Company Dancer Michelle Thompson reflects on the musicality and hilarity of The Taming of the Shrew. Let us know if you can hear her laughing from the audience.
Tonight we are going to the Long Center to prepare for Stephen Mills’ The Taming of the Shrew, and I am looking forward to putting this production on the stage again. I was in the original cast 10 years ago, toured the production to Washington D.C., performed it again 7 years ago, and now will be performing it this coming weekend – making this my fourth opportunity. There are so many things that make this production special. The story, the humor, the sets, the music, and the joyful movement are all lovely ingredients for an extremely entertaining evening.
The choreography is filled with quick jumps, swirly spins, humorous gestures, and intricate patterns. Mills’ choreography relates directly to the music, which swoops and swirls around you encouraging you to jump, spin, bend, and run with energy. I am one of the Commedia dancers, and there are very few times of stillness throughout the ballet. The Commedia dancers form intricate patterns and lovely movements, but they also shift the scenes and become part of the narrative that helps drive the story forward. It is important when dancing in a corps de ballet and when moving sets that your timing be precise. Musicality and awareness are essential as you move through the ballet, but all this must be done with a mask on that includes a large beak. So not only do your toes have to be in line, but so does your beak. Ha!
I am also excited to perform as one of the Street Women who starts off as a thief and then ends up happily ever after with one of the suitors. Playing alongside Beth Terwilleger, we get to take off our beaks and put on outrageous wigs creating a rush of excitement for Petruchio. Our Petruchio, Paul Michael Bloodgood, falls for our flirtatious moves and silly trickery and loses all his money. Our journey doesn’t end there, though. We come out later in the third act without the wig and dance happily at the Garden Wedding. The third act is extremely joyful and full of celebratory dances and my suitor, Jordan Moser, partners me in many twirls and jumps as we happily dance the evening away.
Throughout this ballet the steps and patterns must be precise, but the acting and comedic timing are vital. Our bodies and faces must communicate the frustration, the joy, the disgust, the flirtation, and the joke so that the audience can fully appreciate the story unfolding. It is important to be aware of your fellow Commedia dancers, your partner, the music, and the audience to communicate the story and to capture the greatest laugh. I always find myself cackling loudly during Petruchio’s house. I hope you will join my cackle this weekend at the Long Center.
The Taming of the Shrew opens FRIDAY, for one weekend only. Tickets available here.
Company dancers Frank Shott and Jaime Lynn Witts discuss comedy, chemistry and what it’s like to dance together as Kate and Petruchio (when they’re already married!)
There is always a sense of anticipation just before casting is posted for any show. Story ballets, like The Taming of the Shrew, hold a particular excitement, and the chance to develop and portray a character on stage can be incredibly rewarding. There are so many different things to think about besides just the dance steps. The story needs to be clear and in the case of Taming, so do the jokes – everything from slapstick to sarcasm needs to read all the way to the back of the audience. It is no easy feat to be believable, funny and dance well all at the same time.
So much of comedy is onstage chemistry between the two leads. The chance to do this with someone that you already share so much with is an indescribable joy. While Jaime and I have had a couple of other opportunities to dance together before, this is the first time that we have gotten to do so in a story ballet. I have always wanted to play a part opposite her in a character-driven piece. She has a sense of comedic timing and theatricality which lights up the stage. Jaime also has a strong personality (just ask around) that when coupled with my own particular “charms” makes The Taming of the Shrew seem like a natural choice.
When casting was posted for The Taming of the Shrew, I was stunned. Not only was I going to get the opportunity to play Kate, but I was going to get to dance with my husband, Frank, as Petruchio. I could already hear the jokes from our friends and co-workers. I guess I have a strong personality and am the oldest of three girls, so Kate and I have a couple of things in common. It has been so much fun getting to work on this with Frank. Comedy is challenging, but we have been able to take advantage of the chemistry we have while working on our characters in the studio. Frank and I have a particular way we banter back and forth, a little like Kate and Petruchio toned down, and it’s so fun to look over and see him making a face I know I would see at home. Sometimes there’s just not that much acting involved – it’s just like us!
