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Tempestous Tale Is Swan Song For Ballerina Elisha Willis
Not only is it a momentus year Shakespeare-wise, it's also an important season for Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) as it is the swan song of one of its finest principal dancers, Elisha Willis.
BRB principal dancer Elisha Willis with Iain Mackay in The Taming of the Shrew, which will be her final principal role.
Australian-born Willis takes on her final principal role, and probably her most comedic, as Kate in this incredibly funny version of The Taming of the Shrew after 13 years with BRB, where she became a firm favourite with audiences.
Shakespeare's battle of the sexes tale, The Taming of the Shrew, is on at Birmingham Hippodrome from June 16 to 18 as part of the ballet company's season honouring the bard. John Cranko's adaptation focusses heavily on the wit in this comedy about badly behaved and stubborn Kate who comes up against equally wild suitor Petruchio.
It's the first time BRB has put on this production, which was originally performed in Stuttgart in 1969, and it's astonishing how well the comedy from Shakespeare's story translates across into the dance.
There's an element of pantomime fun from the opening scene with farcical priests and the silliness of the three competing suitors for Bianca, Kate's sister. Disturbing this ridiculous trio's attempts at romance is Kate, all hunched shoulders and clenched fists.
Willis is superb and when she retires from ballet, she could look to comedy as she delightfully plays Kate with a zany fierceness. She comes across as a force of nature, kicking and spitting and with no qualms at bashing a guitar over a man's head. A moment that attracts gasps from the audience.
Dancer Iain Mackay is a strong lead in the Shakespeare comedy
But Kate is no match for the rascal Petruchio. Dancer Iain Mackay excels in the role, making easy work of difficult, physically demanding choreography as the drunken, brutish and ruggedly handsome rogue, who woos Kate for money (but ends up falling in love). You can't help being drawn to his exuberance through two big solos and three pas de deux.
Mackay, like Willis, is extremely funny with his character acting and so Kate and Petruchio's fiery, almost violent encounters, are electric with a passion that later turns to tenderness as they realise their love for each other. Petruchio's tender touch of Kate's nose is a beautiful moment as is Cranko's distinctive choreography in their most romantic dances.
Romantic scenes in Birmingham Royal Ballet's Taming of the Shrew at Birmingham Hippodrome
On the whole, the more traditional romantic pas de deux pieces are left to young lovers Bianca and Lucentio (wonderful danced by Jenna Roberts and Brandon Lawrence).
But it's Kate and Petruchio's finale that takes your breath away. It's like a rhapsody in blue as the whole stage glows in dark aqua tones and they transport the audience into a cocoon of sensuality to the dreamy baroque musical score inspired by Domenico Scarlatti.
It makes you realise what a loss Willis will be. She created the role of Cinderella in David Bintley's 2010 production and become known for her outstanding performances in roles such as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and Swanilda in Coppélia. She came to be BRB after training at the Australian Ballet School and dancing for Australian Ballet from 1999.
With grand sets and vibrant Tudor costumes, this is another winning performance from BRB. This ballet has managed to draw out all the comedy and romance from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and transform it in to a feel-good, light-hearted delight. It's a worthy production for Shakespeare's anniversary year and as a final send off to one of BRB's greatest dancers.
The Taming Of The Shrew by Birmingham Royal Ballet
June 16 - 18, 2016
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes including one interval
Tickets cost from £16 from the Birmingham Hippodrome website.
The Taming of the Shrew will also play at Bristol Hippodrome from June 29 to July 2. Ticket information from the BRB website.
Elisha Willis in her famous role as Cinderella for Birmingham Royal Ballet
Elisha Willis will be dancing on selected performance dates in both The Taming of the Shrew and the Shakespeare Triple Bill at Birmingham Hippodrome. These are:
Kate in The Taming of the Shrew
Thursday 16 June: 7:30pm
Saturday 18 June: 2:30pm
Emilia in The Moor's Pavane
Wednesday 22 June: 7:30pm
Thursday 23 June: 2pm
Desdemona in The Shakespeare Suite
Wednesday 22 June: 7:30pm
Thursday 23 June: 2pm
Saturday 25 June: 2:30pm