“Lady Lear,” the last show of Kentucky Shakespeare’s 57th season, opened Wednesday night in Louisville’s Central Park. An audience of more than 500 sat in the unreasonably lovely August evening to watch a bold and exciting production by the Louisville Ballet, created by two of Louisville’s rising stars, Roger Creel and Scott Moore.
There is simply too much to talk about to fit it all here. There’s Creel’s blossoming and rapidly maturing choreography; his razor-sharp editing and adapting of Shakespeare’s story; Moore’s stunning original score; the individual performances of the dancers; and the overall awesomeness of this Kentucky Shakespeare/Louisville Ballet collaboration that extends both their seasons and offers free ballet to anyone who wants to come see it.
It’s a hell of a thing. In short, go see “Lady Lear,” which continues through Aug. 13.
While it’s likely to cause some division among Shakespeare purists and, in a few moments, feels not fully formed, it’s still a treat for any Bard lover open to more liberal interpretations and is a slam dunk for fans of the ballet.
First, let’s talk Roger Creel.
This inter-company collaboration likely wouldn’t exist without this dancer. Over the last several years, he’s availed himself of the opportunity to choreograph smaller works for the studio series with the ballet.
Last year he rolled his success there — and his love of Shakespeare — into the opportunity create a much shorter ballet, “William’s Folly,” for Kentucky Shakespeare. When that succeeded, he got the chance to choreograph, stage and premiere a full-length ballet.
Creel is responsible for the drastically pared-down and reimagined story of King Lear, an abdicating ruler who keeps his deceitful Yes Men close at hand while banishing the subjects willing to speak the hard truths to his face. Of course, the hollow and ultimately hateful Yes Men are Lear’s offspring, making the tale political and personal.
In Creel’s version, King Lear becomes Lady Lear. The daughters of Lear become sons, which means the daughters’ suitors can disappear. The background and secondary plots are discarded or cut down to only the components that are necessary to tell the central story.
The tale that emerges is clear and quick. At just over 90 minutes, “Lady Lear” packs in as much story and pathos as many of the — I’m going to say it — waaaay too long two-hour-plus ballets of the classical canon. There is a handy summary in the program if you get lost, but frankly, the characters and interactions are strong enough that I think an audience member could walk in blind with no knowledge of “Lear,” not read the program and still understand the broad-strokes story of familial piety gone bloodily wrong.
It’s an impressive work, and for the most part, it completely succeeds in hitting the important moments for the play. I personally thought they needed the added emotional heft of Edmund and Edgar’s full story, and I think Creel could have squeezed it in with as little as five extra minutes of stage time.
But every Shakespeare fan walks away from an ambitiously cut production missing some of his favorite bits that were left on the cutting-room floor. Likewise, we could debate the many themes of “Lear” and whether or not Creel picked the “most important” ones to highlight. The play’s themes have been starting arguments for 400 years, and Creel’s take is a valid addition to that discussion.
Creel’s choreography has settled into a very sweet spot in contemporary dance. He pulls the long lines of the legs and the athleticism of ballet, and pairs it with a much more modern and gesticular vocabulary of movement for the upper body. The result is a movement style that feels very balletic but gives his dancers a more complex set of motions to convey the many levels of emotion presented by the story.
Accompanying all of this is Scott Moore’s score, 90 minutes of music created for the ballet.
In addition to composing, the Louisville musician performed and recorded the score, a feat that seems like a small miracle. He matches the material in creativity. It is big on dissonance, which at times can go on long enough that the initial emotions it evoked subside a bit from overexposure.
But among the more jarring elements — most of which are well-placed in a tragic story like “Lear” — he also weaves in recognizable and engaging themes for the characters, which help in establishing their personalities, forwarding Creel’s story while also engaging the audience in challenging yet ultimately satisfying music.
It’s a score that deserves to be heard more, and Moore needs to make more scores. His talent here is clear, but it also feels like he has a lot of room to grow — he’s far from the zenith of his skill or creativity.
And there’s the rub, in the final analysis. “Lear” is a great step forward for both of these creators, but I’m already impatient for the next step, which has to involve more funding.
Moore needs a broader musical palette with which to paint. What would he do with an oboe, a piano or a percussion section? I don’t know, but I want to find out.
Creel is likewise ready for the next jump. While it’s awesome to see him get seven company members and six ballet students to bring his story to life, I want to see him with the full company.
The ballet students — the corps de ballet responsible for bigger moments like the famous storm sequence — were great, but they can’t match the prowess of the professional dancers. Those big moments were effective and those students are on the way to becoming wonderful dancers, but even as I watched it, I knew it could be way better.
I want to see these guys in the ballet’s main season, with the armed and fully operational ballet backing them up.
With such bright creative forces in need of the spotlight, I’m forced to give short shrift to the performers. They were great. They displayed the physical prowess one expects from dancers of their caliber, and they were also more than ready to take on the emotional lives of the characters.
One last thing: For years, when it came to the rough stuff, ballets and dances in musical theater opted for stylized, showy dance fighting. Creel eschewed that style and brought in Sarah Flanagan, perhaps Louisville’s best fight choreographer, to give the dancers good old-fashioned stage violence.
I never, ever want to see the old dance fighting again. A couple of slightly fierce battements would not have had the same effect and would have hamstrung the tragic ending. Flanagan’s work brings a brutal and emotionally charged end to the action that put the exclamation point on this great night of Shakespeare.
“Lady Lear” is free, but it only runs four more days, Aug. 10-13, at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in Central Park. The show starts at 8 p.m. each night.