We do go home and discuss the scenes we rehearsed that day when we get a second after school, teaching Academy class and putting our daughter to sleep. We talk about what is working, what isn’t working, and where we would like to go with our characters. Jaime’s insights and impressions always give me new ideas of where I could go. Frank sees things from a very different place than I do, so it’s great to have his opinion. It has been such a fun and unique experience so far. We do both have to laugh at the situation sometimes, particularly when I keep telling him I won’t marry him. We can’t wait to see where exactly our characters end up when we get to the shows!
(Oh, and by the way, thankfully Jaime didn’t laugh in my face when I asked her to marry me!)
Don’t miss The Taming of the Shrew Oct 5-7 at the Long Center. Jaime and Frank perform Saturday at 8pm. Tickets here.
Getting into character and perfect technique – See what Paul Michael Bloodgood says about preparing for Romeo & Juliet.
Performing “in character” is one of my favorite parts of dancing any full-length story ballet such as Romeo & Juliet. Similar to an acting role in film or theatre, trying to embody the emotions and thoughts of a character helps me to interpret the dance choreography for that role into movement that translates to the audience.
Neither character development nor ballet technique is more important to me in a story ballet – they are of equal substance to fulfilling the presentation. If the acting is terrible, the audience isn’t going to care about the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, even if both dancers are technically flawless. On the flip side, bad technique would be equally distracting and pull the audience out of the scene. Although the average observer might think one is more important than the other, to me it’s like cake and frosting: they complement each other perfectly.
Personally, getting “in character” for a role like Romeo involves reading the source material and watching films and ballet productions of the story, then finding my own voice or interpretation of the role. Although I try to transform into the character as much as possible, I believe bringing my own life experience to a role separates it from other iterations of the part.
Ashley (my Juliet) and I have spoken about the intimacies of our characters in depth, but we let ourselves laugh about it all, too. We’ve been great friends for ten years, and having the opportunity to perform Romeo & Juliet with my “stage wife” as she’s been nicknamed, makes our onstage relationship come full circle. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that she’s best friends with my real wife, Anne – a fellow dancer with Ballet Austin and one of Juliet’s friends in the production.
As we head into our last week in the rehearsal studio before production week, I am looking forward to running the three acts in succession to get a good grasp on the pacing and stamina required of me. Also on the check list are little things like trying to dance the piece in Romeo’s leather boots, working out any pas de deux kinks that may result from Juliet’s costumes and rehearsing to the live accompaniment from Austin Symphony Orchestra.
It’s all just a part of preparing for the show.
Catch Paul onstage as Romeo on Saturday, May 12. Tickets.
Breakfast: a piece of homemade bread toasted with peanut butter and jam, scrambled eggs, possibly some berries or part of a banana, and coffee
Lunch: a sandwich – turkey and cheese being a common go-to option – or dinner leftovers
Dinner: some sort of protein such as chicken or fish, accompanied by a grain and vegetable combo
Breakfast Recipe - 100% Whole Wheat Nut and Seed Bread
1 1/3 cups lukewarm water
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 tablespoons honey, molasses or maple syrup
4 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, chopped*
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped*
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
To prepare the dough: Combine all of the ingredients, and mix them until you have a shaggy dough. Let the dough rest, covered, for 20 minutes, then knead till fairly smooth. Allow the dough to rise, covered, for about 2 hours, or until it’s puffy and nearly doubled in bulk.
Gently deflate the dough, shape it into a log, and place it in a lightly greased 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ bread pan. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap (or a clear shower cap), and allow it to rise for about 2 hours, till it’s crowned about 1″ to 2″ over the rim of the pan.
Bake the bread in a preheated 350°F oven for 40 to 45 minutes, tenting it lightly with aluminum foil for the final 20 minutes of baking. Yield: 1 loaf.
