look crowded and a little sloppy.  This is at least in part due to a severely limited rehearsal schedule, and Monday night’s rain assured that on the only evening the company had to work on the stage, they weren’t able to dance full out, or get a strong sense of the space.

The other fly in the ointment is that “Cleopatra” feels like two short ballets that just happen to have the same characters, instead of one cohesive creation.

While both halves are pleasing, they don’t quite pack the emotional punch the work would deliver if its parts were more successfully married. To this reviewer’s thinking, the problem may be solved with something as simple as finding a better place for the intermission, or just a few more moments of connective tissue.

Like the Ballet’s “Tempest” from 2018, “Cleopatra” again features 10 step dancers from Western Middle School. It’s joyful, energetic, and provides an excellent counterpointe to many of the less raucous moments of ballet.

Scott Moore’s scores are always enjoyable, but this year’s compositions are especially arresting.

We’re treated to the fiddle playing of his that we’ve come to know, and it’s joined by a host of other elements, all played, recorded, and mixed by Moore. Some highlights are the stacoatto screeches scraped from a tortured stringed instrument and the syncopated rhythms which foreshadowed and sometimes accompanied the step dancers.

My personal favorite is the electric guitar, balanced on the gladius’ edge between serious composition and epic 80’s fantasy film soundtrack. It soars like Steve Vai or Slash without ever falling into a goofy glam metal sound. Moore is taking a seemingly unreasonable number of disparate elements and melding them into a whole that engages the listener aurally, while supporting character development and plot with his use of motif in melody, and repetition in stylistic shifts.

The person sitting next to me mused aloud that the ballet ought to be selling copies of the sound track. Maybe Moore can throw it up on Soundcloud for us?

“Cleopatra: Queen of Kings” is an exciting step in a new direction, charting a journey that is in conversation with Shakespeare’s work, without being chained to the past.

Its missed moments of connection leave me wanting more, not less, and I find myself wondering what the future holds for these summertime creations. I hope that they are given more room and resources to develop, rather than being offered once as a curious companion to Kentucky Shakespeare, before being laid to rest in a crypt, and resigned to history.

“Cleopatra: Queen of Kings” performs nightly at 8 p.m. through Aug. 4 at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in Central Park, 1340 S. Fourth St. The free production runs approximately 90 minutes with one intermission. Pre-show entertainment is hosted by Louisville Ballet’s Community Engagement department and will include performances by the Louisville Ballet School students and pre-show talks with the artistic team.