Louisville Ballet Company Dancer Brandon Ragland in William's Folly from Shakespeare in Dance photo by Sam English
Brandon Raglan as William Shakespeare | Photo by Sam English

“Shakespeare in Dance” caps off Kentucky Shakespeare’s 11-week season in Central Park with an impressive collaboration with another important local arts group, the Louisville Ballet.

The evening consists of three pieces, and while the first act is pleasing enough, with a stripped-down five-person “Othello” and the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” the real reason to brave the August heat is the premiere of of “William’s Folly,” a new 40-minute ballet choreographed by Louisville Ballet’s Roger Creel.

The piece attempts two monumental tasks: translating Shakespeare into dance, and taking the rambling, formless collection of sonnets composed by Shakespeare and creating some kind of narrative drive. Creel succeeds and, in the process, really establishes himself as a choreographer the ballet should put more time into developing.

But first, the first act.

The half-hour version of “Othello” by Peter Darrel, first performed by the Louisville Ballet in 1985, staged here by former artistic director Alun Jones, has some pretty nice moments but left me wanting more. Shakespeare’s deeper thoughts and meditations on jealousy, rage and race are left on the cutting room floor to deliver the main plot points in such a short time.

The setting — among men who make war — and the plot, driven by partner-based violence, adapts well to the vocabulary of ballet. Brandon Ragland does a fine job with the physical aspects of the role of Othello, but he barely has time to work himself into a murderous rage.

Phillip Velinov’s Iago is allowed a little more breathing room, and his performance as Othello’s scheming frenemy is the highlight of this piece. The choreography seems to favor the villain as well; he clocks more stage time and is given powerful tableau that open and close the piece. Tiffany Bovard has an all-too-brief solo and turns in some good partnering work with Ragland.

Next we saw a snippet of the ballet’s full-length “Romeo and Juliet.” We’ve seen two versions of Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers on the Central Park stage this summer, and the inclusion of the balcony scene from Alun Jones’ 1981 version wasn’t something I was personally looking forward to, but it managed to win me over. The joyful, girlish performance by Christy Corbitt Miller as Juliet was infectious. Mark Krieger does good work as Romeo, but the focus is all on Miller, and she doesn’t waste it.

Brandon Ragland and Benjamin Wetzel in "William's Folly" | Photo by Sam English
Brandon Ragland and Benjamin Wetzel in “William’s Folly” | Photo by Sam English

In the second half we got “William’s Folly,” and as I mentioned above, it’s quite a piece.

Its life began in one of the Louisville Ballet’s choreographers showcase, but is greatly expanded here. Nine dancers perform while two actors from Kentucky Shakespeare (Tony Midler and Megan Massie) read sonnets. The action also is accompanied by original music composed and played live by Scott Moore and Charlie Patton.

On the surface, Shakespeare’s sonnets are unconnected love poems. But anyone who has put time into them recognizes certain recurring figures. Shakespeare nerds are all familiar with the Young Man (Benjamin Wetzel) and the Dark Lady (Jordan Martin), nicknames given to these recurring figures by scholars.

I’ve seen dances focused on the sonnets before, but never a choreographer nerdy enough — or dramatically savvy enough — to recognize the value in mining those figments of character to create a story.

It’s not really a literal or straightforward narrative; the text from the sonnets gives feelings and thoughts aplenty but not a hard and fast plot. Instead we get young love, some complications and (spoiler alert) heartbreak.

Shakespeare is the lead here, given voice by the sonnets and given a presence in the dance by Brandon Ragland. It was great to see him get a chance to really stretch out and perform in this role, especially after the tantalizing glimpses of his ability we got in “Othello” earlier in the evening. He has multiple solos and pas de deus with the other characters.

Wetzel’s Young Man is a really lovely stage presence as well, and he does a credible job bringing a youthful energy to the role.

Jordan Martin is serviceable as the Dark Lady. I didn’t get quite the sense of allure and danger from her that I get from the sonnets about the Dark Lady, but her duet with Wetzel, when she really begins to drive a wedge twixt the Young Man and Shakespeare, was one of my favorite parts of the piece.

Louisville Ballet Company Dancer Jordan Martin in Willliam's Folly from Shakespeare in Dance photo by Sam English
Jordan Martin in “William’s Folly” | Photo by Sam English

The six-person Corps de ballet does lovely work, and unsurprisingly, Massie and Milder do great work on the sonnets. It’s particularly nice to see Milder taking a break from his frequent role at Shakespeare of comedian and creature creations and do dramatic work.

Creel’s choreography is in the sweet spot of contemporary dance. It feels fresh and organic, but stylistically, it still relies heavily on the balletic tradition. It feels like ballet without feeling hidebound or outdated. Creel also uses the full Kentucky Shakespeare stage, including the upper levels and those glorious double doors. He creates some really arresting stage pictures, especially as the sun went down and the stage lighting began to further heighten the drama.

It’s an a evening well spent and serves to both whet the appetite for Louisville Ballet’s season, which starts next month, and cap off another record-breaking season for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Hopefully this collaboration will breed future projects between the companies that continue to focus on creating new and innovative co-productions.

“Shakespeare in Dance” continues through Sunday, Aug. 14, at the Douglas Ramsey Amphitheater in Central Park. All shows are free and open to the public and begin at 8 p.m, though there will be pre-show entertainment every night.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.