Breakfast: coffee and oatmeal with a handful of blueberries or some other fruit
Lunch: sandwich with pesto, sliced mozzarella, Roma tomatoes, and something leafy on two slices of homemade whole wheat bread
Dinner: pasta with marinara sauce, ground turkey (or grilled chicken) and possibly some cooked broccoli or spinach mixed in at the end, a salad with crumbled feta and kalamata olives, and a baguette fresh out of the oven
Snacks: Greek yogurt, almonds and fruit are great for workday pick-me-ups
Lunch Recipe - Homemade Wheat Bread
7 cups whole wheat all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons Yeast
1 tablespoon kosher salt (increase or decrease to taste)
1/4 cup Vital wheat gluten
Mixed into a food safe but not airtight container, add and mix in:
3 & 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup of honey (You can also use only water instead of honey)
Don’t over-mix, this is a no-knead recipe!
Leave container of dough covered, out on the counter for 2+ hours to allow it to rise, and then put it in the refrigerator. You can use the dough piece by piece for up to two weeks.
Pull off a cantaloupe-sized chunk of dough, shape it into a ball, then elongate it a bit into an oval and toss it into a loaf pan. Let it rest (loosely covered with plastic wrap) for 90 minutes and then bake it at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes. Note: If you use only water you’ll have to adjust baking time and temperature, but the process is essentially the same.
After letting the loaf cool, slice it up to have sandwich bread for the week!
Breakfast: a bowl of cereal, some juice, and a banana
Lunch: leftovers, or a sandwich or something else quick from a nearby restaurant. Can’t miss homemade Thai food from Royal Blue Grocery on Fridays!
Dinner: simple and quick meals for dinner, with enough for a few days of leftovers
Snacks: fruit, yogurt, trail mix, and chocolate milk
Dinner Recipe – Ed’s Simple Stir Fry
6 tablespoons soy sauce (or to taste)
2 tablespoons minced ginger
2 (or more) cloves of garlic, minced
Optional: crushed red chilies, rice vinegar, teriyaki/Sriracha/hoisin/oyster sauce, etc.
sesame or other neutral oil (for use over high heat)
1 onion, chopped
1 lb. tofu (or another protein), cut into bite-sized pieces
6 cups assorted vegetables chopped into similar shapes/sizes
A splash of water, stock or white wine
First, prepare the sauce by combining the soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and whatever else you like in a small bowl. Taste, adjust, and set aside to let the flavors meld.
At this point it’s best to prepare all the other ingredients and have them ready by the stove.
Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for a minute or two, stirring occasionally. When the onion begins to soften, add the protein and cook until the tofu begins to brown or the meat is almost fully cooked.
Add a splash of the sauce and cook, stirring frequently, until the tofu is nicely browned or the meat is done. Remove the onion and protein and set aside. Return the pan to the heat and add another tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the vegetables and turn the heat to high. Add the splash of liquid and cook, stirring constantly, until the vegetables are tender.
Turn off the heat and return the onion/protein mixture to the pan along with the rest of the sauce. Stir until evenly mixed and heated through. Serve immediately over rice or noodles, and save the leftovers for lunch!
You can see Brittany, Anne Marie and Ed in all of their well-fed glory, May 11-13 in Romeo & Juliet. Tickets here.
Romeo & Juliet marks the end of the 2011/12 season, and with elaborate sets and costumes it is certainly a grand production. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at some of the most interesting production stats.
Costume and Set:
80 costumes and 25 head pieces are worn throughout the production, including period style handcrafted leather boots which cost around $450.
4 wardrobe crew members and special changing booths constructed backstage allow for the dancers’ quick costume changes.
So what is the production budget for all the costumes? Approximately $100,000 when Ballet Austin first acquired them. Replacement costs in today’s prices would range from $200,000 to $250,000.
Lady Capulet’s ballroom gown, worn by Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin, weighs 30 pounds.
The costumes were made from fabrics like silk chiffon, linen, wool and cotton to give them the realistic look and feel of the clothing worn during the Italian Renaissance.
Ironically, the first person to wear (and sweat in) the Romeo costume was not Romeo himself, but current Company Manager Eugene Alvarez!
Dancers will go through roughly 80 pairs of pointe shoes during Romeo & Juliet rehearsals and performances.
