Ballet Austin’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ mixes slapstick comedy with classical ballet

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Ballet Austin’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ mixes slapstick comedy with classical ballet

“The Taming of the Shrew”

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Oct. 7

Where: Dell Hall, Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Dr.

Tickets: $15-$74

Information: 476-2163, www.balletaustin.org

Jaime Lynn Witts stomps, heels first, across the studio floor during a rehearsal at Ballet Austin headquarters on a recent morning. She crinkles up her face in a pout, clenches her fists, sticks out her chin, tries to make her feet make noise.

“Slow that frustration down, make it emphatic, make more of a fuss,” Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin artistic director, instructs Witts. “Remember, you’re a bridezilla.”

Acting the noise-making, heel-stomping bridezilla is certainly not typical for a professional ballerina. Normally she practices the art of seeming lighter than air, balancing delicately on pointe shoes, trying to defy gravity as gracefully and silently as possible.

But with Mills’ “The Taming of the Shrew,” which plays the Long Center for the Performing Arts next weekend, the ethereal ballerina stereotype doesn’t adhere.

“Strut in like you’re an angry John Wayne,” Mills tells Witts.

And no sooner does Witts stomp across the floor than dancer Frank Shott, with a big grin on his face, spins merrily after her on a retro, one-speed bicycle.

This re-imagined version of Shakespeare’s comedy of marital mismatch is, after all, modern ballet injected with plenty of slapstick moves.

Mills created his “Shrew” on commission from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Ballet Austin performed it in 2004 after debuting it the year before at Bass Concert Hall.

The current production is the first time the popular ballet will be staged in the Long Center. The Austin Symphony Orchestra will provide live accompaniment, with a score featuring music of the Italian Baroque, including works by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Tommasini.

While Mills may have tapped music from centuries past, he also looked to some very 20th-century versions of the Bard’s tale of marriage and courtship: specifically, the 1948 Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me Kate” and its 1967 movie version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the couple at odds, Kate and Petruchio.

“I didn’t want to do just another ballet version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’” says Mills. “I tried to approach it as if it were musical theater. The pace and timing are very brisk. The influences are very Americanized.”

Mills drew from his childhood love of the buffoonery of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons as well as the vaudevillian antics of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers.

But Mills mixed that Americanized merrymaking with the iconic stylings of commedia dell’arte, the form of theater begun in 16th-century Italy that uses mime, masks and archetypical characters to satirize life and love.

And in accordance with the language-less commedia dell’arte style, the dancers in Ballet Austin’s “Shrew” change out the sets and props live on stage, acclerating the story’s action as it moves from scene to scene.

“It’s not often that you see comedy in ballet,” Mills says. “And I wanted to make something that was separate and apart from a ballet version of Shakespeare.”

That requires Mills to coach the dancers to go beyond the aesthetic instincts they’ve so carefully honed after years of training and professional dancing. After years of making every step toe-first through pointe shoes, remembering to walk heel-first is a challenge. So is mugging it up and making exaggerated faces and otherwise cracking that shell of serene balletic facade.

And yes, it takes some re-learning to wait for the laugh, too. “With comedy, you have to be really sensitive to the audience’s reactions,” says Mills.

“Really, I’m just giving (the dancers) permission to do things they’re just not used to doing on stage, to act in ways they just are not taught to act.”

The antics also help mitigate the misongynistic tone to Shakespeare’s story of a willful woman (Kate) who is “tamed” by a man (Petruchio) whom she is arranged to marry.

“There’s no doubt that Shakespeare’s original story of ‘Shrew’ is misongynistic,” says Mills. “That period in history was extremely misogynistic.”

“But in my mind, Kate and Petruchio really do fall in love because they realize they are cut from the same cloth. They’re both competitive, headstrong and argumentative people, and they complete each other.”

And in this instance, they’re also heel-stomping, swaggering ballet dancers.

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