The tomb scene once used live candles. Due to fire codes this is no longer allowed, and now 360 lighting instruments illuminate the stage throughout the production.
3 truss spot operators are suspended over the stage during the performances. Truss spots are follow spotlights manned by operators on a rig above the stage.
Romeo & Juliet has 45 characters, which means some of the dancers play multiple roles and require many costume changes.
Ballet Austin II dancer Sarah Hicks lets us into the world of creative “workshopping”.
As a young dancer, you don’t often have the privilege to be choreographed. The opportunity to have a completely new work of art created for you is perhaps one of the most exciting parts of being a dancer. The fact that I have experienced this with Nelly van Bommel’s Hansel and Gretel is absolutely thrilling, to say the least.
Every choreographer works and creates movement differently. In Nelly’s case, we went through an exhilarating, entertaining and, at times, completely hysterical process we called “workshopping.” In these creative brainstorm sessions Nelly would give us a simple idea, such as pretending to run through a room full of shattered glass, and have us show her our physical interpretation. From there, she would take the movement we gave her and morph it into something quintessentially “Nelly.”
After much manipulation and innovation on Nelly’s part, we ended up with movement that could easily be described as playful, energetic and even mischievous. Her choreography is largely based on a tribal-like community feeling in which moving as a group and being comfortable with your fellow dancers is crucial. She challenged us to create games, to be shamelessly verbal while dancing, and to spend a lot of time rolling, stomping, scooting and crawling on the floor (activities we “bun-heads” generally find mortifying!). Despite all this, the challenges paid off and we ended up with a piece that is funny, charming and truly unique.
Another notable quality of Nelly’s work is her use of props. As an audience member, you will quickly find yourself thrust into a world of spinning tables, four wheel drive shopping carts, and velcro cupcakes. Nelly created a full sensory experience in her fabulously comical interpretation of a fairy tale classic.
Hansel and Gretel is entertainment for the whole family, sure to please audience members of all ages. Don’t miss it!
Hansel and Gretel opens Feb 25. Tickets available here.
Associate Artistic Director, Michelle Martin, discusses how one choreographer’s personality, background and constant curiosity combine to make Hansel and Gretel a ballet you won’t forget.
Nelly van Bommel’s Hansel and Gretel, is one of those rare examples of a work that appeals across generations, and its success is as much a reflection of her energy and sense of humor as it is of her choreographic talent. Nelly’s curiosity provides her with a limitless pool of inspiration, and she draws on her background in street theater, and modern dance technique to express her discoveries.
I came to know Nelly through Ballet Austin’s biennial choreographic competition, New American Talent/Dance. She was one of the three finalists in 2010 and I spent two weeks in the studio with her as she created a new work, Fanfarneta, for our main company. As she worked, I was fascinated by her interest in human interaction and her eye for nuance, particularly within interpersonal encounters. I thought her highly theatrical aesthetic would be a wonderful match for a narrative work, and her collaborative approach would provide a rich experience for the dancers in Ballet Austin II. I was thrilled when she accepted our invitation to create Hansel and Gretel.
Nelly’s work on Hansel and Gretel began with a series of facilitated games for the dancers. Some were based on movement and others involved vocalization. Through this process she began to know the dancers as individuals, in terms of both physicality and personality; and from this foundation, she matched each dancer with her ideas of the characters from Hansel and Gretel. Using the movement from her games, she crafted the dance portions of the piece first. Set to a series of traditional German folk songs, they’re high energy and playful, establishing her whimsical perspective on the story and its characters. The narrative scenes, particularly with the Witch, Hansel and Gretel, and their parents, were made in a very collaborative way – the dancers contributed to the development of the characters and the progression of the story. Nelly’s unique perspective is interspersed throughout the ballet with quirky interjections of props that are brilliantly out of context and absolutely hilarious – a wildly retro vacuum cleaner, baskets of apples and mountains of marshmallows .
Get a glimpse of Ballet Austin behind the scenes and read more about our upcoming performances, as well as get an inside look into the lives of company dancers and Artistic Director and Choreographer Stephen Mills.